If you write at work, your first draft need not look anything like the final product. Rather than jumping into a full page or screen, start small. Bit by bit and with surprising speed, you can build strong messages with Post-it® Notes.
In many ways, seventh grade was unkind to me. I was puny, bookish, acne-prone, and flat-chested. I hated P.E., dreaded school dances, and daydreamed that a good case of mono might just give me a couple weeks’ reprieve from the social pressures of junior high.
Alas, I stayed relatively healthy.
Despite so much awkwardness, I endured seventh grade. And now, decades later, I recognize that seventh grade was kind to me and my career as a writer and business communicator. That year, I picked up a creative truth that has stuck with me for life:
In the early stages of the creative process, size matters.
This was long before common core. My teachers didn’t aim us toward learning targets, other than decent grades and civil behavior. What they did drive home was process. Regardless of subject—from language arts to social studies—my teachers taught a consistent way of producing good written work. When writing, we did not begin with notebook paper, but with index cards.
I learned to write first drafts not on full pages, but on tiny pieces of paper.
The process went like this:
- Choose your topic. Know what you want to prove or disprove, compare or contrast, explore or explain.
- Hunt and gather. Search for facts, ideas, and questions. Scour books and your brain. Collect all the points you need—and then some.
- Jot your findings. Not fully formed paragraphs, but bits and pieces. One point at a time, build a catalog of ideas on 3”x5” cards.
- Organize. Shuffle, sort, and stack those cards until you find a workable order. Look for patterns, groupings, themes. Create clusters that feel like paragraphs or sections.
- Move to the page. Transfer content from index cards to full-size pages. By stacking those bits and pieces, you’ll create at least a solid outline, if not a fully formed document.
- Elaborate and revise. Refine the work into a cohesive whole. Develop ideas. Check order. Add what’s missing. Remove what’s extra. Smooth transitions. Read for rhythm and sense. Fix mistakes. Sign your name. Turn it in.
It’s a process that works, and not just for seventh graders. I still follow these steps today, with just one adjustment. Index cards are too risky. Woe to the writer whose rubber band breaks and all those carefully ordered cards go sailing down a stairwell or into a puddle at the bus stop (too specific?).
That’s why my grown-up version of this process relies on Post-it® Notes.
That little strip of gentle adhesive is just the security I need to protect my work from cats, sneezes, and breezes.
I’m shouting out the Post-it® brand because I’m looking for an excuse to use the alliterative phrase “in praise of Post-it® Notes.” I do consider 3M’s stickies the gold standard, but I’m no brand snob. I use semi-adhesive note paper from many manufacturers—especially those that offer fun colors and funky shapes.
And so, in praise of Post-it® Notes (see how fun that is?!), here are five reasons to use these tiny, sticky snippets of paper as building blocks for first drafts.
1. They promote fast, efficient work.
I “wrote” the first draft of this article in less than 6 minutes. That’s all it took to generate and organize the 29 sticky notes that captured my thoughts on this topic.
2. They give you options.
With 29 notes on my desk, I had more than enough material for this article. I could choose what to keep, what to ditch, and what to save for later.
3. They’re easy and fun to organize.
Quickly and easily, I moved those 29 notes into various clusters and orders. Using sticky notes turns writing into a physical and visual game. Part jigsaw puzzle, part matching game, part dot-to-dot.
4. They’re an antidote for writer’s block.
The moment you’ve scribbled one idea on one sticky note, you’ve written. No blank page, no problem.
5. They fend off perfectionism.
While your final work may live forever (thank you, internet), these tiny notes are temporary. No need to be precious or precise. You can write and draw messy, outlandish, outrageous things, confident that these short-lived notes will soon be in the trash.
Speaking of trash, my tree-hugging soul winces a little every time I peel a fresh Post-it®. If you, too, are concerned about the environmental impact of your writing process, you could try:
- Recycled paper. Rescue sheets from the recycle bin and cut them into quarters or eighths. Paper scraps aren’t sticky, but they’re easy to re-arrange and should liberate your conscience to think creatively.
- Reusable sticky notes. A quick Google search will surface several brands, such as mcSquares and WriteyBoard. One of our Story Mode clients swears by Stattys, which are electrostatic, rather than adhesive.
- The Post-it® App. In addition to digitizing hard-copy Post-it® Notes, you can create stickies on screen with a stylus or keyboard.
Your first draft need not look anything like your final product.
When creating communications for work, resist the temptation to dive right into that final format.
Sending a message? Don’t open email …
Preparing a report? Don’t start a doc …
Assembling a presentation? Don’t pull up those slides …
Your first draft can be messy, cluttered, and chaotic—a jumble of sticky notes all over your desk. Using this process results in drafts that:
- come together quickly (efficient)
- contain abundant content (thorough)
- invite decisions about focus and organization (strategic)
So, if you want to be known as an efficient, thorough, strategic communicator, bust out those sticky notes, capture your thoughts, and move them around until you believe in the order. That’s an excellent first draft.