Josh Philpot

Theology, the Church, and Music

McDonald’s Theory

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I’m in the middle of writing my dissertation (literally—I’m right in the middle). It’s tough to manage, to be sure. But like a lot of my doctoral writing, I’m finding that the hardest part is getting started. I feel like everything must be perfect beforehand. My desk has to be perfectly clean and organized. My writing app has to be the most perfect one. My Zotero window has to be expertly placed. My Accordance window has to be perfect with the appropriate amount of tabs and all the texts in the right order. Obsessive compulsive, no?

When it comes down to actually writing, I sometimes get the feeling that every sentence needs to be perfect too, as if I cannot even begin writing a new chapter of the dissertation unless the perfect sequence of words spills out on the page. This is ridiculous, really.

This week I came across two authors that have written about this problem. I have no frame of reference for Anne Lamott’s work, but in a book about writing she makes a key point—that we should get over our intimidation of the blank page and give ourselves permission to write crappy first drafts:

“For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really sh—y first drafts. The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. […] Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper.”

Writing a crappy first draft gives you something that you wouldn’t have had otherwise if you waited for all of the “perfect” set of circumstances, and that’s momentum. That’s what you need when you’re starting with nothing—like a blank page. Stephen King wrote that fear is at the root of most bad writing, or non-writing in this case. And he’s right. If I can get something down on paper—even if it’s horrible—then I have momentum to continue. And I shouldn’t fear it. After all, no one will see my first draft, and I’m much more capable of turning that horrible first draft into something presentable during the rewriting/editing process. Momentum is the key.

Author/entrepreneur Seth Godin makes this same point. He says,

“the only path to amazing runs directly through not-yet-amazing. But not-yet-amazing is a great place to start, because that’s where you are. For now. There’s a big difference between not settling and not starting.”

Blogger Jon Bell (@ienjoy) calls this the “McDonald’s Theory.” He writes,

“I use a trick with co-workers when we’re trying to decide where to eat for lunch and no one has any ideas. I recommend McDonald’s. An interesting thing happens. Everyone unanimously agrees that we can’t possibly go to McDonald’s, and better lunch suggestions emerge. Magic! It’s as if we’ve broken the ice with the worst possible idea, and now that the discussion has started, people suddenly get very creative. I call it the McDonald’s Theory: people are inspired to come up with good ideas to ward off bad ones.”

So there it is. Half of our problem as writers, pastors, theologians, etc. is that we’re afraid of failing, and then we apply it to our writing. We’re all afraid of failing at some point or another. But the path to successful writing (or a dissertation in my case) might go through McDonald’s. The bad needs to happen before the good. Having something on paper gives you something to work with and to allow your ideas to flow.

Jim Hamilton gave me some advice during my first PhD seminar that has been helpful these days. He used to say, “just write the first sentence.” When he said that, I instantly knew what he meant. Writers spend so much time just fiddling with words and desks and research and notes that they end up procrastinating their main task: writing. When Jim said, “just write something,” he means to just get something on the page and start moving with it. The blank page sucks. Half of the writing experience is rewriting anyway, so get the move on.


Written by Josh Philpot

June 2, 2013 at 3:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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