The importance of the Shitty First Draft

(Please excuse the Anglo-Saxon synonym for manure used throughout. It is entirely artistically justified. Well, mostly. And it’s shorter to type.)

I asked Father Christmas to bring me the boxset of The IT Crowd this year, partly so I could watch them without watching 20 emotionally needy Microsoft ads on 4OD.  (If Windows 8 was a person it would be one of those semi-successful actors with a statistically average amount of talent and an insatiable lust for validation, who whenever you meet them, either pretend to be your best ever mate despite only having met you once or “accidentally” slip into their unique and refreshing take on Hamlet, which they haven’t been cast for yet but they will be soon, obviously. They do all this very close to your nose and wearing clothes so dangerously hip they could cure a whole geriatric orthopeadic ward with one casual swagger. They will then stare longingly into your eyes until you say the magic words “You are brilliant and will definitely win an Oscar one day.” At that point you run for the twiglets and cheap Sauvignon Blanc while they look for eye contact with their next victim.)

Sorry. Where was I? Oh. The IT Crowd. The main reason I asked Father Christmas for that particular bulge in my stocking was for the audio commentary on Series 4 – which is Graham Linehan‘s guide to writing a sitcom.

One of his tips is that you have to get a first draft written. If you don’t have a first draft, you can’t have second or third draft that makes it even better (and then a fourth, fifth, sixth,… you get the idea). First drafts, shitty first drafts are essential.

He also makes two points that I thought were helpful in trying to get a shitty first draft done.

1. Drafts are disposable. If you are lucky enough to get produced you will write many, many drafts. Don’t get precious about them. If a draft doesn’t work, you can fix it. If you can’t fix it, you can write something else. Just write it, then worry about it. Because the other way around doesn’t work.

2. Plan some funny things for the draft before you start writing. Staring at a blank page hoping something will come into your head is horrible. Graham Linehan says he brainstorms a large number of funny ideas for each show before he starts writing – that way he knows that he will get to a funny bit in moment and that keeps him going plodding through the first draft word by word.

In fact he talks about the terrible fear and shame of writing a first draft as he constantly feels “this is shit, it’s not funny, this won’t work”. And that having those preplanned ideas keeps him going.

So even Graham Linehan, the man who wrote or co-wrote Father Ted, Black Books and the IT Crowd, the sketch series Big Train and many other things, spends much of his time thinking his writing isn’t working. I find that really comforting.  If Graham Linehan thinks that… there is hope for me.

I have spend too much of my writing life starting first drafts and then throwing them away when they don’t work. It’s such a relief knowing that you are allowed to “cheat” – by rewriting and rewriting them until they do work.

So go and write a shitty first draft. And then rewrite it and rewrite it until it shines. Come on, David, off you go. Stop blogging, there is shit to be written.