Friday, February 5, 2010

Shitty First Drafts

A Shitty First Draft of a Photograph, 2009

Shitty first drafts. I wish I’d come up with that line. I sure use it a lot. It was actually writer Anne Lamott who coined the phrase in her book, Bird by Bird.

You might be capable of genius. But you still have to get it down on paper or canvas or whatever. Unless you’re one of the rare geniuses who gets it right the first time—and they are out there, but most of us aren’t them—there’s a good chance that if you’re half-way meticulous about your work you’re going to go through a lot of drafts on the way to creating something good, and the first one’s likely to be pretty lousy.

Back when I was in the advertising business several or my associates and I had to meet in Richmond to give a Monday morning new business presentation. We didn’t have a chance to rehearse for the presentation until the night before.

Let me get straight to the point. We were awful. We knew our material. We were good presenters. But we were awful. Our presentation didn’t flow well and didn’t make our point. We didn't even act like we knew each other. We all knew this was a shitty first draft of a presentation, even if no one said so out loud.

If you’re in a position that requires the creation of most anything, this will happen from time to time. I was once involved in a new business pitch to another prospective client, an RV manufacturer in Indiana. It was a big piece of business. The pitch team included talents from three of our agency’s offices. A lot of time, work and money had been invested in preparing for the pitch.

The rehearsal the night before the presentation was uneventful. Afterwards we all went out to a local pizza joint. While there, literally just hours before the presentation, the president of the agency, who’d decided to tag along for the presentation, turned the whole presentation upside down. ("Why not RVs in a camouflage motif?" "Why not camping trailers shaped like ducks?")

Sometimes wild thoughts are just what you need to jog your thinking. But they work better if they show up before the night before the pitch. We went back to the hotel and retooled the presentation so that the president’s remarks would translate into something constructive. The pitch went off without a hitch. We got the business. We lived to see another day.

But back in Richmond that Sunday night, we weren’t so sure. I was still relatively new to the agency. This particular presentation team hadn’t worked together before. We didn't know each other's rhythms well enough to meld seamlessly.

So we did what people who care about their work do. We sat up in our respective hotel rooms all night—I sat on the edge of the bathtub since my wife had come along with me and I didn’t want to keep her up—and re-thought the whole presentation.

The next morning we met for breakfast, a little apprehensive still, but ready to tackle things. We talked through the presentation, got our rough edges smoothed out, and made a good pitch to the prospective client an hour later. We won that business, too.

Teachers tell us that we have to keep our minds and our muscles ready. The military trains people so rigorously and repeats exercises so often that soldiers’ bodies are conditioned to follow orders without thinking and react with well-rehearsed physical responses.

The same thing applies to photography. There are times when my eyes see good photo opportunities everywhere I look. And there are times when I see nothing. It’s easy when the latter occurs to put the camera down and go do something else. But I’ve learned that this is exactly the opposite of what I should do. The muscles have to be exercised, the mind kept alert and I have to keep looking through the viewfinder, especially in this digital age when the only cost of taking dozens or more shitty first pictures is the time it takes me to go through and delete them.


  1. I understand completely what you're talking about in terms of writing. I think, though, that it translates only sometimes to photography. You have an example of a "draft" photo, and, yes, a little more effort would lead to a shot that's framed better. On the other hand, there have been a lot of times when I see a shot while I'm on the move, take it, and then stop and take more to get a better frame or a better angle. What's interesting to me is that many times it's the first shot that works, and the others are static.

  2. I'm such a lazy photographer all I get are shitty first drafts.

  3. Well, you must not show your shitty photos--they all look marvelous to me. I love Anne Lamott's book Bird by Bird. She's got a great sense of humor, too.

  4. Yes, yes, yes. Glad I read this today.

  5. Hi Chris,Thanks for this. It's an excellent reminder as I re-engage in photography (and recommit to blogging). Just showing up without judgment is truly the first step.
    (another Bird by Bird fan)