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  • Paul Cumbo

The Beautiful Humility of the Rough Draft

Rough drafts are a mess. As the words are first stacked and arranged, they take on a rugged, sometimes awkward form. A few sentences seem to go just right—but even those, upon revision, soon show their flaws. The intended meaning doesn't get conveyed. The message is off. When we're working through something like this, we have to remember: It's a rough draft. Have patience.

I've got a few talks coming up—three at boys' schools, and one for college undergrads and faculty. In the midst of working on them, I've renewed my appreciation for the rugged, flawed beauty of the first draft. There's courage in a rough draft. Room for taking risks. Free exploration of ideas. Unfiltered, raw ones that get to the heart of things. We can discover startling and impressive stuff.

But there's also humility in rough drafts. They present invitations to reflect on points not fully considered. Sometimes, there are stark realizations:

"Whoa. I didn't know I felt quite that strongly about this."

"Yeah. Um, that would not be the right way to say this."

"No, you don't need that much backstory. Just get to the point and say what you mean."

"This will get taken wildly out of context."

"That's a massive generalization, which is may be okay, but only if you acknowledge it as one, which you haven't."

"Is that really what you think?"

"Prove it, buddy. Where's the data?"

"That's true, but it's not the whole story, and you damn well better consider this perspective, too."

(This is a good time to say that social media can be such an ugly arena because many postings are nothing more than prematurely-published rough drafts.)

Amidst all of this, it's important to let the first draft be the first draft. To acknowledge that it's going to be a mess—that it's supposed to be a mess.

For teachers, parents, or anyone who works with young people—that's a good reminder about kids, too. About students. Sometimes, things are going to be messy. Amidst the mess, there's great potential. They are rough drafts. Have patience.


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