With Whom Are You Comfortable Sharing Your Shitty First Draft?

From a book review in this weekend’s WSJ about the writer/editor collaborative relationship:

One of the secrets of Mr. Kidder’s success is that he is not afraid of writing badly in front of his editor, which frees him from the paralysis of writer’s block. I’ve worked as a magazine editor for 20 years and done some writing on the side, and I’d say that the relationship you have with your editor should be like the one you have with your urologist—you should feel comfortable showing him unspeakable, embarrassing things and trust that he will not recoil but endeavor straightforwardly and discreetly to help. (The writer-editor relationship should also have a confidentiality akin to attorney-client privilege or, perhaps more aptly, to that of the psychiatric couch.)

It’s definitely true in writing: you always start with shitty first drafts and it’s critical to feel comfortable getting feedback on them from others, especially your editor.

It’s true more broadly as well, I’d argue. Important professional/personal growth happens when you feel totally comfortable saying something potentially wrong or unwise. To be precise, it’s usually when you feel confident in the fact that the other person’s impression of you (and your intelligence) is solid enough that that one or two a dozen off-base observations out of your mouth isn’t going to change that.

We’d grow faster if the “how am I coming off? am I going to sound stupid if I say this / ask that?” filter dissipated more often. In other words, we’d grow faster if we didn’t stop ourselves from sharing the draft or speaking up for fear of being held in lower esteem by the other person. But it’s not that you should share your shitty first draft with just anyone. Sometimes, you do not want to ask the dumb question; sometimes, you want to be attentive to projecting a certain impression of yourself. (“Better to be thought a fool than to open your mouth and eliminate all doubt” is good advice in certain circumstances, like with your boss.)

But cherish those people and environments where it feels comfortable to do the equivalent of showing your shitty first draft. Keep those people close.

6 comments on “With Whom Are You Comfortable Sharing Your Shitty First Draft?
  • This is a classic long-run vs short-run trade-off. In the short-run you get embarrassment and status hits from saying stupid things, but in the long run you learn more.

    The one wrinkle here is that having a filter on yourself where you do put in some effort first is also probably a good thing. A student who always asks obvious questions in class probably does learn some from those questions, but he’d probably be better off trying to think for *at least some time* of the answer himself.

    Same with writing: impressing your editor to at least some degree is a useful incentive to get a decent amount of work done at the beginning of your project, thus breaking the overall process into smaller “chunks” that are more manageable.

    Trade-off within trade-offs.

    • Agree on the short run point — impress the editor initially not only as useful incentive but to build up credibility in order to ask dumb questions later.

  • To be accurate, it’s usually when you experience assured in the fact that the other individual’s impact of you Important professional/personal development happens when you really experience saying something possibly incorrect or risky.

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *