If you’re like me, after taking some time off from writing, you’re refreshed and champing at the bit to translate all of those great ideas you had into compelling content.
Unfortunately, your email inbox is apocalyptic. You’ve got clients, comments, and coworkers clogging up your notifications, and that new diet-slash-resolution is already close to DOA.
The reality of moving from the brilliant idea you had in the shower to a polished, professional piece of writing that will connect with your readers, is never as easy as we’d like it to be …
But with the right mindset, tools, and a little help from your fellow scribes, you can get right back on track and go from blank page to first draft.
Ideation always meets inertia
Magical thinking won’t get words onto the page.
In reality, the first draft of any piece of writing starts somewhere deep in the subconscious mind, when you’re sleeping or doing almost anything but staring at the blank page.
It’s like the movie Inception, a dream within a dream, that slowly makes its way into your conscious mind as if by force of nature.
Capturing it once it arises is critical, no matter how it’s wrested from your brain.
Let’s be real here … it’s going to start as a mess.
My colleague Stefanie Flaxman calls it the Necessary Mess, a means of harnessing whatever crazy ideas you may have and not judging or worrying about the state of those words when they’re caught.
I’m not sure if it matters how you grab them, whether it’s in the cloud, voice-to-text, or in what bestselling author Austin Kleon calls “Paper monuments to human effort.”
But research has shown that your brain puts an emphasis on notes taken by hand, and I’ve found carrying a small notebook with me at all times is a vital first step toward getting any first draft onto the page (more on my process later).
The power of just getting started
The truth is, once you start a project in any format, you’re psychologically — even neurologically — compelled to finish it.
I’ve written about the complex neuronal activities of your writing brain and how to avoid getting blocked, but the science of just getting started is one of the most incredibly powerful tools available.
Bestselling author of Atomic Habits, James Clear, wrote about a productivity hack he calls Newton’s First Law of Productivity:
“Objects at rest tend to stay at rest … Objects in motion tend to stay in motion. When it comes to being productive, this means one thing: the most important thing is to find a way to get started. Once you get started, it is much easier to stay in motion.”
I also had the pleasure of interviewing writer and productivity wiz Bec Evans on The Writer Files podcast and she re-emphasized that serious writers adopt a small-steps mindset.
“The thing about neuroscience is, not freaking out your amygdala with these big scary goals. B.J. Fogg at the Stanford behavior lab has fascinating research around tiny habits, and that you just start with the smallest, simplest thing and then you build up from there.
“That’s how habits work. Start with the first word, with the first sentence, and build up over time.” – Bec Evans
Perfectionism vs. wabi-sabi writing
Once you get into the mindset of “small is good,” you’ll get over comparing yourself to highly prolific writers every time you sit down.
And remember, there is an intrinsic beauty to that barbaric rough draft.
Pro sculptors don’t beat themselves up about an unformed block of clay, just like great painters don’t lament scant brushstrokes on a large canvas.
Accepting imperfection, and even admiring it for what it is, is like the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi.
“Wabi-sabi nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.” – Richard R. Powell
Every masterpiece starts with a hundred experimental iterations, and every famous author wants to go back and change the words they’ve published.
Austin Kleon shared this timeless quote from the “Shitty First Drafts” chapter of Anne Lamott’s classic, Bird by Bird:
“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something — anything — down on paper.” – Anne Lamott
She goes on to say that the second draft is for cleaning up those initial mistakes and the third is for tightening all the nuts and bolts.
“Writing is easy. You just open a vein and bleed.”
Every aspiring writer has probably read some form of this oft misattributed quote, many involving typewriters (so 1945).
Variants of the quote have been credited to fiction author Paul Gallico, columnist Red Smith, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe (the last two, years after their deaths), and a dozen other famous writers.
The apocryphal nature of the quote obviously resonates with writers the world over.
But what does it mean to write with blood?
My theory is that it relates to the dedication and drive required to hammer out prose that speaks to an audience.
From first to final, blood will spill
The blood, sweat, and tears of getting to that third draft are all grist for the mill.
I’ve interviewed more than 75 bestselling authors, both traditional and self-published, about how they keep the cursor moving week after week, year after year.
All spoke to the fundamental truth that a commitment to the craft can be painful at times, both mentally and physically.
And every serious writer finds the tools and processes that work best for them, out of necessity.
Most professional writers:
- Have a repeatable process and place to work
- Devise a method to minimize distractions
- Set either a word count or block of time
- Show up daily until the work is done
I can’t think of a more dedicated group of content creators than my colleagues on the editorial team at Copyblogger, so I asked them to share their best advice for first drafts.
Drop your best and most succinct advice on getting a first draft in the books
Coral-coiffed online educator, co-founder and Chief Content Officer of Copyblogger Media, Sonia Simone, shared a great piece of kindling for making that first cut.
“Write a loose (it can be sloppy) version of the intro before you write anything else, to explain to yourself why this piece of writing matters. You may end up deleting most or all of it, but having that lens in place up front will focus the rest of your work.” – Sonia Simone
Stefanie Flaxman, Editor-in-Chief of Copyblogger, is a prolific writer and editor who manages the editorial team for Copyblogger.com.
