By: Noelle Sterne
Finding Your Preferred Writing Method
Do you zap out your first draft at the speed of bees, ignoring all faults just to get it down? Or do you move like mud, laboring over each word, phrase, and sentence before inching to the next?
- Which were you taught was the single, inviolable method?
- Is one method more effective than the other?
- Which really entices you more?
If you feel your usual method is forced or contrary to your real desires, if you distrust the present use of your writing time or energy, if you’ve lost your momentum, or if you suspect you’re stalling in some subtle way, it’s time to look more closely at how you work and can work better.
Barreling Ahead: Nights of White Heat
When you barrel ahead, you force yourself to write something, whether a paltry paragraph or an overblown, cringe-worthy first draft.
Heed Jodi Picoult’s words: “You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”
Whether at white heat or an acceptable orange, barreling ahead has many advantages:
- You get it while it’s hot. Your excitement is at its highest, so your words, excessive and otherwise, surge out quickly.
- When you build on your excitement, your momentum accelerates.
- You continue moving, sustaining zest for the work.
- As your creative juices flow around the main idea, you can easily liberate related ideas (write them down!).
- Through the writing itself, you get a better sense of where the work is going.
- You really do make progress.
- You get the idea out of your system, your head, and your digestion. If you let a new idea sit, it can burn in your head and gut like a runaway ulcer.
- You save insomnia time. A great idea can be ignored during the day, buried under our merciless to-dos. But at night, our minds, more defenseless, yield to the submerged idea. It keeps knocking until we get up, slit-eyed, and scribble. We can avoid, but we can’t hide.
Advice from Published Authors
Most writers probably know of Ann Lamott’s famous declaration in Bird by Bird, that all “good writers” write “shitty first drafts.” She and others advise us to barrel ahead—jump in, keep going, and get it done.
Donald M. Murray, English professor, essayist, and columnist, puts it succinctly, in his essay, “So You Want to be a Writer?”, Writer’s Home Companion, ed.Joan Bloker, 1997, p.28. “Finish, then evaluate. Perfect is the enemy of good. . . . We all establish premature standards that keep us from finishing, often from even starting. Practice what [a mentor] tells me. ‘Get it down, then worry about making it better.’”
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jane Smiley, elaborates in Creating Fiction, ed.Julie Checkoway, 2001, pp.244-255, “For real revision to begin, it is essential for the writer to push all the way to the end of the first draft, no matter how awkward the draft seems, for hidden in the rough draft, as rough as it can possibly be, are all the answers to the writer’s questions about the material.”
And one more: Author, literary agent, and editor Shawn Coyne advises, “Don’t look back. Don’t read over what you’ve written before when you begin your day’s work. Don’t fix any sentences. Don’t stop and go research to fill in a blank that you do not have the immediate answer for. Make it up and fix it later. Don’t think about anything other than putting what is inside your head onto the page/computer screen.”
Opportunity or Obsession? The Blank Page
I recognize that no matter how often you’ve conquered the empty page, screen, or mind, barreling ahead takes guts. It’s the quintessential act of writing, the constant wrestling with the terror of blankness.
This terror may explain why we yield to the temptation to halt, backtrack, and apply the obsessive first aid to the sentence we’ve just written—we can’t stand to see the idiocy of the words in front of us. But at least they’re there. If we want to finish the work, at some point we must stare down the demons and keep barreling ahead.
Two Reasons Not to Barrel Ahead for Too Long
On the other hand, after you’ve got a good chunk written, barreling ahead can harm, as I’ve found to my chagrin:
- Too much barreling ahead can put you in danger of derailing. You go off the track and into a foreign wasteland, which has little to do with what you’ve been writing. (Unless you find yourself starting another work. . . a dilemma. I once veered off so much a whole short story popped up before I realized it.)
- Too much barreling ahead can make you think you don’t need to think. I’m not denying the place of wind-streaked, Joycean stream-of-consciousness writing, but if you don’t do some thinking early, the lack of coherence won’t disappear. You can dodge, but you can’t hide.
Mopping Up as You Go: Days of Thought and Revision
But . . . for some writers, the first draft is almost the last. Kelly Link, the author of four collections of short stories, says, “I redraft as I go—whenever I get stuck in a short story, I go back to the beginning and revise my way down to where I left off. Usually, I’ve reworked the first couple of pages anywhere from twenty to over 100 times by the time I get to the ending.”
Phenomenally best-selling author Barbara Taylor Bradford admits, “I actually write slowly, so I do very little rewriting on a book. I might take some things out after I write, but once I’m through the first draft, I have a fairly finished product. Working in that way takes a lot of time.”, from “An Unexpected Blessing,” G. Miki Hayden, Writing Basics: A Beginner’s Guide to Writing, Writers Digest Guides, 2005, p. 20.
Sid Fleischman, Newbery-Award winning children’s writer, admits he favors immediate revision, right from the beginning: “I don’t write a rough first draft. I write a rough first page, and I do that page over and over until I get it as good as I can. Only then do I go on to the next page, and the next.”
Perfecting those early pages, Fleischman says, shows him the “background, character, voice, style, story movement—all at once.”, “From Hocus Pocus to the Newbery: The Writing Life of Sid Fleischman,” Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market, 2003, p. 85.
