Vomit draft: write badly the first time

When you write your first draft, you need to get it out — not a time to waste on perfecting your grammar or spelling.


I first heard the term “vomit draft” at an introductory course to filming & scripting. The words of my colleague “to write badly the first time” suddenly made sense.

The first draft is to “get it all out” — in other words, throw it up. There’s not a moment to waste on perfecting your grammar or spelling.

Just get it out.

Similarly, the first time you read a score, you can’t afford to play it perfectly. You want to get an idea how it sounds and what you need to work on.

Playing a piece for the first time, however, is different from writing your first draft. In the latter case, you have stuff you want to get out.

Google “vomit draft” and see what others have said about it — a nice secret to successful writing, for sure.

Writing the first draft

Writing from a blank canvas is hard. Start with an outline. Then break up each chapter into its project. THe important thing is to get started.

Earlier I wrote about writing to a deadline. That was the first draft.

A blank canvas.

How many times I wished I could wave a magic wand to get words to appear! I struggled with how to begin and where to begin.

So I started with an outline. Before I knew it, I had outlined 12 chapters.

Then I split off each chapter into its own project.

I swapped the order of the chapters according to what I was able and willing to tackle. I set a schedule of deadlines. I committed to deliver a chapter a week, sometimes two. This schedule helped manage the expectations of my gatekeepers.

I thought Chapter 4 was the easiest. But being the first chapter, it was hard to get started. Once I got going, it was not so difficult to get into it.

The next chapter I chose to work on was not so different. I had collected all the material behorehand. I just needed to assemble them into a readable document.

I left the hardest chapter to the near end. [The last chapters were conclusions and introductions, which had to be the last.] I also had all the material ready but I needed to double check on the nitty gritty.

It was hard to find a stretch of uninterrupted time to focus on the writing. There were necessary administrative duties with my job, teaching, reading to do, and the usual distractions of social media.

Once I caught myself getting up at 3 in the morning just to finish a chapter. Initially writing these chapters was like pulling teeth. The process was a deja vu of writing my doctorate thesis in London — solitary confinement, self-induced obsession, and allowing chaos to fester around me.

When I reached the halfway point, I decided to celebrate.

During this period of writing the first draft, I attended a day-long writing workshop. I shared the challenges I was facing with the rest of the group. It dawned on me that I would write for free (like this blog) but when I got paid to do it, I faced resistance.


I concluded: for some reason, I didn’t feel I was good enough to write this report. I thought my job was admin and other project tasks, but this report was destined for greater audiences.

In the end, my peers were right. I was the only one who could write the first draft.

“Just dump your brain,” said my colleague, a writer by profession.

So I did.

I dumped my brain.

And now, after a short intermission, it’s time to edit for the second draft.

Deadlines and just in time

Deadlines, just in time, slack, dynamic programming, scheduling are all buzz words in time management and operations research. How do you apply them to real life?

There’s something magical about having a deadline. Suddenly I’m driven to meet it. Where no deadline existed before, there is now a raison d’etre.

Dynamic planning is the art of starting from the end — the deadline — and working yourself backwards to the present. It’s an optimisation technique which, in its simplest form, can be applied to your daily scheduling. If your concert starts at 3 pm, you should aim to get there by 2 pm to get used to the acoustics and the instrument (if it’s a piano or organ). If you have to submit your chapter by a certain date, you should give yourself a day to review what you’ve written, and have finished before that.

The term “just in time” is a popular concept in manufacturing, to avoid waste of time and resources. It could easily be the opposite of what we think of as “slack.”

I’ve gotten so accustomed to operating in “just in time” that I’ve given myself no slack, even when it comes to deadlines.

