On fat outlines and shitty first drafts

The idea that you would just sit down and write a beautiful draft is deluded. The best writers do this on the best days; you, on the other hand, have to work even when you are not the best writer and it is not the best day. You can solve this my way — with a fat outline — or Anne Lamott’s — with a shitty first draft.

I work only with writers of nonfiction. In her book Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott is, mostly, solving a problem for writers of fiction. Even so, many of my nonfiction writer colleagues have embraced her prescription. The idea of writing a shitty first draft is that you don’t have to worry about the flaws — you just go where the writing takes you. As Lamott writes:

Very few writers really know what they are doing until they’ve done it. Nor do they go about their business feeling dewy and thrilled. They do not type a few stiff warm-up sentences and then find themselves bounding along like huskies across the snow. One writer I know tells me that he sits down every morning and says to himself nicely, “It’s not like you don’t have a choice, because you do — you can either type, or kill yourself.” We all often feel like we are pulling teeth, even those writers whose prose ends up being the most natural and fluid. The right words and sentences just do not come pouring out like ticker tape most of the time. Now, Muriel Spark is said to have felt that she was taking dictation from God every morning — sitting there, one supposes, plugged into a Dictaphone, typing away, humming. But this is a very hostile and aggressive position. One might hope for bad things to rain down on a person like this.

For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.

The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page. If one of the characters wants to say, “Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?,” you let her. No one is going to see it. If the kid wants to get into really sentimental, weepy, emotional territory, you let him. 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. There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you’re supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go — but there was no way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages. . . .

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. . . .

Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend. What people somehow (inadvertently, I’m sure) forgot to mention when we were children was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here — and, by extension, what we’re supposed to be writing.

If you cannot seem to get started, this is one way to do it. If you want to get to true, raw, emotional writing, writing that people can believe comes from your heart, let fly. The shitty first draft frees you from constraints, and for many writers it is those constraints (and hey, I wrote a book full of them) that paralyzes them.

Or, you could write a fat outline

The problem that the shitty first draft is intended to solve is to get you unstuck by removing constraints. That is also what the fat outline is about.

What is a fat outline?

A regular outline includes just the heads and subheads of what you intend to write. It is useless. It is easy to create, but does not help you much when you sit down to write.

A fat outline is everything you intend to put in a chapter. It includes quotes, graphics, insights, statistics, tossed off paragraphs, and anything else you can think of. You arrange those items into a logical order and put some heads in. A fat outline takes work, although it is a different kind of work from writing. It is the work of research and organization. And it is easy to create, because there are no constraints whatsoever. (You can write the whole thing in repetitive passive jargon-filled run-on sentences and fragments if that makes it easier.)

Unlike the traditional outline, the fat outline is very helpful when you sit down to write. With the fat outline in front of you, you have all the ingredients at hand, and the recipe is laid out in order. All that’s left is the cooking. Cooking is still hard, but if you hadn’t collected the ingredients and the recipe, it would be much harder.

When should you write a shitty first draft, and when should you write a fat outline?

While both of these prescriptions will get you unstuck, they don’t work in the same way.

If you are stuck because you are not sure what you want to say, write a shitty first draft. Let it come pouring out of you. You will write a lot of crap. You will also write some sentences. Writing is a concrete form of thinking. As you write the draft, you’ll crystallize some elements of your thinking, elements you can pick out later and use. It’s great therapy.

If you are stuck because you mostly know what you want to say but are not sure how to organize it, write a fat outline. The fat outline forces you to do the research and organizational work without the burden of writing.

You can even combine the two, writing the shitty first draft to surface nuggets of truth, then inserting those nuggets into the fat outline.

Either way, you will have gotten closer to the state in which you can write a very good, non-shitty draft.

Both of these approaches are like on-ramps to the highway. They help you get up to cruising speed. And once you are cruising, once you are in a state of writing flow, you’ll be much more efficient as you write, and happier, too. So do your writing self a favor and write a fat outline — or a shitty first draft — first.

Because flow is awesome, you deserve it, and your readers will thank you for it.

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  1. What software tool(s) do you use to create the fat outline? I’m guessing that it’s not just a simple word processor because you might end up wanting to grab sections of text with graphics and move them around. Thank you.

  2. Josh, I strongly believe in a fat outline for non-fiction books — and I find I usually have a pretty shitty first draft too! It is, though, better organized that one I could have produced without the fat outline, and therefore requires less self-editing and a lot less angst!

  3. I don’t write books, I write research reports, but this post applies to the world I inhabit.

    Perhaps because I started as an analyst at Forrester, I was educated in the virtues of writing fat outlines for my research reports (you helped teach us that, Josh). Some of those fat outlines, of course, turned out to be quite awful, which was one point of the exercise. Drafting and refining the outline was a form of discipline, I needed, having become an analyst after decades in industry. With the right editor – an essential ingredient in this mix – the fat outline would almost turn into the report itself. For me, at least, writing a fat outline helped make the writing process more efficient and productive. I’d like to think it resulted in a more useful research report as well.

  4. Thanks for this. I shared it with a couple of my colleagues and one replied “I now feel better about the way I work.” Your take on perfectionism is spot-on; the need to be flawless strips out humanity from the finished product, and also joy from the job.

  5. I love the “fat outline” but I’m wondering if people might get upset about the use of the word “fat,” since it’s often used to shame people who are heavier than the average/idealized body type.

    Have you had any pushback on that? If so, has anyone suggested an alternative term that you could share?