One recent Saturday after­noon, the band I’ve been play­ing in for the past few months was lurch­ing our way through a new song. None of us had really grasped the song’s contours yet, and we sounded bad. Embarrassingly bad. As I began to doubt whether we’d ever been any good in the first place, a comfort­ing thought popped suddenly into my mind: This song is a progres­sive JPEG.

Remember progres­sive JPEGs? You see them less often now in the age of wide­spread broad­band, but they’re still useful in low-​bandwidth envi­ron­ments: The idea is that they load in several “passes,” first as a highly pixe­lated version (just so some­thing is repre­sented on a slow-​loading page) and then as a slightly sharper inter­me­di­ate one, until finally the full-​resolution image comes into focus.

This metaphor has quickly become a help­ful way for me to think about the things I make, whether they’re songs, maga­zine layouts, letter­forms… or pieces of writ­ing like the one you’re read­ing now. (Be glad you aren’t read­ing the first draft.) If I recog­nize some­thing I’m work­ing on as an ugly early “pass,” I try to relax a little, trust­ing that more pixels are in there somewhere.

In college, I had a creative writ­ing profes­sor who preached the concept of the Shitty First Draft, in which this idea is taken a step further: You don’t merely accept that your first attempt might be shitty; its shit­ti­ness is actu­ally an inte­gral part of the process. If you try to make every sentence perfect on the first try, you’re prob­a­bly miss­ing the forest for the trees, and making the job far more diffi­cult. First, make it exist, the concept says. Then start to make it good.

I’m find­ing this idea useful, too, for fight­ing against procras­ti­na­tion. If I explic­itly think of my task as to make the first, bad version of the thing, well, that doesn’t seem so daunt­ing. Making a bad thing is easy! And once it’s done, all you need to do is make the next, less-​bad version, and so on. You watch the details get clearer with each pass, until suddenly the good version emerges.

As with most things, there’s surely some vari­ance in “creative band­width,” some of us requir­ing a couple more passes to reach our desti­na­tion than others. But with a little patience, we all prob­a­bly have more reso­lu­tion wait­ing for us than we think.