The short little quip that is the title of this post—”Write drunk. Edit sober.”—is commonly attributed to Ernest Hemingway. Because the Internet loves a debate even more than it loves a pithy quotation, you’ll find arguments online about whether Hemingway ever said any such thing (here for example). In fact, these debates get deep. One popular blogger believes the exhortation is both bad creative advice and an immoral glorification of substance abuse. That seems like an overreaction.
As far as I’m concerned, “Write drunk. Edit sober,” is excellent advice, whoever said it first. It reminds us of two important facts:
1. Good writing is a two-stage process.
Good writing begins with a first draft, but a first draft is rarely any good. My first drafts are little more than notes—some full sentences, others fragments—all on the same subject, more or less. They may look like paragraphs, but they are actually just loosely related ideas that were once flitting around in my brain and are now pinned to a piece of paper. The very idea of someone reading any of those drafts horrifies me. But they serve their purpose: to get the thoughts out of my head and into the material world where I can manipulate them.
The purpose of editing, the second step in the process, is to rearrange those words, delete them, expand them, so they form a composition. Writing gets all the ingredients on the counter. Editing makes them a dish you’d serve to your guests. That’s because between “drunk” and “sober” there is a span of time. That span of time is critical for the creative process. Write one day. Edit the next.
2. Writing well requires that you silence your inner critic—at least momentarily.
The reason writing and editing must be separate stages in the process is because they demand different disciplines. I would never advocate that you actually write drunk. I do advocate that you write freely, embarrassingly, and without inhibitions in your first draft. Write with the momentary confidence of a man who’s had one too many. Avoid with all your strength the urge to type a sentence only to immediately delete it. Instead, stand on your chair and rant until you’re tuckered out. Metaphorically speaking.
When some time has passed, read what you’ve written in the clear light of day. For me, this stage is where the magic happens. I read what I wrote before, and think Oh, so that’s what you were trying to say! I can work with that. I move paragraphs around. Provide structure. Trim the flabby sentences. Add transitions.
All my best writing begins with editing. All my best editing begins with terrible writing.