Pen and Chisel Q&A: Writing Terrible First Drafts

Eileen ConnerPlease welcome back law school admissions essay expert Eileen Conner, founder of Pen and Chisel. Today, Eileen is advising us on why it’s OK to write a terrible first draft.

If you missed any of her other admissions Q&As, check them out here.

Beginning work on a new and high-pressure essay like the law school personal statement can be daunting. Even if you are used to seeing yourself as a strong writer, you may feel apprehensive about whether you can write your story well enough to be admitted to your schools of choice. This intimidation factor can make it difficult to get started.

But here’s one thing to consider. It’s okay to write terrible first drafts. This is a completely normal part of writing.

So give yourself permission to write a first draft that is not polished at all. Let yourself write a draft that is disorganized, rambling, or melodramatic. Put anything you want down on the page. Tackling this process — no matter how terrible the initial results may appear — is a great first step toward an excellent, convincing argument for admission.

Now, this may sound ridiculous at first, especially if you are used to producing academic papers with the greatest of ease. (Whether or not you write them while on a flying trapeze is moot.) However, writing a terrible first draft can actually put you in a real position of strength as you work your way toward a top-notch final draft.

Why should you let yourself write awful drafts?

Get Over the Fear of Getting Started

It’s not uncommon to be intimidated by the personal statement — after all, it is going to help determine your future career path! And trying to write a perfect essay on the first try can increase the intimidation factor substantially, making it difficult to start writing anything at all. To combat this, give yourself permission to write badly. Letting loose and writing absolutely anything, no matter how bad, will help you conquer your fear of getting started.

“But everything has to be perfect!” No, everything does not have to be perfect, especially at this early stage. Letting yourself write whatever you happen to think of on your chosen topic, no matter how awful, can actually get you over the initial hump of starting. And once you’ve gotten started, you’ll know you can tackle this task — after all, you’re already in the middle of it.

Are you writing badly? Maybe, maybe not — but you ARE writing. You ARE creating a draft of an admissions essay. Producing any first draft, no matter how bad, can directly show you that you have the skills to write a personal statement and help you feel better about your ability to get it done.

Clarify Your Thoughts and Organize Your Argument

If you’re writing about a personal topic — and because this is a personal statement, it’s very likely that you are — you may find it difficult to express your thoughts and feelings on the subject clearly. Before putting pen to paper (or, more likely, fingers to keyboard), it can be hard to conceptualize how to tell your story well and use it to argue for admission successfully.

In this situation, I often find it useful to simply start writing. This helps me work out what I really think and put those thoughts into words, instead of leaving them in a nebulous, swirling cloud.

So even if you’re confused and uncertain about how to tell your story well, it’s a good idea to start writing. You may want to go for it without even making an outline. This may feel counterintuitive if you are used to planning out your essays before you write them. But if you’re finding it difficult to structure your essay before you get started, why not jettison that requirement, pick up a pen, and go?

Writing your story down can actually help you clarify your thoughts and feelings on your chosen subject. Try a freewrite or a simple chronological telling to begin with. Feel free to veer off into your reactions to the events you’re discussing, or your subsequent thoughts about your career and your goals. As you write, you will likely find yourself thinking out your experience — and how to use it as an effective argument for admission — with more clarity. Give it a try and see how this can help you.

Generate Raw Material

Once you’ve begun writing your essay draft — no matter how poorly it turns out — you will have something concrete to work with. Before you begin writing, no matter how much you may think about your essay, you really have just a vague concept. But once you start actually putting words on a page, suddenly you have some real raw material. Yes, you may have to rewrite, edit, or even discard quite a bit of what you write — but at this point you at least have something to rewrite, edit, or discard!

It’s a little like making a sculpture. You can think about what your sculpture will look like, talk to other people about it, make sketches, map out your desired dimensions, or debate the choice of medium — but until you actually get your hands on a piece of clay and start shaping it, you don’t have a sculpture — you have an idea.

Similarly, until you start putting words down on paper, you don’t have an essay — just an idea. But once you get a few paragraphs written, you have an actual draft. So start getting those words down on paper and make your essay a real, tangible thing you can work with and improve.

In all these ways, writing any first draft at all — no matter how terrible it may be — can help you get started on the path to an excellent personal statement, diversity statement, or other application essay. So what are you waiting for? Get started now, and you’ll soon be on your way to a top-notch final draft.

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Thanks, Eileen! And good luck to everyone applying!

Got an admissions question for Eileen? Leave it in the comments!

More about Eileen:
Eileen Conner is the founder of Pen and Chisel LLC, where she specializes in helping law school candidates perfect their application essays. 

A graduate of the University of Michigan’s prestigious creative writing MFA program, Eileen is the former Senior Editor for Law at Revision Editing.

Read On:

As you embark on your law school application journey, you might want to bookmark Applying to Law School 101: What You Need to Know to Succeed.

Then check out some of the rest of the Pen and Chisel Q&A:

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