More dreaded than the haunting specter of the blank page, the elusive opening line serves as my real first roadblock to writing. See, that first sentence, the first phrase even, sets the tone for the whole piece. That first word could be critical to enticing the reader to continue. Pick the wrong one and you risk turning a potential reader away.
This sort of perfectionism is self-defeating, of course. Wait for the perfect word and you will remain paralyzed by the blank page forever. Better a blank page than to ruin it from the beginning with the wrong word, I think to myself — but that’s absurd.
“Don’t get it right — get it written.”
That was my brother’s advice for his many years while teaching writing. Succinct and spot on. The fact is you have never seen anyone’s first draft. Ever. Every book, article, song, or movie you’ve ever enjoyed had a first draft. A rough draft and many were indeed quite rough.
Nor are the professionals immune from the self-doubt that can cause you to freeze up.
I read an anecdote about noted author E.L. Doctorow trying to write a note for his 8-year-old daughter to return to school after a day out sick. He worried about the appropriate level of formality in the opening salutation and the proper tone to take. His wife walks in, spies the pile of crumpled notes, sighs in exasperation, and jots off the needed note, quickly, almost without a thought.
Mostly, it’s those of us who like to think our words are somehow precious who balk at the imperfection. We feel we must wait until the words dance themselves into the proper order in our own thoughts before we march them out onto the page share with the world.
Instead, we need to plunge, not quite heedlessly but headlong, into the maelstrom of words to tell our story, knowing full well many, if not most, of our first draft will have to be discarded or replaced. Better to get a start of it, though, than to wait for perfection we can’t really achieve anyway. Put the words on the page. It’s easier to edit than it is to create out of whole cloth, so start piling up the raw material for your writing: the words, the phrases, the sentences. Eventually, you will see paragraphs emerge from the formless flow and you can more easily cut through the chaff to the good stuff, shaping and molding chunks and pieces into the final form. It’s a process of perfecting prose, not at all like having it spring fully formed Athena-like from your forehead.
All a first draft has to do is exist.
This is a perfect first draft — because it exists.