Then he knows where his story is going.
The brilliant Welsh poet Dylan Thomas beautifully describes the excitement and art of revising: “What I like to do is treat words as a craftsman does his wood or stone. . . to hew, carve, mould, coil, polish, and plane them into patterns, sequences, sculptures, figures of sound expressing some lyrical impulse, some spiritual doubt or conviction, some dimly realized truth I must try to reach and realize.” (Gabriele Rico, Writing the Natural Way, p. 208)
Thinking: An Integral Part of Editing
Thinking is at the heart of mop-up (read: editing). Devoting yourself to days of gray-cell action can yield a bolstering range of benefits:
- You give yourself a respite from new, raw writing.
- If you haven’t looked at the piece for a long time, revisiting it reorients you. Coming back refreshes you into the scene and the mindset of the work.
- You (miraculously and blushingly) see many things that need improvement.
- When you use your powers of judgment, you gain or regain focus and may even learn what the work is really about. This recognition, of course, is crucial for the next forging ahead.
- You exercise your critical, editorial eye.
- You keep learning your craft. We can never get enough practice.
- Inconsistencies in sequence, structure, and logic leap out at you. These revelations, mortifying as they may be, eliminate the need to rewrite or recheck later—like making sure from Chapter 2 to Chapter 22 the heroine’s philosophy of life or eye color match or change believably.
- As you mop up, you gain an undeniable sense of accomplishment.
- Even if you’re not satisfied with the newer, current version, it’s a step closer to your initial pristine vision of the perfected work and final draft.
- With this progress, mopping up may—should—keep you excited about the work.
I used to detest mopping up, probably because I’d lost that “original urge” and mistakenly thought white heat and stopping to mop had to be opposites.
The words of all the authors I quoted helped me reconcile the surface disparity between the creative thrill of forging ahead and my erroneous perception of the secretarial mundanity of cleaning up.
Two Reasons Not to Mop Up for Too Long
Extreme mopping up, though, like too much barreling ahead, can have drawbacks. As barreling ahead opens the gate for the creative wild stallion, mopping up can pen him into a too-tight space:
- You can get so narrowly focused you quickly bog down in minutiae. Your squinting eyes burn, and you ponder as if the universe hinges on whether a comma should come next, or not.
- Without fear of contradiction, you can use the faultless rationale that you’re “writing.” Granted, writing may be largely rewriting, but too much mopping up is like doing a college paper. You spend 98 percent of your time reading and taking notes, convincing yourself you’re thinking and writing. But all you’re really doing is reading and taking notes.
Endlessly cleaning up your current work almost indefinitely puts off your plunge into the icy pool of new writing.
What Works for You?
With all these pros and cons, you may be able to better gauge when and how to barrel ahead or mop up.
Sometimes barreling ahead provides loose-shirt relief from brain-wrenching close editing.
Sometimes mopping up gives a measured reprieve from galloping thoughts.
Listen more closely to your writing guide within, and you’ll recognize that it nudges at different times toward either mode. They don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
As your inner promptings dictate, you’ll develop a balance and flow between barreling ahead and mopping up.
Each serves you at different writing phrases to produce a finished work that fulfills your creative urging, satisfies your critical eye, and nourishes your soul.
Bio: Dr. Noelle Sterne
Author, editor, writing coach, writing and meditation workshop leader, spiritual counselor, Noelle has published over 600 writing craft articles, spiritual pieces, essays, short stories, and occasional poems.
Author Magazine, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Funds for Writers, Inside Higher Ed, New Age Journal, Pen & Prosper, Ruminate, Thesis Whisperer, Transformation Coaching, The Write Place At the Write Time, Unity Magazine, Writer’s Journal, Writing in a Woman’s Voice, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest.
Academic mentor, editor and coach, with the Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle helps doctoral students wrestling with their dissertations and publishes articles for dissertation writers. She is a regular contributor to Abstract, the blog of the Textbook and Academic Authors Association (TAA). In July and August 2018, Noelle was one of six webinar presenters for TAA’s “Writing Gym.” Her topic: “Get Started, Continue Your Draft, and Finish.”
- Eons ago, she published a children’s book of original (groanworthy) dinosaur riddles, Tyrannosaurus Wrecks (What do you get when dinosaurs crash their cars?). Her riddles appear in several elementary school language arts texts, and the book was featured on PBS’s Reading Rainbow.
- A Chicken Soup for the Soul podcast (May 16, 2017) featured her story “Time to Say Goodbye” from a 2013 volume: https://chickensoup.podbean.com/e/tip-tuesday-why-you-should-remove-toxic-people-from-your-life-and-how-to-do-it/_
- Noelle’s book Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011) contains examples from her practice, writing, and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets, relabel their past, and reach lifelong yearnings.
- Her book Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015) is an invaluable resource for doctoral candidates.
As part of pursuing her writing dream, Noelle’s mission is to help other writers reach theirs and create the lives they truly desire.
Taking her own advice (hard as it may be), she recently completed her first novel and is inching through her second, alternately barreling ahead and mopping up.
Columnist: Textbook and Academic Authors Association
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