In defense of the messy first draft

Will Kelly
3 min readMay 13, 2024

The longer I work as a writer, the more I believe in what I fondly call the messy first draft. Creating technical and marketing content that resonates with readers takes iteration, not prestidigitation.

A messy first draft frees you from the artificial constraints of perfectionism. Another benefit is that a messy first draft can be a platform for discussion and further thoughts. If you write with collaborators, MS Word comments and track changes or Suggestions in Google Docs can help you discuss the direction of your content. I’ve come up against micromanagers and so-called perfectionists, not to mention “look at me, look at me, I’m smart” thought leaders who looked down on drafts. Each of them tried to nail content on the first draft. Still, the project only wound up with content delivery locked in an infinite loop until the original topic of the content became obsolete and irrelevant to the market, never to see the light of day.

It took me a while to see it, but there’s a risk to some personality types when you start with a messy first draft with errors and open questions that need addressing. I once worked with a very senior-level cloud team on a major corporate content initiative. These solution architects were in demand and always billable. The content project was an overhead initiative. To make the most of their limited availability, I had to write messy drafts and then ask them questions using MS Word’s Comment feature. There was no way to reach a final draft without doing this step.

During this time, I also coined the term bringing them the answer because the messy drafts I was sharing with them often included my attempts to answer some of the gaps in the cloud content. There were times I was incorrect in what I wrote. It was easy enough to delete. Then again, there were times I was correct, while other times required some extra tweaking.

Using a messy first draft maximizes my limited time with the team. The strategy also gave me a real self-directed education about cloud computing, which I needed at that point in my career.

I’ve had some experience coaching people who aren’t writers by trade. When it comes to writing technical and marketing content, their paralysis by analysis can be intense and even an immovable force with some. The power of a messy first draft can help these people gather their ideas and share them with others for refinement.

Platforms such as Notion and Google Workspace make iterating on content even easier for distributed project teams. However, it does take some culture change to make it work. For example, positive and uplifting environments can make messy drafts work to their advantage. More collaborative teams also do better. On the other hand, command and control environments will lose the draft in the gray underbelly of micromanagement and irrelevance as market trends move past content stuck in a never-ending review cycle.

Tools such as Grammarly, Draftsmith, and Perfect-It make it even easier to use a messy first draft as a launching pad for drafts that expound further on what you learn from your collaborators and stakeholders.

Will Kelly is a writer and content strategist focused on cloud, DevOps, and end-user computing. He’s a keen observer of the IT industry, especially the role of humans in the success and failure of product launches and startups. Will has written about the cloud, DevOps, end-user computing, and AI for TechTarget, InfoWorld, and other popular sites. His professional career includes product marketing, technical marketing, and writing in the B2B and B2G markets. Follow him on Twitter: @willkelly. Check out his writing portfolio: authory.com/willkelly.

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