reproof

v. to proofread, again

Always make three, or more. Never fewer.
How to find the best take on an idea.

by Matthew Guay · February 01, 2022 · #creativity #writing

The first thing you make is always terrible. Inevitably, irredeemably, wad-it-up-and-throw-it-in-the-trash bad. You’ll pick the wrong color, write the wrong opening line, add the wrong ingredient, start out on the wrong foot.

That’s good, part of the creative process. Steal like an Artist author Austin Kleon recommends a paper notebook as a “good place to have bad ideas.” Write things there to practice, to get the junk out of your head so you can create the good stuff. You’re going to mess up anyhow, might as well get it over with.

So write your first take (or sketch, or mix, or craft—the process isn’t reserved for writers).

Then write the second take on the same idea, trying to state it in differently, to another audience, with new words. Change the variables around, see what sounds nice.

Then write your third take. Try something unique, do something crazy, throw out your original ideas and do something fresh.

By then you might be in the flow, coming up with new ideas that might be even better. If so, keep going. Write that fourth or fifth take; it’d be a shame to stop if the really good thing was right there on the tip of your tongue.

Then walk away. You did your work; if anything, you did 3x the work. Let it sit for a moment while you move on to something else.

Then come back and look over your drafts. Maybe you’ll glimpse a glint of accidental genius, a bit of magic from the method. Perhaps you’ll see potential in a remix, a bit of this take, a bit of that, until you’ve got the prose you wanted all along. Enlist a team; ask your friends and colleagues which take is best, as an early version of A/B testing before releasing your work into the wild.

You might not find the right take this time. No worries. Time to start over, empowered, Wordle-style, with the knowledge of didn’t work so you can try new things this time.

“I have not failed,” said Edison after one too many failed takes on the electric lightbulb. “I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.”

So do another round. Make three takes, let them rest, then see which works best.

Move fast and break things, productively, while the stakes are low and your creation is still in the draft folder.

You might even come around to the first take, realize that you were on the right path all along.


Hire a design team to make a logo, and odds are they’ll show you three potential takes. Pick your favorite, and they might show you three iterations in pursuit of the best take on that logo.

Your favorite movie didn’t turn out exactly the way the director intended, otherwise there wouldn’t be director’s cuts. And between the cinema and director’s cuts, how many others were left on the cutting floor?

Flight and hotel booking apps don’t show you a single option. The more, the merrier.

Take one. Take two. Take three.

Even Oreo can’t decide the best flavor of cookie stuffing, or they’d have stopped making new ones by now (hint: original’s still the best).

Self-doubt is a natural part of the creative process, which is part of how we get tempted to hate our first draft and stop there. As Originals author Adam Grant maps the creative journey, you’ll think along the way:

  1. This is awesome
  2. This is tricky
  3. This is crap
  4. I am crap
  5. This might be ok
  6. This is awesome

“The key to being original,” Grant suggests in his TED talk, “is just a simple thing of avoiding the leap from step three to step four. Instead of saying, ‘I’m crap,’ you say, ‘The first few drafts are always crap, and I'm just not there yet.’”

So don’t worry when your first take isn’t the greatest. No one’s are. You won’t sit down and invent the next great thing out of thin air. It’ll be an iterative process of misses and false starts as you slowly inch your way there.

As Walk the Moon’s Rise Up promises:

You can be a rockstar, famous actor
Big league player, doesn't matter
You're gonna fall down (everyday)

Clearly, this isn’t a one-time thing.

But then:  You gotta rise up. Do it again, and again, and again.

Somehow, you’ll land on the right note along the way.

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