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Debunking the writing process: On sanity passes and shitty first drafts

The need to write is inescapable; it informs how we communicate with others in a range of contexts endemic to our modern lives. Yet so often we fail to learn, understand and teach others how to go about this universally demanded activity. More often than not, we develop homegrown strategies in the absence of formal schooling on this subject, and these are not always effective, productive or conducive to either scholastic success or mental wellness. In light of this, I thought it appropriate for this week’s column to address the topic and attempt to shed some light on ways we can teach or re-teach ourselves how to write.

In school, we learn the basics of how to construct an essay, but we do not necessarily learn how to go about the writing process itself. It can seem as though an essay should come to us fully-formed, birthed from the imagination as a complete entity with an identity of its own. Many students strive to create perfect writing on the first go, laboring to produce perfect prose in a herculean effort rather than work at incremental progress. 

Behind this lack of teaching lies an assumption that writing should be intuitive and effortless, and that a human being has the innate ability to craft a honed document. In fact, the effective writing process is more of a series of sequential refinements rather than a one-stop extravaganza of sudden stress and spontaneous dynamism. 

The lesson of how to write must be learned. It is not innate. Just look around at all of the struggling writers who are each valiantly forging their own path through the tangled jungle that is the writing process, in dire need of assistance and unsure of who to turn to for advice. 

In researching this topic, I have uncovered several important steps. The first step to effective writing is to be able to write at all. This can be accomplished by breaking the ice and allowing yourself to write a “shitty first draft.” A what first draft, you may ask? 

My ninth grade English teacher introduced me to the idea and it has been useful to me ever since. In short, writing a “shitty first draft” consists of allowing yourself to write unimpeded by self-censorship and to get over the hill of starting to produce content that may be shitty but at least is present on the page. 

Overcoming the blank page can be terrifying, and giving yourself permission to write something thoroughly mediocre is the antidote to this age-old fear. 

The next step involves a whole lot of revisions. As freelance writer Harry Guinness writes for the New York Times, “The secret to good writing is good editing.” Guinness asserts that “writing is thinking” and argues that just as our thoughts evolve as we spend time pondering an issue, so does our writing improve as we work through ideas on the page. 

To create the optimal writing process, Guinness suggests leaving your written work to rest (as you would a batch of COVID-era sourdough bread dough, I might add.) This goes against the surprisingly widespread notion, which I have observed, that writing for some reason should be a terribly painful and drawn-out process. Rather than power through hours of striving in futility as one’s attention wanes and distractions become increasingly appealing, one should incorporate periods of rest between editing sessions. This is a smarter way to work and has the advantage of allowing one to see one’s own work “with fresh eyes,” which can be a game changer, Guinness asserts. 

To really ace the writing process, Guinness adds, one should read the piece aloud. This method allows a writer to “catch problems” and experience the “flow” in real time, which will allow you to make edits that will take your writing to the next level of literary excellence. 

In “How To Become A Straight-A Student,” Cal Newport offers some guidance tailored to college students whose sometimes flexible schedules put us in dire need of time-management strategies to organize our busy and constantly-shifting lives. Addressing the topic of essay writing, Newport suggests breaking the collegiate essay-writing process down into three discrete steps with an emphasis on being efficient but not at the expense of the quality of work created. 

The “argument adjustment pass” comes first. “Be on the lookout for major structural issues,” Newport writes, and “don’t be afraid to shift around major chunks of text.”

Then comes the “out loud pass.” Echoing Guinness, Newport advocates printing the work-in-progress and reading through the entire thing out loud. The purpose is to “root out small mistakes that might otherwise distract a reader from your engaging thesis.” Newport suggests making edits with a pencil rather than using a computer for this step, and this requires “much less time than the multiple silent reviews necessary to achieve similar results.” 

Finally, one should do a “sanity pass,” Newport continues, which consists of a “final, quick pass” for typos and lingering small and easy-to-miss errors. This pass has the added benefit of allowing the writer to “develop a better feel for the flow and enjoy the experience of watching your argument unfold.” Newport frames this review as a “reward” and a confidence-booster. 

Perhaps we should step back for a moment and take a look at the writing process as a concept in our lives. Part of learning to write involves taking the long view and doing some self-acceptance work. As much as we may wistfully hope to become masters of the process at the get-go, it is more realistic to see writing as a lifelong quest to articulate ourselves better and more efficiently with each iteration and practice-round. 

You can pat yourself on the back, too, as you have no doubt accomplished a lot to do with the writing process already and no doubt began this journey years ago without even realizing it. Wherever you are, there is always room for improvement, but we shouldn’t forget to celebrate how far we have come. Here’s to you, future writers of shitty first drafts!