Friday, April 26, 2013

Relax Into Your Writing--then Raise the Bar by Katharine Thorpe

“I think I can write a nice sentence, and a nice paragraph, and a nice chapter, etc. [but] I am also afflicted with perfectionism. […] I become aware that a sentence or chapter is not rolling along as well as ever it possibly could, and that awareness sort of rears up and blocks out everything else.”
            --Laini Taylor, YA novelist

“I dictate my first draft into a tape recorder. Then I transcribe it and edit the copy. When I’m dictating, I do it as if I’m speaking to a very bright college student. I envy people who write easily. I enjoy the process, but it’s not easeful for me.”  
            --Charles Krauthammer, nationally syndicated news columnist

“I'm always pretending that I'm sitting across from somebody. I'm telling them a story, and I don't want them to get up until it's finished.”
            --James Patterson, novelist

“Write in your own voice. Write as if you're talking to your sister. Unless you don't get along with your sister. Or don't have a sister.”
            --Ree Drummond, blogger, cookbook author, and children's book author

What happens when you sit down to write?

I'm not a very accomplished writer, but I've done a good bit of writing, reading about writing, and editing both my own and other people's writing-- and through all of it, I've come to one conclusion. Most writers fall into one of two categories: a), the ones who sit down and let their imaginations take flight, and b) the ones who sit down and struggle to produce what they think others expect from them.

Both of these techniques have benefits. The freewheeling, “imaginative” writer is usually more in touch with the subject of the piece and how to describe it, while the cautious, careful writer is usually more adept at meticulous revision.

Of course, both attitudes also have their pitfalls. The careful self-editor may have difficulty actually communicating, because of his desire to “get it right.” The imaginative writer can get so caught up in the moment that she loses the logical flow of the piece, overwrites, or fails to clear away errors in grammar, spelling, and style, leaving her reader confused.

Having observed this dichotomy, I now believe that best writing practice-- in fact maybe the only writing process that will reliably produce good work from nearly anyone-- is to pit these two writing methods against each other in order to augment their strengths and counteract their weaknesses.

Of course, there are as many ways to write as there are writers; I'm not talking about things like paper vs. digital, night vs. morning, spare time vs. full time, coffee shop vs. home office-- as important as these things are. What I am advocating is a two-pronged approach to getting your material down, whether on paper or in a cloud, and to refining its presentation.

I believe that regardless of the type of piece you're writing, when you first sit down to write your rough draft, you should do your utmost to give yourself freedom. You may have already done some freewriting or brainstorming, and that's great. But don't lose that easy, open attitude just yet. As you move into your first draft, keep the technical and stylistic demands of the project at bay a little while longer. Write, or as Charles Krauthammer does, dictate, freely-- as if you were talking to someone familiar.

This may take time and patience, especially if you're prone to editing every sentence as soon as it's written. And it's probably best, if you're doing a large project, to take small editing breaks, perhaps after each chapter. But the overall idea remains: let the draft come first, and then the revisions.

Once the first draft is done, it's time to step out of your mind. Some of you are liking this step because you feel like you're already there. But I mean it seriously--try to look at your writing through someone else's eyes. Note the places where you've taken the reader's knowledge for granted, failing to fully explain something. Look for the pesky grammar, punctuation, and spelling mistakes that trip the reader up. Ask someone else to read the piece and tell you the places where they lost track of your meaning.

For especially imaginative writers, this may be intensely challenging. Once the impetus of creativity is exhausted, slogging through the revision becomes a dreaded task to be hurried through or avoided. But don't let yourself down. If you went through the trouble of dreaming up the piece and tussling with its unruliness as you transcribed it, then put yourself through the trouble of sanding it down and polishing it up.

Above all, be ruthless. Be so ruthless that you can cut out your very favorite paragraphs if they don't add to the overall piece. Be so ruthless that you would rather start over than keep going on a piece that can't be edited out of its poor quality. Be so ruthless that, when it comes to your professional work, you won't accept less than your best work.

I wish I was more this way, but I loathe editing after the first couple of drafts. This has led me to the embarrassing position of having transform a blog that is equal parts portfolio and journal, and liberally sprinkled with errors, into a more coherent site that has been fully edited and corrected, even as I call myself a writer and write for other publications. Still, it will be worth it in the end, when my freely written pieces have been built up into freely readable pieces.

All in all, it's not a complicated process or an original idea: write freely, edit mercilessly. But it works; it really does. And you can't ask more of a “writing technique” than that.

You can learn more about Katharine Thorpe at her website or check out her poetry book Distil.


  1. I have the write freely part down to a T. Revisions are a whole different ballgame. I do want to be more merciless when I edit. All in good time. (Jugs)Indigo

  2. I'm TERRIBLE at being merciless in the revision process. I've recently decided to use my first draft as an advanced outline and just rewrite the parts I don't like altogether.

    Surprisingly, when I read the work, it's only the beginning parts that are terrible. The later chapters are actually really, really good. In fact, they surprise me every time I read them. I sit down, ready to be ashamed of my work, and for the first 2 chapters, I am. But it only get better from there.

    The last chapter makes me want to weep, it's so good.

    My problem is those pesky first few chapters. They are some of the most important ones in the book, as no one will read past them to the good stuff if I don't fix them. But it's so hard for me to scrap things and delete words.

    So I'm not going to. I'm just going to rewrite those segments in a totally new document and then make a new draft with the new work added in with the old (good) work.

    And then I'm getting it professionally edited, in case I'm not as good in the later chapters as I feel I am.

    Thanks for the great post reminding me how important it is to use both sides of my brain in my work. The right, creative half when I want to create the story, and the left, pragmatic half when I want to make it work logically.

    Have a great day!