Demolish your Creative Block with Graham Linehan and the Power of the SFD

The greatest epiphany of my career, that I keep having to have

“Writing a first draft is basically where you have to (for an annoying week or two) make contact with the incredibly mediocre person that you are.”

- Graham Linehan, talking with Adam Buxton on Chain Reaction, broadcast February 2014 on Radio 4.

In case you don’t know, Graham Linehan (@glinner) is the creator of Father Ted and The IT Crowd and thus is far from mediocre. That’s why his insight is essential for anyone working in a creative field.

I have a theory that comedians are the ultimate user experience designers:

  • They conjure emotions, surprise and delight, using nothing but words, actions and tone

  • They start with a clear primary goal (to make their audience laugh)

  • They sketch out ideas, fleshing out what works and tying things together into a story

  • They do user testing, but turned up to 11. No comfy labs here – they air their new material in front of baying crowds to get instant (and frequently brutal) feedback

  • They test variations of words, tone and timing to optimise their laughter conversion rate

  • Their sets are never “finished” … but they ship them anyway.

Now, from the same interview, this also sounds painfully familiar:

Graham Linehan: Do you sometimes think that something has to be perfect?

Adam Buxton: Yeah because you have these fantasies about what something might be...

GL: And then you see the thing in front of you and it's terrible.

AB: Yes, exactly. You just think, "Oh no! That is way, way short of what I was imagining."

I'm often tempted to compare work-in-progress against completed work by my heroes. Even more insidious: comparing the dream of perfection I have in my head against the ugly, imperfect real work in front of me.

And yet I'd never pit an embryo against a fully grown adult in any other competition.

That's why the greatest epiphany of my career was when I started giving myself permission to make an SFD – a Shitty First Draft.

I could suspend judgment until the SFD was done, letting it all pour out of my brain like so much pixilated effluent. Once the SFD is out there on the screen in all its horribly mediocre glory, it’s relatively easy to make it better.

Graham Linehan again:

“Basically, you write something and it's not as good as the worst thing on television. And then you rewrite it and it gets a little bit better. And you rewrite it and it gets a little bit better...

“So you have to be able to be a bad writer before you can go on to make stuff really good. You've got to start. You've got to get on with things. That's the hardest part.”

Writing, design, music, business strategy … it's all about taking imperfect action, making something happen. That seemingly perfect idea sitting in your head is worthless until you get it out into the real world.

Now when I've put a new project in my to-do list, I start with my favourite three-letter acronym:

  • SFD homepage copy for marketing experiment

  • SFD new sign up wireframes

  • SFD article about SFDs

So go now and start. No expectations. No comparisons. No judgment.

Make your first draft. And for heaven's sake, make it shitty.

Then leave a comment to let me know what it was that you made shitty.