She sent me her four pillars of a Necessary Mess (her version of a rough draft):
- Write what’s easy
- Schedule enough time
- Accept ridiculous mistakes
- Sculpt your art
Her reminder for writers comes full circle to Bec Evans’s advice on small habits:
“If you’re trying to achieve the quality of another author’s ‘highlight reel’ when you write your first draft, you’re likely going to be disappointed and frustrated with your ‘behind the scenes.’” – Stefanie Flaxman
Loryn Cole, motorcycle blogger and Copyblogger’s Data Analyst, leans on the time-tested Pomodoro Technique and speaks to the wabi-sabi of early drafts.
“Set a timer for 45–50 minutes — not to keep track of time but to give yourself space to focus. As long as the timer’s still going, you’re still writing.
“Remember that writers have to make their own raw creative material. Your rough draft is your chunk of marble, your paint and canvas. It’s much easier to work from a bad first draft than nothing at all.
“My ‘trick’ for getting a draft on the page when I’m having trouble getting started is to write ‘What am I trying to say?’ and then answer it. Literally write it on the page, as many times as you need. Works for me every time.” – Loryn Cole
Claire Emerson, Associate Producer for The Writer Files podcast and editorial team member at Copyblogger, recommends using a version of Pamela Wilson’s seven-part “formula” for content production from Master Content Marketing:
- Draft intro
- Draft body
“Do almost all on different days.
“And I use my ‘50-mins writing’ ticket on my kanban board as the prompt. I’m supposed to write a headline and some subs today.” – Claire Emerson
I’m also a huge fan of the kanban board for organization (see also: Trello), and Claire recently wrote about how her personal kanban self-management system helped skyrocket her productivity.
An “offensively simple” technique for beating block
I often return to one of my favorite articles by Robert Bruce on the legendary copywriter Eugene Schwartz (author of the industry classic Breakthrough Advertising).
“Schwartz describes sitting at his writing desk five days a week. It was a cluttered disaster, but he had a ritual and he never wrote anywhere else.
“He’d have his coffee on the left … and a few pens on his right, displayed just so.
“He’d turn to his machine and the ad he was working on (admittedly, he didn’t have to worry about Twitter back then).
“Then he’d set the small timer for 33.33 minutes.”
Robert goes on to note that Schwartz’s personal rules allowed him to do nothing but sit, drink coffee, look over his research and bare-bones outline, and write.
Preparing your desk for productivity
Back in the days of the Internet Marketing for Smart People podcast, Robert got to interview another legendary copywriter, John Carlton.
A few pieces of advice that stuck with me from that interview …
“If you’re not ready to start writing, don’t sit down.” – John Carlton
Carlton called that time before you actually sit down to write a word, “prepping the desk”:
- Stock the desk (with pens, paper, research, etc.)
- When you finally sit, be the most focused and determined you can be
- Be ready to start the conversation
- Write with a “gun to your head” mentality
I’ve written about some very prolific and successful writers’ weird rituals for getting it done, but I’m not sure it has to be that hard.
When you’re ready to sit down, keep it simple
Again, with the proper mindset and tools, you should be ready to crack your knuckles and get to it.
Prolific, multi-brand entrepreneur Joanna Penn shared with Bec Evans three simple secrets for productivity that have made her a New York Times and USA Today bestseller:
- Start with why — have a reason for writing
- Set long-term goals — have targets to aim for
- Schedule time to write — and stick to it
Before relying on conjury, superstition, or artificial intelligence to write that first draft, get back to basics.
My own process requires that I start every project by setting my desk with the same set of tools:
- Stack of 3×5-inch note cards, or Rhodia A6 Wirebound Pad (idea capture, quotes, very rough outline)
- Yellow legal pad on a cheap clipboard (headlines, detailed outline)
- Black Paper Mate felt tip (for subheads)
- Black Stylist “Ninja” pen (for copy)
- Red Sharpie Extra Fine Point (for highlights)
- Blank TextEdit page (Plain Text format only)
- Research materials (3–4 paper books, 8–12 web browser tabs open in an exclusive window for only said project)
- Timer set to 20-to-25-minute increments
- Mac set to “Do Not Disturb” to quell the notifications onslaught
- Phone in airplane mode, out of arm’s reach
Once I’ve completed a suitable amount of reading, research, and thinking, I grab a notebook or note card and scribble a page of illegible notes.
Then, I incubate them or bounce them off a coworker. That’s when I’ll grab the legal pad to sketch out a bare-bones outline and throw out as many headline ideas as I can.
Click the start button
Once I’m ready to sit down, I start that timer (like so many of us), and I’m glued to my chair and the blank page, notes, and pens at hand.
Sure I’ll squirm, drink coffee, and yawn, but eventually the words come.
“I don’t have an idea to write; I write to have an idea.” – Kevin Kelly
I’ll be completely honest with you … the piece I thought I was writing always takes on a mind of its own.
But that first draft is a thing of perfect imperfection.