In the first of This Creative Life’s autumn series, journalist, podcaster, and copywriter Michelle Gately guides us from blank page to first draft, uncovering the true magic in the writing and editing process: letting go of perfection and cultivating the belief that you can craft memorable content.
Staring at a blank page always fills me with an icky shame. I know that whatever I write first won’t match the perfection of the idea swirling around my brain.
If you’ve ever felt the same, I wonder if you also deal with it like me? Reading endless articles in the name of research. Making several cups of tea. Scrolling Instagram. Taking the dog for a walk. Deep cleaning the fridge. Even just turning to the other, less creatively taxing things on the to-do list.
Finally, I’ll start. (But only after a few more minutes staring blankly into space, composing things in my head).
But experience as a writer and editor tells me the magic isn’t in finally starting a project – it’s sitting through the discomfort and trusting yourself to turn it into something you’re proud of.
Trusting the process of the first draft
The ‘bad first draft’ idea is cliched at this point. But, like most cliches, it’s grown from truth. There’s always a disconnect between the excitement of an idea unfolding in your imagination and the blank page you need to commit it to.
Before starting my own copywriting business, I was a journalist at a newspaper where there was little time for creative collywobbles. (There really is something to be said for the urgency of a daily print deadline to keep you motivated.)
I used to sit next to my chief of staff in the newsroom. During my first few months, I would sometimes turn to him and ask for help writing my opening sentence (aka the most important one).
“You write something, and then we’ll take a look,” he used to say.
Utterly infuriating at the time, but it was a helpful reminder that you can’t edit a blank page.
I was paid to get words on the page, so I really had to write through the blocks and discomfort. But it’s much easier to let procrastination win when you’re writing an email or blog for your business or working on a long-form writing project without a deadline.
And then you have two options out of the icky first draft feels: avoiding it or writing through it.
Plan a little. Think a little. Make some more tea.
Then take some action. Trust that you’re going to make it better once you actually start.
You will never improve on something that only lives in your head.
The magic of editing
It might sound strange, but the editing phase is my favourite part of any project – even though it’s perhaps even more confronting than the first draft ick.
I didn’t feel that way until I did an editing course as part of my postgraduate diploma. That’s when I realised editing is not just slashing words with a red pen and saying ‘re-write this’. No, editing is a truly collaborative process, and it’s kinda magic.
As a writer, I’ll never share a draft that isn’t fairly polished. But I’m always amazed at how much I can improve the draft I think is pretty good already.
A good editor will celebrate the great bits of your work and gently encourage the changes needed to make it sparkle a little more. Being edited feels like growing pains, but the end result is trusting yourself a little more and feeling a few inches more confident.
And being the editor? Well, it’s a pretty joyful thing in my book: I get so excited to encourage people and honoured when they take up a suggestion I’ve made. (This is one of the things that inspired me to structure my website audit around collaboration and editing.)
But none of this can happen if you surrender to the shameful, weird feeling right back at the start.
You will never improve on something that only lives in your head.
Yes, your first drafts will be messy. Yes, the first emails or blog posts you put out will make you cringe in a few years. (Trust me, you will always find something you could have done better with the knowledge you’ve gained since).
But if you leave it all inside? You’ll never know the joy of creating or feel the magic of making your work better than you imagined.
Instead of avoiding discomfort, let’s embrace it as part of the creative process.
Some final thoughts
If you’ve ever felt this weird emotion around starting a project (no matter how excited you were by the idea), I hope you feel a little better knowing it’s not just you.
- Start despite the dread
Instead of avoiding discomfort, let’s embrace it as part of the creative process. Trust that this ‘getting started ick’ is just as important as allowing our minds to wander or to edit the outcome before it’s ‘finished’.
- Embrace the ‘Bad First Draft’
It is a truth universally acknowledged that your first draft can always be improved. So, don’t try to avoid it. Get the idea out during this creation phase, knowing there’s no working on something that only lives in your imagination.
- Set a deadline
Perhaps it’s the journalist in me, but without a deadline I am the queen of procrastination. Setting a deadline (even if it’s self-imposed) helps me organise my thoughts a little and pushes me to start a project instead of just thinking about it. Prime example: writing this blog post. Thanks for the nudge, Sarah! You can always ask creative pals to help you stay accountable by sharing your deadlines with them.
- Trust the editing process
I know asking for any kind of feedback is so scary, but leap into it as an opportunity to build your skills. When you’re trying to self-edit, give yourself plenty of time away from your draft and come back with a different focus – you’re examining what works and what doesn’t, so now is the time to question your creative decisions a little more.
- Celebrate the small wins
Break your creative project into tiny little steps and give yourself a big pat on the back each time you reach another milestone on the journey. Whether it’s treating yourself to cake and coffee or just an afternoon curled up reading a good book, reward yourself for your work.
Michelle Gately is an Australian journalist, podcaster and copywriter living in the UK. Her love of stories in all forms is at the heart of Word By Word Storytelling, where she helps small business owners connect with their dream people through nurturing content and copy.
You can find out more about Michelle on her website and connect on Instagram. The Copy Edit is her new service, blending copywriting support and mentoring for business owners who’ve written their own website words. In her spare time, Michelle can be found with her head in a book – or chatting with authors about their work on the Better Words Podcast.