WRITING SPRINTS AND SFDS
by Tia Levings
I’LL NEVER FORGET WHERE I was the day I learned about shitty first drafts (SFDs). The phrase alone got my attention, so bold and borderline-crass in a sea of serious approaches to “craft.” I bought BIRD BY BIRD because I was familiar with Anne Lamott’s blue-jeans-and-bare-feet spirituality. She’s forgiving, likes dogs, and knows how to tame wild anxiety. To me, she is St. Anne, patron saint of nervous writers trying to find their way.
Writing sprints and SFDs changed my writing life completely.
I’d recently decided to write my first novel, based on an idea I got from a travel ad. My two main characters came in loud and clear––travel writers who wanted to kill each other. The problem was, they were married (to each other) and had just accepted a job contract contingent on their union.
I had a premise, characters, a fun working title…and minimal plot. Looking back, I’m not sure I even knew what the word “plot” meant yet. I wanted to write a novel and had no idea how to do it.
So I took BIRD BY BIRD on audio out for a walk. I left my front porch and our cul-de-sac and crossed the street to get on the sidewalk. One square, two square.. “step on a crack and you’ll break your mother’s back,” came to mind. I was on the seventh square of the sidewalk when I heard Anne’s voice describe what she called “shitty first drafts.” Zing! Electricity.
The SFD reminded me of Natalie Goldberg’s WRITING DOWN THE BONES––the skeletal frame. Anne called it “writing without reining yourself in.” She said it’s almost like “just typing.” You can’t overthink, which is hard for anxious writers who want to get it right. But there’s no pausing for corrections in the SFD. The sentences run on. The ideas flow and wander. You’re writing down the bones of your story, and the pretty fleshy bits come later.
An SFD is more than writing badly on purpose. It’s a flow.
If you’ve used free-writing and morning pages as techniques to become unblocked, you’re working the right muscles for a shitty first draft. These uncensored lines flow through you, mind to hand. The difference between an SFD and my morning pages is intention; I have an idea with story elements I’m working with on a draft. Otherwise, the sensation while writing is very much the same.
If your shitty first draft is rambling, incoherent, and too-ugly-to-show-anyone, you’re doing it right. You never show anyone your SFD. Showing it off is not the point. You’re just getting the words down on paper—messy, uncramped words out of your head and onto the page. You can edit and revise later, but only if you put the words down first.
“You can’t edit a blank page.” ––Jodie Picoult
I’m no longer a new writer. And in my experience, a gate with two locks guards the pathway to a solid working draft and the Kingdom of Completed Projects. The SFD is one key to the kingdom; the other is writing sprints.
Writing sprints are timed shitty first drafts. You assign yourself a duration, set the timer, and go, much like a free-writing session. When I sprint, I go for fifty minutes, break for ten, and usually do another, sometimes changing projects. The rinse in between is long enough to grab a snack, get some fresh air, and then dive back in with my concentration renewed.
The urgency of the clock is just enough pressure to keep my fingers flying. I’m not stopping to edit and rearrange sentences because I want that word count target. My eye is on the prize.
I write in Scrivener, which allows me to set word count targets against a calendar date. Scrivener tells me how many words I have to write per day to hit both the word count goal and deadline. The alchemy of target, timer, and deadline is the method I use for all of my work now.
Writing sprints are also excellent keys to unlock creative blocks. Choose a writing prompt––Jamie’s tarot prompts work great for this––and set a timer for 15-30 minutes. Just write whatever comes to mind, even if that’s “I don’t know what to write about this.” Sometimes I even type with my eyes closed. It always leads to a discovery. Most importantly, it creates movement, and when I’m done, I’m no longer blocked.
Vocal writing sprints: try talking it out
A few of my author-friends are experimenting with speech-to-text software for their SFDs. Using microphones and dictating their first drafts, they get the words down quickly, well enough to revise and edit in a second sprint. In his book 5,000 WORDS PER HOUR, Chris Fox breaks down his method to increase word count efficiently. It’s working for genre writers I follow online, and if speed an issue for you, dictation might help you battle it out.
SFDs and writing sprints help me overcome creative paralysis and perfectionism. The point, which is a draft that can be cleaned, edited, and improved, makes sound metaphorical and practical sense to me. I still turn to BIRD BY BIRD when I get stuck. St. Anne suggests short assignments, one-inch squares, and making messes. We’ve got to break these enormous tasks into bites we can handle, as the title suggests. “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
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Tia Levings hired me as her writing coach in 2017. Since then, she completed her memoir, co-authored a book on the craft of writing, and started a podcast for writers. I’m delighted to have Tia as a colleague, co-writer, and client. And I’m so glad that she’s sharing some of her writing experience with us, here. Thanks, Tia!