Tips on Producing First Drafts

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I’ve been following the journalism of Clive Thompson ever since I encountered his writing in the early days of Wired, and over the years I’ve learned not only from his Wired columns but from books like Smarter Than You Think: How How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better (2013) and Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World (2019), and most recently from is columns in Medium, where he sometimes posts about his own writing process. In one post, for example, he wrote about his ongoing battles with procrastination and said that one way he helps avoid the worst bouts of it is by “parking downhill.” By that he means that when he is writing a draft, he always stops work “downhill,” that is at an “easy” place where he knows what is coming next. That helps the next day when he sits down to take up the task at hand again. This is a good tip, one I have often shared with students, many of whom are master procrastinators.

In another post titled “One Weird Trick for Writing a First Draft,” Thompson says that once he has done his research and needs to begin writing, he will begin doing almost anything but that: “rearranging my desk, tackling old email, going down Wikipedia rat holes.” (Do you know the feeling? In fact, in drafting this blog post I am avoiding work on a foreword I have promised to write!)

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Thompson argues that procrastination is ultimately about fear—fear of getting stuck, that words won’t come, that the project is above and beyond his capabilities, and so on. My students share some of these fears, as well as others; and that fear stands in the way of their progress. But Thompson to the rescue. He says he has developed “four rules for writing first-draft prose,” and they are pretty interesting:

  • Begin each paragraph with a hyphen
  • Lower-case the first letter of every sentence
  • Don’t put a period at the end of a sentence (though question marks and exclamation points are OK)
  • Instead, end each sentence with two forward slashes//

These “rules” help, Thompson argues, because they make his writing look provisional, unfinished, not really “official,” and therefore not so threatening of failure. As he says, he can “regard the sentences and paragraphs as a form of clay that I’m still just sort of generally shifting around . . . [it is] still under construction.” This kind of “under construction” writing doesn’t look “finished,” and so he is less tempted to spend time obsessing on revising a phrase, choosing perfect punctuation, etc. Instead, he can just keep on going. His provisional writing seems like “Lego bricks I’m combining and recombining to see what shape they might make.” He is also less attached to such provisional writing, so he finds it easier to toss it if it just isn’t going anywhere. 

Thompson says he leaves his drafts in their “provisional” format until the day before they are due. “This frees me up,” he says, “on this final day to become an obsessive about word choice on a sentence-by-sentence level” and on tempo, rhythm, pacing. I think students will like the way Thompson thinks as well as his self-deprecating and witty openness about his own processes of composing. And they may even decide to try out some of his “tricks.” 


Photo by Nick Morrison

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.