4 steps for turning a shitty first draft into something unstoppable

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4 steps for turning a shitty first draft into something unstoppable

by guest author Nicole Baute

A fellow journalist-turned-business owner, I was thrilled when Nicole pitched me this piece on the magic of revision! In running an online business we all do A LOT of writing: social media posts, sales pages, webinar registration pages, blog posts… the list goes on. Being able to turn out great copy consistently is a must — writer’s block can literally cost us time & money!

And therein lies the genius of a) the shitty first draft and b) powerful revision.

So take it away, Nicole!

4 steps for turning a shitty first draft into something unstoppableYou’ve gone and done it. You finally found the time to sit down and write something important for your business. Perhaps a guest post for one of your favourite websites, a new About page, or a sales email with a big announcement. You worked through the resistance, tuned out the self-doubt, and pounded your thoughts out onto the keyboard.

But you don’t like what you’ve written. Not even a bit.

What happens next is critical. You can ditch what you’ve written, or you can see this piece of writing for what it is: a shitty first draft, and the beginning of something great.

In her much-loved book Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg talks about shitty drafts and the importance of giving yourself permission to write something bad—at least at first. If you expect to write nothing but dynamite copy and perfectly polished sentences, you’ll find it very hard to write even a single word.

But if you write a shitty first draft, you can take a break and return to it with a fresh and reinvigorated mind.

Revision is when the magic happens.

So here are four simple steps to follow to turn your shitty first draft into something unstoppable. This actionable advice will help you fix up any piece of writing in a jiffy.

1) Grab ‘em from the get-go

You know you’ve got to hook your reader right away: if they aren’t interested in what you have to stay after the first few sentences, they’re unlikely to keep reading.

But don’t fret—your exciting opening statement, called a “lead” in the journalism world, might just be hidden somewhere else in your piece.

If you’ve “buried the lead,” the good news is that you can easily dig it back up!

Look for the most unique, compelling or controversial statement in your piece. It might be lurking a few paragraphs in, or tucked away somewhere around the halfway or two-thirds mark.

Cut out those drab opening lines, or move your catchy opener up to the beginning where it belongs.


2) Be specific

To help your reader feel connected to and a part of the story you’re telling, you want to appeal to their senses—and their imaginations.

To do this, you want to use specific sensory details and concrete examples whenever possible.

This is also known as the “show, don’t tell” rule. By showing your readers a little bit of scene or character, you give them a chance to experience the sensation you’re trying to communicate for themselves.

In other words, don’t tell your reader how to feel and what to think. Give them the information they need to feel and think for themselves!

Instead of saying “She was heartbroken,” show us that “She stayed in bed for a week, unable to do anything but sleep, cry, and binge watch Netflix.”

Look for other places to add tangible, specific details. Instead of saying, “Your copy is confusing,” say, “Your copy is as confusing as Ikea instructions.” We know how that feels!

3) Seek and destroy

This one is easy but many entrepreneurs and bloggers don’t take the time to do it—to their own detriment.

To make your writing shine, look for unnecessary or repetitive words and phrases, and delete, delete.

Repetition can be helpful when you’re trying to reinforce a key concept or remind your website visitors about something you want them to do, but in general repetition waters your writing down and might even make it boring. By writing something pithy and concise, you show your reader that even though you have a lot of great stuff to say, you value their time and attention. You’re going to make every word count.

Within sentences, look for words you can cut out or tighten up. For example, instead of saying, “I was wondering whether she might be interested in coming with me,” just say, “I wondered if she would come with me.” Same meaning, fewer words.

Within paragraphs and throughout the piece, look for repetitive sentences and ideas. Have you said the same thing in a few different ways? Can you make the piece more impactful by deleting a few sentences or substituting them with something else?

4) Take one more look

Before hitting “publish,” it’s time to explore what you’ve written from another perspective.

There are a few simple ways to do this. If you have a printer, you can print your piece, move to another room and read it with a pen or highlighter. Keep all of the previous steps in mind as you give it one last run through.

If you don’t want to waste paper (good point—you’re smart) you can try changing the body font or emailing what you’ve written to yourself so you can read it on your phone. Anything to trick your brain into looking at it anew.

