The Importance of Rough Drafts

Paul Laudiero
Paul Laudiero

Paul Laudiero has had an interesting year. In addition to graduating with a BA in English from Mason, his blog, “Shit Rough Drafts” won the Great Tumblr Book Search contest, a collaboration between Chronicle Books and Tumblr, and landed a book deal. He now works with improv comedy troupe Upright Citizens Brigade in New York. This past May, he was invited back to Mason to give the opening remarks at the English Department’s annual awards ceremony. Printed here is his speech.


Is Professor Bill Miller in the audience? All right. Good to know.

My junior year at Mason, I took a creative writing workshop. I won’t say with what professor, but let’s just say his name rhymes with Mill Biller. I had never taken a workshop before, but I was positive that I was an amazing writer, and that Mill Biller would probably have me teaching the class by the end of the semester.

The first story I submitted was a coming-of-age tale about a small orphan boy in England who discovers he has magical powers. It was 22 pages long, which some people might have called a novella. I called it perfect. Just to show you the high caliber of the piece, I copied a small selection of the story to read to you now.

James jumped, and somewhere inside him he felt warm and magical.

He landed on the roof and grabbed Sofia by the hand.

—How did you get on the roof, James?

—I flew.

—Normal boys don’t fly.

—I’m not normal. I have magic powers. I’m magic.

Sofia just stared at him. She didn’t know what to say.

“I don’t know what to say,” she said.

Pretty sharp stuff.

Did you all catch how he was magic? Good. Want to make sure you did. He’s magic. And British.

Sort of like Harry Potter. Actually, exactly like Harry Potter. And that’s what everyone told me when I went to class. That I had rewritten Harry Potter. I was destroyed. How dare J. K. Rowling write a story about an orphan boy wizard 15 years before me? The gall of that woman.

My countless hours typing away in Southside, on just one meal swipe, wasted. Or so I thought.

By the end of the semester I realized that no writing is ever really wasted. Sure, my story was horrible and had a recycled coming-of-age plot, and dialogue that sounded like Tarzan wrote it, but it was a draft. And that was the important thing. No matter how crappy a draft is, it’s a draft. And writers have drafts. That’s really all we have. Some drafts are better than others, and eventually a draft becomes good enough to be a final draft. But it’s still a draft. And Mason helped me learn that.

I graduated just a year ago. And I wasn’t honors. Not even close. But I was lucky enough to graduate with both a literary agent and book deal. I say the word lucky because it was luck. But luck only comes around through hard work. My senior year I was in another workshop with Mill Biller, and I still wasn’t happy with the amount I was getting done.

So I applied to write for Broadside. They gave me a weekly humor column. Just 300 to 500 words a week. Nothing special.

But that was one of the best things I ever did my entire college career. It wasn’t because my work was published in actual print each week. It had nothing to do with that. It was the deadline. That weekly deadline that made me pump out drafts like I didn’t know was possible. And it was in pushing myself to come up with ideas for Broadside that the idea for my first book hit me.

I actually remember the day. February 13, 2013. What I should have been doing was planning Valentine’s Day for my girlfriend. What I was doing was desperately trying to come up with 300 words to send to my editor. In the middle of British and Irish Romantic Drama from the 18th century, the idea for Shit Rough Drafts hit me. And it never would have hit me without that pressure. Without the drafts.

Am I lucky? Yeah. Super lucky. But I wrote hours and hours of absolute crap every day, to get lucky. Draft after draft of stories and humor bits and sketches and poems. I sweated over deadlines and cursed word counts daily, all for just another draft. And 99 percent was crap. But without it, the book never would have happened.

Two weeks ago, I was in Trader Joe’s buying hummus, because that’s how I keep this slim figure, and when I was at the register I asked the guy bagging my groceries how his day was.

“Great” he said, “I just finished writing my first novel.”

Now when someone, especially a stranger, tells you in public that they just finished a novel, it means they want to talk about it. So I asked, “What’s it about?”

“It’s a romantic comedy,” he said, “about my friend who dies of AIDS while 9/11 is happening.”

The only thought that went through my head after hearing that was “I have to read this as soon as possible.”

So I asked: “What draft is it? Are you workshopping it anywhere?”

He responded in a snobby tone I didn’t know Trader Joe’s employees were capable of.

“I don’t do drafts,” he laughed. “I went to college. I know how to write.”

A romantic comedy with AIDS and 9/11, and he doesn’t do drafts. Clearly he didn’t go to Mason.

I never got to see the manuscript for that by the way, but I did get a great deal on some organic Kalamata olive hummus.

I’m only 23 so there’s not too much I can tell you about the real world, other than the fact that an English degree from Mason got me ready for it. It wasn’t because of all the books I had to read, or literary terms I had to memorize, or the short stories I had to evaluate. It was the drafts. It was writing and writing and writing, getting feedback and then writing some more. It was knowing that what I was writing wasn’t perfect, and wouldn’t be for a while, but that actually working on it would take it somewhere. Mason prepared me for rejection, and to know that getting better meant working harder.

Now you’re all honors students, and this is an awards ceremony, so I think everyone here knows about hard work. You’ve done well at Mason, and I don’t have to go on about it.

Keep writing rough drafts. Whether it’s an actual story, or a job, or a relationship. Work hard at it, and if something doesn’t work out, work harder. Be open to change and notes, and feedback, and be humble.

When someone tells you your story can be better, swallow your pride and start that new draft. That’s what this English Department taught me. You can always start another draft.

Unless J. K. Rowling beats you to it. Then, maybe think about writing something else. Her legal team is pretty serious.

He landed on the roof and grabbed Sofia by the hand.

—How did you get on the roof, James?

—I flew.

—Normal boys don’t fly.

—I’m not normal. I have magic powers. I’m magic.

—Do you have a wand or anything?

—No. No wands. I just feel it in my body.

Sofia just stared at him. She didn’t know what to say.

“I don’t know what to say.”