drafting · process · writing process

Downdraft (v.)

“A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft—you just get it down.”

Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird (p. 25)

Many of us are probably familiar with Anne Lamott or at least her concept of the down draft. (You might even know that she refers to it using a four-letter expletive turned adjective.) You might even refer to this idea of a down draft as a flash draft.

Whatever you call it, you likely have a way to label the results of any first attempt to put ideas onto the page in whatever way they come off the tip of the pen or the tips of our fingers.

We use terms like “down draft” to describe the thing that we make before what we make is fit to be read by an audience. Or at least that is how I used to think of it: Down draft. A thing. A noun.

It wasn’t until—at this year’s CCIRA conference—that I realized that “downdraft” is also—and perhaps more importantly—a verb. I was in a session with Linda Sue Park where she asked, no encouraged, no drilled us to turn a sentence we had written into something we didn’t recognize. “Make it suck more,” she said, pacing up and down the aisles. “It’s not crappy enough,” she told us. “Make it worse!” Her exercise was one of revision, but we can take the same active, no assertive, no aggressive stance toward writing at any stage of the process.

Downdraft. A way of approaching the blank page. A verb.

“Don’t worry about doing it well yet, though. Just start getting it down.”

Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird (p. 4)

I sat with a fifth-grader the other day who wanted help with the opening of her story. She had written most of it already, and as I sat down she assured me, “It’s awful.”

I fought the urge to convince her otherwise and instead asked her to simply read it to me.

She did and reminded me, “It’s the worst beginning of any story ever written.”

I again fought the urge to convince her otherwise. “It sounds like you have high expectations for the first lines of a story. How do you want it to go?”

“I don’t know,” she said.

I fought the urge no longer. “You’ve got some good ideas here,” I said, pointing out how she had established her character and setting in the first paragraph. “That’s really important at the beginning. What else do you want your reader to know?”

“That she was scared and excited,” she replied. “It’s really bad, isn’t it?”

Before we went any further, I shifted our conference to one, not about what she had written, but how she had gotten here. I explained the art of downdrafting: “You’ve done something that writers do all the time; you’ve gotten all these details down. Now you just have to fix them up.”

The rest of our conference was spent doing just that, using what she knew about how stories start to shift from telling about what happened in a moment to inviting the reader into the moment. A few years ago, I would have recorded this as my teaching point for this conference.

Now I recognize that the most powerful teaching point was helping this young writer to recognize that only by downdrafting did we have something to confer about. Only by getting her ideas down on the doc was she able to name the mood she wanted to convey to her reader. Only by writing a “really bad” first draft was she able to see where her story was headed in the first place.

“The first draft is the child’s draft… Just get it all down on paper, because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means.”

Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird (pp. 22-23)

The down draft (n). Something we should all be asked, no encouraged, no drilled to create.

Downdraft (v). An active, no assertive, no aggressive process for getting ideas out of our heads and into a space where we can see them more clearly. A process we should expect, no choose, no welcome.

11 thoughts on “Downdraft (v.)

  1. Lots to chew on in this post. I know if I can tame my perfectionist and just let it rip then revise, I’ll accomplish more and most likely better quality writing. Great reminder.

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  2. I love relabeling the “rough draft” this way, because it gives permission to get something out there. I share with my seniors that my down drafts often have a ton of bullet points and cussing in them, especially when it’s a really challenging piece – sometimes it’s just gotta get out however it can! (We talk about making sure the *final draft* looks different, but that permission slip to let it be as messy as it must be is game-changing.)

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    1. Your “permission slip” idea makes me think of the way Brene Brown engages her crew in meetings. They begin with “I give myself permission to…” and helps people set intentions for themselves. This is essentially the idea of downdrafting, and she goes on to say a permission slip “makes no promises,” so the more the final draft doesn’t resemble the down draft, perhaps the better it served the writer.


  3. Yeah, this is great. I’m trying to be okay with a junky downdraft in my own writing and it’s so helpful to just get it down. The perfectionist in me is still letting go and embracing pretty good.

    For kids there’s so much value in letting them get the downdraft on paper, then we have at least something to talk about. Thanks for the share!

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    1. I do wonder if the flash- or downdrafting would help us to also teach revision differently. If we scaffold each phase of the draft and break writing into small parts, of course kids don’t want to go back and revise something they’ve spent days on. But a good 20-minute downdraft session implies we have our work cut out for us afterward!

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