How often have I glanced at the clock and tried to race against time? It’s 3:10 pm HST. The swimming pool closes at 4:30 pm. All lifeguards are flexible with the closing time except for one. If he’s on duty, then I’m doomed. I should change into my swim wear and drive to the pool, shower, swim, and finish by 4:25 pm to allow time for a shower. Often my plan gets interrupted by last minute phone calls that leaves me with 20 minutes of lap time instead of 30. That’s when I wish I had built in some slack.

Perhaps I should mentally tell myself that the deadline is 4 pm not 4:30 pm if I want to swim my laps in the pool. Likewise, I should aim to bring my own deadline forward — before the REAL deadline, when it comes to writing. If not, it becomes one of crisis management.

You could say it’s exciting to live on the edge, constantly racing against time. Doesn’t it feel good to get to your seat just when the concert is about to start? Or arrive at the train station just when the train is pulling in? On the other hand, if you’re slightly late and miss the train, you’d feel down right awful. You’d feel guilty interrupting the concert and missing the opening.

Living in “just in time” means always being on the run. No time for reflection. No time for pauses. No time for yourself.

That’s why the just-in-time approach to meeting deadlines can be detrimental to the time-challenged individual.

Announcement is not an invitation

The difference between an announcement and an invitation is that the latter uses persuasive writing.

Just telling someone about an event is not going to make that person come to the event.

Persuasive writing is required.

One of the most popular blog posts on Concertblog is Concert Announcement or Invitation.

I have read press releases in passive tense. I will remain detached.  Change it to active tense and I might think it relates to me.  Make it personal and inviting, I just might think I am the audience.

Why are some musicians able to get people to go to their concerts and others aren’t?  One clue is in the writing. If this kind of writing is not taught at conservatories, it should be.

Getting people to come to your concert is one of the greatest skills to have. It is transferrable. How do you get people to come to an event you organize?  How do you fill a hall?

You won’t by simply announcing it.

You have to invite.

To invite, you have to be skilled in persuasive writing.

Pause for reflection

Attending the one day writing workshop causes one to reflect about writing. But it’s not an excuse not to write.

One thing the Saturday writing workshop and the three-day summer writing workshop did for me was pause for reflection. The word for it is metacognition or metacognitive analysis. In other words, you think about what you’re doing.

We thought about writing. Why did we write? Why did we want to write? What did we hope to get out of writing?

I think of it as pausing to smell the flowers that you see before they wilt. Take a moment to look around you and admire the beauty. How often do we stop doing what we’re doing to reflect and think about what we’re doing? Or notice what’s around us?

Anne stoops to smell the flowers in Amsterdam
Anne stoops to smell the flowers in Amsterdam

I am always thinking about my purpose for writing and my audience. I don’t write just to write, waste paper and time, and thereby waste some reader’s attention to what I wrote. I think about topics that are worth writing about.

Sometimes writing is an obligation. For instance, I had some time to kill while waiting for dinner the other day. I checked my blog traffic and noticed a decline in activity of late. I felt obliged to write, for continuity sake. I whipped out a short blog post very quickly, something I had always wanted to write about but didn’t have time. I let it brew, fester, and ferment until I had time and the inclination to write it.

I write to remember. “Bookmark this idea!”  Usually it’s more like, “don’t forget this moment” or “please don’t forget this experience.”

I write to promote. Concerts require promotion. An announcement is not an invitation. An announcement informs, but an invitation has to do more than inform. The writing has to attract and persuade. It has to be easily found by search engines used by those who are looking for concerts.

I write to thank. Instead of a thank you card or a thank you gift, I write a piece to make my appreciation personal.

I write to practise writing, and often, to get started. It takes practise to write well. A blog is writing that gets published instantly. It is the fastest way to get a reaction and to get found. When I blog, I feel like I’m on stage, and the world is my audience.

I write to process emotions or decisions. When structuring to write, I am also analysing the situation. What is important? What comes first? What follows next? What are my options? What do I want? What should I do? What is it that I’m burdened with? Why?

Enough about writing.

Writing about writing can easily throw me into the trap of thinking about thinking, writing about writing, and never quite do what I have to do.