I’d also highly recommend reading your writing out loud. This allows you to experience your piece as your reader will (because reading is auditory as much as visual!). It also forces you to slow down and read every word. Instead of seeing what you want to see, you’ll find yourself reading out what you’ve actually written. This is a great way to catch missed words and other small mistakes.

So there you have it—four simple steps for revision. Get in the habit of revising everything you write for your business to keep readers interested and engaged while showing them that you’re a true professional.

As a bonus, if you follow these steps on a regular basis, you’ll find your shitty first drafts start to get better, leaving you less and less work to do later.

And that means more time to get on with your business and your life! Score!

Nicole Baute cropped Nicole Baute has spent her entire life telling stories, both professionally and in her spare time as a creative writer. She has a master's degree in journalism and was once a reporter at Canada's largest daily newspaper. At the Story Factory, she helps entrepreneurs grow their businesses by becoming more effective and happier writers. Get her free training series, Write Your Biz Into Brilliance, to harness the power of your one and only voice, story and message.

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14 Responses to 4 steps for turning a shitty first draft into something unstoppable

  1. Steven Ma July 9, 2015 at 18:17 #

    I guess it depends on what kind of thinker you are. I’ve tried the just get started draft, but the end looks nothing like the intro, so I end up spending way to much time on revisions. Now I just outline the whole thing, then go in and fill in the content.

    • Jackie Johnstone July 10, 2015 at 12:25 #

      Hmm, that’s a good point Steven! I think defining clearly in your head the central idea you are trying to communicate BEFORE the shitty first draft stage really helps.

  2. Katie July 9, 2015 at 18:59 #

    Ack, #2 and the “show don’t tell” rule is the most difficult for me! I love when other people do it, but I find it hard to incorporate storytelling into my writing.

    • Jackie Johnstone July 10, 2015 at 12:31 #

      It can be as simple as using details, Katie! For example, you could TELL: “the whole street was showing their support for candidate X” OR you could SHOW that with details: “In a mere 3 blocks, there were 25 campaigns signs for X in windows and on the lawns of Charles Street”

      My first year reporting professor instilled this lesson at every turn and it truly makes writing so much stronger & more interesting.

      • Nicole July 14, 2015 at 23:57 #

        Such a great example, Jackie. My journalism profs drilled this into me too!

  3. Rena July 9, 2015 at 19:40 #

    I loved this. Thank you, ladies.

    I’m such a fan of reading my work out loud before I post. It’s a great ‘is this how I actually talk?’ test.

    • Jackie Johnstone July 10, 2015 at 12:33 #

      YES! This is one of my fav tricks too, Rena. Especially for social media posts because you really want them to feel like you are speaking, not writing.

  4. Jordan July 9, 2015 at 19:52 #

    I love this! My biggest issue is number three. I tend to overwrite a lot, and need to really learn and work on how to provide the same message more succinctly. I am totally bookmarking this post.

  5. Katie Seaver July 9, 2015 at 22:16 #

    This is such a great article, Nicole! I love Natalie Goldberg’s work, and I *definitely* find myself mostly making shitty first drafts. I even find that just going away from my writing for a few days (or a week or two, if I am working far enough in advance and have the time), and when I come back I like my writing SO much more. It’s like, “oh wow, there’s interesting stuff in there!” I especially like #1 + #2 — the thought of pulling out your lead or the specific details that pop and then planning the piece around them in the editing phase is such a great idea.

    • Jackie Johnstone July 10, 2015 at 12:34 #

      Ooh, I’m with you Katie! But I’m so deadline driven, I often don’t leave myself the time to properly step away and come back…

    • Nicole July 14, 2015 at 23:55 #

      Awesome, Katie! Isn’t it amazing what can happen with a little time and perspective?

      For sure, Jackie, it’s hard to work far enough in advance that you build time in for a break and then revision. I struggle with that too, although since I started working with a VA it’s gotten a bit better!

  6. Ishmael Junourgh August 8, 2015 at 18:28 #

    thanks nicole, this another opportunity for me to improve my writing skills.

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