Have I rewritten this headline twenty times? Of course I have. And did I end up going back to the one I wrote the very first time? Hell yes. This is perfectionism and it’s what we do – because we’re writers.

But let me share with you a secret that took me years to learn: your first drafts don’t have to be perfect. In fact, they really shouldn‘t be.

When I started writing my memoir, waaaay back in 2018, I spent a long time on the first three chapters. Instead of pouring all my stories onto the page, I was laser-focused on finding the exact right words and sentence structure that jumped off the page.

By the time I got to chapter ten, I was exhausted. Not only that, but I was on a strict deadline and had to rush everything out towards the end, so I had a complete first draft to show my editor.

When I submitted the scraggly collection of 60k words, the first half was more polished than the second portion. But in their essence, those later, rushed chapters were more truthful than the ones that came before. Why? Because I was in a time crunch so intense that I literally didn’t have the luxury of indulging my perfectionist tendencies.

Since then, I’ve written another two books, hundreds of magazine articles, blog posts and poems and I’ve become more and more comfortable with writing messily in my first drafts.

The perfectionism problem for writers

The thing about perfectionism is that it isn’t really about high standards—it’s about never feeling satisfied with what you’ve accomplished. It’s the fear of the blank page, the pressure of the first word, the dread of the first sentence. It’s the constant comparison to the bestseller you just read, the worry that when people read your writing they’ll think it’s pretentious nonsense.

And what does all this crippling fear lead to?

Unfortunately, it’s stifled creativity and lacklustre ideas. It robs you of your inimitable voice and makes your writing feel forced and inauthentic. You end up writing in a way that you perceive as palatable to others, instead of honouring your unique perspective.

I’m not saying you should write sloppily or publish all your first drafts without spell-checking or editing your work. Editing is an essential part of the process but it requires a different kind of mindset that I don’t believe helps you whatsoever in the earlier phases of creation.

Here’s what I mean when I talk about the drafting phase in contrast to the editing phase:


The first-draft phase

  • Writing the first draft of anything requires an exploration mindset. You’re opening up your imagination and digging around to see what’s there. If you focus on a specific outcome, or hope that it will land in a certain way, you might miss the potential gems waiting to be found in the process.
  • Neuroscience tells us that during the creative process, multiple areas of the brain, including the prefrontal cortex and the default mode network, engage in a unique dance, fostering new connections which leads to unusual ideas. This is the fun bit!
  • Think of it this way: If you saw a kid using a ladle as a microphone, would you tell them that it’s really supposed to be used for holding soup? No. You’d let them have their fun. Allow yourself to play and embrace the chaos of the initial draft.


The editing phase

  • Editing, on the other hand, is the meticulous art of refinement.
  • This is where the prefrontal cortex, responsible for decision-making, evaluates each and every word and sentence allowing you to shape your creation into the best possible version and crucially, communicating the essence of what you discovered in the first draft phase.
  • When you’re editing mode, you want to look for inconsistencies and areas to be improved. But when you get into this brain space too early, you silence the wild ideas before they have a chance to reveal themselves.


Reframing writing your first draft

Whether it’s a blog post, article, novel or social media caption – breaking free from perfectionism trap requires a mental shift. Instead of viewing your writing through a lens of judgment, see it as a process of discovery. Ignore the image you have in your head about how the end piece ‘should’ look, and focus on the joy of creation.

Actively revel the messiness and allow yourself to make mistakes. It’s only through this somewhat chaotic process that your unique voice will come to the forefront. And when that inner critic starts whispering in your ear, gently remind yourself: “This is my first draft. It’s not meant to be perfect. It’s meant to be real.”

And look, as someone who’s been down this road, it’s not an overnight transformation. I still need to remind myself daily that messy first drafts are an unavoidable part of the writing process.

Daring to be vulnerable

The books and articles that I remember vividly are the ones that have had an emotional impact on me. Whether that’s bawling my eyes out to a Maggie O’Farrell novel or reflecting on my own behaviours after reading a first-person account of white privilege. When writers bare their words with generosity and honesty, it’s hard not to be affected by them.

A recent turning point for me was realising that my poetry differs quite drastically from the way I present myself socially. After reading out several poems to my classmates on a recent course, I had a conversation with my tutor about the lack of humour in my poetry in comparison to how lighthearted and playful I am in my personality. I reflected a lot on this, and still am. I’m not sure that either voice is better than the other; I just know that my poems represent a facet of my personality that I don’t normally reveal in conversation.

And that’s the magic right there. We, as writers, are multi-faceted humans with so many truths to tell. Don’t be afraid to set them free.