Drafts in the sand

From the initial, messy drafts, like shovelling sand into a box, to the final, polished work that mirrors an intricate castle. There's potential within unrefined work.

“I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shovelling sand into a box so that later I can build castles,”

Shannon Hale

As I’m walking along the beach in my new home on the Brittany coast, I’m reminded of this beautiful metaphor for the process of writing, particularly the creation of initial drafts. It speaks to me of patience, process, and the potential that lies within an unrefined work.

When I begin writing, especially a long piece like an essay or a research paper, my initial attempt is usually messy. This first draft is comparable to shovelling sand into a box. It’s a raw collection of thoughts, ideas, narratives, and expressions that I pour onto the page without worrying too much about coherence, fluidity, or perfection. It’s an unshaped mound of potential, waiting to be sculpted. It often feels laborious, even pointless, like shovelling sand can feel monotonous and unrewarding.

But, I stick with the shovelling, confident the real magic happens later. Once all the sand is in the box, I start moulding it. Now I can build castles – structures of elegance, intrigue and narrative brilliance (well, I hope so). This is when the messy first draft transforms into a more polished work. It’s where I hone my ideas, refine my language, tighten my plot or arguments, and fine-tune any characters. It’s where my words start to sing, and my narrative takes flight.

This metaphor also reminds me of the impermanence and flexibility of creative work. Like a sandcastle, a draft is not a fixed entity. It can be changed, moulded, flattened, and rebuilt as many times as needed. There is a certain freedom and power in this – the ability to continually refine and reshape until we’ve created something we’re truly happy with.

Writing is as much about the process as it is about the final product. The act of shovelling, of sifting through my thoughts and getting them down, is a necessary part of the creative journey. Just as a sandcastle wouldn’t exist without the act of gathering the sand, a final, polished piece of writing can’t exist without the messy, confusing, and wonderful process of creating that first draft.

So I must be patient during the writing process. It takes time to collect the sand and even more to build a castle. But in the end, when I have a piece of writing I’m proud of, I’ll realise that every bit of shovelling was worth the effort.