Writing to a deadline

Writing requires deadlines and other rituals.

“So, how much writing did you get done today?” asked my friend, concerned that I kept putting off the most important task of all.

“I’m just getting started,” I said at 7:30 pm.

“What? What did you do all day?”

“I had 2 loads of laundry to wash, hang, let dry, fold, and put away. I had to clean the bathroom, the fridge, and the floor. I still have to clear the paperwork on my desk.”

I was not complaining or procrastinating. While I was doing the house chores, I was thinking about how and what to write.

I wish there’s a magic wand to make all the words appear. I’ve drafted the outline. I’ve given myself and others a deadline. The raw material is totally here, in my brain, on my computer, in e-mails, and in printed form. All I have to do is copy and paste, write, rewrite, and polish it.

But there is a million other things on my mind. I can’t work in a dirty and messy space. My Brazilian friend admired how her German husband could plant himself anywhere, in the middle of a mess, and work away. She has to clean the entire house before she can begin to think. I am somewhat the same way. While cleaning, I am thinking. I am plotting.

When I wrote concert reviews, I forced myself to write and publish as soon as the concert was over. The longer I waited, the less compelled I was to write a review at all.

On my first day as magazine editor, my publisher said,”You know what a deadline is? If you don’t make it, you’re dead.” Since then, my life revolved around deadlines and word count.

The latest threat I received was compelling enough for me to meet my first deadline. “I will not talk to you unless you submit that chapter.” Thankfully, it was real enough that I submitted the chapter the day before it was due.

So now, I tell my friends, “Please do not bother me. Do not talk to me. I will not and cannot engage in conversation until I meet my deadline.”

The trouble is, I have set myself a deadline every week. It will be several weeks before I emerge to embrace the world again.

Relocating and reinventing yourself

Do you have to relocate to reinvent yourself? Or just find the time to write? Anne Ku discovers why she admires authors and writers so much.

This December, my sister said,”Why don’t you write a book about relocating? You’ve done it so many times. If anyone knows how to do it, it would be you.”

Last December, my writing teacher said,”Why don’t you write a book about how to organise a house concert? Everyone who goes to your house concerts is thinking — gosh! I wish I could do this in my house. You can sell it to your audiences.”

People whom I’ve met on our USA concert tour have said to me,”Why don’t you write a book about your tour?”

There are many books I can write. There are many books I’d love to write. But I only have time to blog.

How do I make the time to write? A blog is not a book.

A friend who loved to write but never wrote a book told me to get up in the morning and just write.

When I discovered that “The Four Seasons” was the title of a new novel while researching Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, I wrote and introduced myself to the San Diego based author. Laurel Corona promptly sent me the novel. I’ve been following her on Facebook and Twitter ever since.

I am now half-way around the world from where I have been living most of my adult life. I am closer to my roots than anywhere I’ve lived in the last 20 years.

At the Rotary Club Maui luncheon last Thursday, I met the author Jill Engledow. I promptly visited Borders bookstore in Kahului and bought her book — “Island life 101: a newcomer’s guide to Hawai’i.” I am half-way through the book already.

This afternoon, I sat on a dried up tree trunk on the pebbled north shore of Waiehu Beach road and read another book while Robert body surfed.

For some reason, Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love” caught my attention in a book store at one of the many airports I lingered at recently. I found it again, overdue in a stack of books destined to be returned to Wailuku Public Library. I had been wanting to immerse myself in a book since I left the Netherlands. Now, I can’t put it down. Liz, as the author called herself, relocated and reinvented herself.

Tonight I watched “Message in a Bottle” on Netflix online. While perusing the author’s website, I read about his life and how he got into writing. Nicholas Sparks did not stop whatever he was doing in his life to become an author. He just wrote. He eventually got published.

Perhaps being away from my normal environment will help me realise a dream. Perhaps that’s why I admire authors so much.