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Writing Tip: Write Drunk. Edit Sober.

Monday, February 23rd, 2015

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.

Writing Tip: Channel Rick Steves

Thursday, August 29th, 2013

Academic research is an expedition into unfamiliar territory. Propelled by instinct or educated guesses or the research of others, scholars strikeout in search of answers with great hope—but no guarantees—of finding them. This, for me, is the appeal of scholarship. At its best, scholarly research is like transcontinental exploration: We know the Pacific Ocean is that way. Find us the best route to the coast.

The promise of discovery is what makes scholarly research attractive to unscholarly readers. People like to hear the untold story, the behind-closed-doors conversations, the surprising history of familiar people or institutions. People are curious and will gladly follow an able guide on an intellectual adventure.

What kind of guide do they want?

They don’t want an expedition guide. As romantic as the notion of exploration may be, it requires great sacrifice. Many scholars expect their readers to make big sacrifices to make it through their research. Kiss your wife and child, set your affairs in order, and pack a lunch. We’re gonna be a while. Most nonspecialists, if they can’t see a clear path through the underbrush or aren’t sure their guide knows where she is going, will give up before they invest themselves too deeply. And who can blame them? The process is not nearly as important as the destination for most non-academic readers.

What most readers want is a tour guide. Someone who has made the journey and knows the way. Someone who can assure readers he knows where the journey ends and that it is well worth the time. Someone who is sensitive to the pace at which and the stamina with which most readers read—the way a good tour guide understands when travelers need to stop for a breather and a snack. In my opinion, there is no subject matter that is too weighty for a popular audience. If readers feel they are in the company of a sensitive guide, they will follow wherever you lead them.

My advice?

When you study, channel Meriwether Lewis. When you write, channel Rick Steves.

Flannery O’Connor on Gift and Vocation

Wednesday, August 21st, 2013

[A] vocation is a limiting factor which extends even to the kind of material that the writer is able to apprehend imaginatively. The writer can choose what he writes about but he cannot choose what he is able to make live … . The Christian writer particularly will feel that whatever his initial gift is, it comes from God; and no matter how minor a gift it is, he will not be willing to destroy it by trying to use it outside its proper limits.

Flannery O’Connor, “The Fiction Writer and His Country”

Writing Tip: Write Like a Painter

Thursday, August 15th, 2013

After a conversation with my granddaddy about his process for painting portraits, I realized that his creative process and mine are quite similar. Maybe he paints like a writer. Or maybe I write like a painter.

1. Start with composition. The first thing a painter does is lay out the composition of his subject. Granddaddy does this by sketching lightly in paint where the primary objects will be; deciding what’s in the foreground, what’s in the background. The purpose of this step is to prioritize. What in the painting is most important, and how will you ensure it receives the focus it deserves?

I do this in my writing—especially when I have a strict word-count limit—by outlining. I’m currently writing a book review that can be no longer than 1250 words. This is how I started:

Intro: 125 words
Summary: 600 words
Commentary: 400 words
Conclusion: 125 words

My parameters are established. There’s a good chance I’ll break my own rules. But this keeps me mindful, at the very least, that the hero of this assignment is summary —it gets the most words. Everything else is background and shadow.

2. Apply color in layers. Granddaddy works in layers. The first application of color is fairly flat. Depth and dimension is added gradually, layer by layer. The same is often true for my writing. My first layer of text is usually quite colorless. My goal is simply to get the information on the paper. Here are the things I think, in no particular order. For a book review, the prose might be as boring as, “They use 19th-century sources.” That’s true, but it ain’t pretty. That’s okay. Depth and dimension come later. By the way, that sentence eventually became, “They lead us on a brisk walk through 19th-century sources.” Better.

3. Walk away. “If you look at your painting long enough,” Granddaddy told me this weekend, “your eyes can convince your mind that everything looks alright. But if you go away for a couple of hours and come back, the mistakes just jump right out at you.” Walking away is an important part of my writing process. When I’m mired in an unsatisfactory draft, I usually need 24 hours’ worth of distance to regain clear vision. Sometimes it takes several drafts and several periods of distance before I see clearly.

4. Hone, sharpen, and define. The final step in portraiture is sharpening crucial details so that the viewers eye goes where you want it to go. At this point in my writing I pay attention to alliteration, sentence structure, or repetition. My goal is to identify how specific writing tools will draw the readers eyes to the right places. A couple of short sentences prepare the reader for a long sentence, in which the truly important information is communicated. A metaphor from the introduction and stitched through the paragraphs can be tied off in the conclusion.

I’ve said more here than I know about painting. But I do know this for sure: a simile can save a writer. Write like a painter.

Portrait of an Artist: Granddaddy

Tuesday, August 13th, 2013

Studying a book on portraiture

My granddaddy retired very young. I have vague memories of his retirement party; I was very young myself. But for the better part of my thirty-something years of life, Grandmother and Granddaddy have been retired.

Since they retired, Grandmother and Granddaddy have taken taekwondo, learned to speak French, criss-crossed the continental U.S., traveled to Europe, expanded their home from two bedrooms to three (with their own four hands—and my two in the summers), cared for aging and ailing family members, and have generally made the most of their time. They have been models for me of lifelong adventure and constant personal enrichment. And quiet, unassuming determination.

Even before they retired, Granddaddy was an artist. It was not his job, mind you. He was an electrician in the Navy during the Korean War. He was an inventory manager for a manufacturing company that made things for the military. He wrote a couple of computer programs. But he was always an artist.

And, in my opinion, he is and always has been a true artist, because he is an artist for art’s sake. He draws and paints beautifully, and most people never see his work. He does not create things with hopes of fame or fortune, but simply because he wants to create lovely things. That’s something I find hard to do. These days I rarely spend time writing unless I’m trying to meet a deadline or unless I have some reasonable expectation that someone will pay me for my effort. I think that’s why I hesitate to call myself an artist. I have a hard time creating something simply for the sake of creating it. My time with Granddaddy this weekend challenged me to take up my quill and write something beautiful, regardless of whether anyone else will ever read it.

This is Granddaddy’s eightieth year of life. His current project is painting small portraits of his parents and siblings. In order to do this well, he is poring over books about portraiture, taking painting classes, learning new techniques. Because anything worth doing is worth doing right, even if no one else will ever see the final product.