How Can I be an Actual Writer

When I was in high school, I had the great fortune to have an English teacher who assigned Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts” in the midst of our creative writing unit. If you haven’t read the essay (which you can download for free below), I highly recommend you track down a copy of Bird Some Instructions to Writing Life and do it now. I’ll wait.

Dear Tori,
I have all these great ideas in my head, but when I put them down on paper they sound silly or dumb. How can I become an actual writer, not just someone with a lot of ideas?

I hereby give you permission to write shitty first drafts.

Okay, so now that you’ve read Ann Lamott’s essay-writing advice, you’ll probably be more receptive to mine. Yes, when you first put your ideas down on paper they will sound silly. Yes, your first draft will sound dumb. That is your prerogative as a writer.

Your obligation as a writer who actually wants people to choose to read your ideas is to do more than write that shitty first draft. Your obligation is to edit.

The way you get over sounding dumb is not by being afraid of sounding dumb. Rather, the way you get over sounding dumb is by practicing. Of course, you’re not practicing sounding dumb. What you’re practicing is the ability to recognize what actually sounds good to readers. You’re practicing the ability to fully explain all those ideas you have in your head, with due complexity and thoroughness, without boring or confusing your readers.

When you write your shitty first draft, I thoroughly recommend that you fill it with every single silly idea and dumb thought that’s on your mind. Write everything you want to write. Write it as seems logical to you. Write it until you think the idea is all out there, on paper.

Then put it aside.

Wait a day or two. Maybe write another shitty first draft about another idea you have. Maybe do some errands, watch a movie, hang out with friends, listen to a podcast, read a book. Put plenty of distance between the mental state you were in when you wrote your shitty first draft and the mental state you’ll be in when you go back to revise it.

Then, when you’re no longer in that headspace, go back and re-read your shitty first draft. It will seem truly shitty to you at this point. You’ll see where, even though you thought you’d explained yourself thoroughly, there are gaps in your logic. You’ll see where, even though you thought a point was relevant, it was tangential to your main idea. You’ll find that, since your mind has been following other thoughts along other paths for a couple days, you’ll have new insights into how to word things so they’re clearer.

That time you spent with friends will have helped you think about how to engage the attention of other people. That time you spent running errands will have allowed your ideas to percolate and become better-defined, easier to express. That time you spent consuming other (visual, audio, and written) forms of creativity will have invigorated and inspired you by example.

Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers emphasizes a statistical commonality among people who are excellent at what they do: they’ve spent a great deal of time doing it. One thousand hours, at least. Great bands spend at least that much time practicing, creating, and preforming their music. Great athletes spend at least that much time training. And you, as an aspiring writer, should spend at least that much time drafting.

Nobody starts out great. Being a great writer, as with anything else in life, takes practice.

Keep those questions coming! Just email with any questions you might have. They don’t even have to be about writing—ask anything that you think a professional editor like me might be good at answering. I look forward to hearing from you!

You can download “Shitty first Drafts” right here for free: Shitty First Drafts


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