Write "shitty first drafts" without backtracking to edit.
Writing an unpolished first draft helps streamline your writing process by forcing you to get a draft done before editing.
Writing is a difficult task that requires your full attention. Even professional writers often struggle to get started, write consistently, and overcome procrastination and resistance. That’s why I devoted a chapter of Elegant Legal Writing — Chapter 10, “The Mental Game of Writing” — to sharing my favorite strategies for productive writing. One strategy I discuss involves completing a first draft before pausing to edit.
When you understand your legal brief’s main argument and have done enough research to get started, write what Anne Lamott, in her book Bird by Bird, calls a “shitty first draft.”1 What matters at this stage is not getting everything right; it’s getting words on the page.
This is not the time to edit, wordsmith, second-guess yourself, or go down a rabbit hole of legal research. Your sole task is to complete a first draft, however terrible it may be. Don’t reread or revise what you’ve written until the draft is done.
Try to keep your cursor moving without stopping to backtrack. Imagine that your backspace and delete keys are broken, so even if you make a mistake, you have no choice but to forge ahead.
Write one section at a time, drafting the most important sections first and saving big-picture sections (such as the introduction and conclusion) for last, since you’ll have more perspective and a better understanding of your argument once you’ve completed a first draft. Use placeholders such as [CITE] or [TODO] when you get stuck or have ideas that might draw you away from your current thread. Most importantly, defer editing, formatting, polishing, and nonessential research; don’t let them interrupt your flow.
Segregate outlining, drafting, and revision tasks into separate, sequential steps rather than trying to do everything at once. This will help free you from inefficient task-switching such as bouncing between editing, writing, formatting, and research.
Second-guessing yourself while writing a first draft uses mental resources that would otherwise be available for writing. The “shitty first draft” strategy allows you to lower the mental stakes, overcoming traps such as perfectionism that can slow your writing. After all, you are going to revise and format the document later, so an unpolished first draft is a sign of efficiency rather than sophistication. You want polished final drafts, not first drafts.
If you try these tips, the draft you produce may indeed be shitty, but it will be done — and that is the first step toward a piece of writing that you can be proud of.
A caveat for teams
A caveat for those working on a team, especially associates and other junior attorneys: the “shitty first draft” concept is mainly about the writer’s private writing process. Don’t circulate a shitty first draft to your colleagues without first discussing the writing process with them and agreeing on expectations. If a partner is expecting to see a draft that is ready to be filed, they will not appreciate receiving an unpolished draft. A better approach is to first draft an outline first and obtain the partner’s feedback on the outline; then quickly draft a “shitty first draft”; then revise the draft before circulating it to the team. Working well in a team requires not creating work for one’s colleagues by passing along errors that you could have easily fixed.
Ryan McCarl is a founding partner of Rushing McCarl LLP, author of Elegant Legal Writing (U. Cal. Press 2024), and adjunct professor at Loyola Law School. For more writing tips, subscribe to the Elegant Legal Writing newsletter and follow Ryan on LinkedIn. McCarl’s book is now available on Amazon.
Please share this post with your networks:
Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life 21–27 (Knopf 2007).