BARREL AHEAD OR STOP TO MOP UP?

By: Noelle Sterne

 

Draft or Debate the Words? 

 

 

Should you spill out the first draft at faster-than-light speed or labor with tortured love over each word, phrase, and sentence in the never-ending writers’ debate? Those choices cause conflict like: 

  1. Were you taught that there was a single, correct, inviolable method?
  2. Which way makes your writing more effective?
  3. Are you satisfied with your method? 
  4. Which entices you more? 

I’ve struggled with these questions in my writing, whether short pieces or complete novels. For both of us, a few more questions begin to dissect what’s bothering us:

  1. Do you feel your usual method is forced, ineffective, or contrary to your natural writing desires?
  2. Do you distrust the present use of your writing time or energy?
  3. Have you lost your writing momentum?
  4. Do you suspect you’re stalling in some subtle way?

If you’re nodding your head furiously to any or all of these questions (as I did), 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, cringeworthy entire first draft. Prolific writer Jodi Picoult has excellent advice: “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 for you:

  1. Your excitement is at its highest, so your words, excessive and otherwise, easily gush out.
  2. Build on that excitement, accelerating momentum.
  3. You retain a passion for the work since you’re moving forward and filling pages. 
  4. As your creative juices flow around the main idea, you can quickly liberate related ideas (write them down!).
  5. Through your writing, you’ll get a better sense of where the work is going.
  6. You really do make progress.
  7.  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.
  8. You save insomnia time. A great idea can be ignored, buried under our relentless to-dos during the day. But at night, our minds, more defenseless, can’t suppress the submerged idea. It keeps knocking until we get up, slit-eyed, and scribble. We can avoid, but we can’t hide.

Just Get It Down

Most writers probably know of Ann Lamott’s famous declaration that all “good writers” write “shitty first drafts” (Bird by Bird, 1995, p. 21). She and others counsel us to barrel ahead—jump in, keep going, and get it done. 

Donald M. Murray, English professor, essayist, and columnist puts it succinctly (“So You Want to Be a Writer?” in The Writer’s Home Companion, ed. Joan Bolker,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.”

In specific commands, 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 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.”

Barreling Ahead Takes Guts

Barreling ahead takes guts— no matter how often you’ve conquered the empty page, screen, or mind and have shut up your merciless Inner Critic. We regularly wrestle with the terror of blankness. This terror may explain why we yield to the temptation to halt, backtrack, and apply obsessive first aid to the sentence we’ve just written—we can’t stand to face the blankness in front of us. A classic stall, attributed to Oscar Wilde (and sometimes Gustave Flaubert): “I spent all morning putting in a comma and all afternoon taking it out” 

If we want to finish the work, at some point, we must stare are 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 (or bad) chunk written, barreling ahead can harm the work.

  1. 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, creating yet another dilemma.) 
  2.  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 the lack of coherence won’t disappear if you don’t do some thinking early. You can dodge, but you can’t hide.

Mopping Up as You Go: Days of Thought and Revision 

Thinking is at the heart of mopping 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 and refreshes you into the scene and mindset of the work.  

  1. You (miraculously and blushingly) see many things that need improvement.
  2. 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 barrel ahead.
  3. You exercise your critical, editorial eye.
  4. You keep learning your craft. We can never get enough practice.
  5.  Inconsistencies in sequence, structure, or 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. 
  6. As you mop up, you gain an undeniable sense of accomplishment.
  7. Even if you’re not satisfied with the current version, it’s a step closer to your pristine vision of the perfected work and final draft. 
  8. With this progress, mopping up may—should—keep you excited about the work. 

Finish That Thought

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.” 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.”

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.” (In Gabriele Rico, Writing the Natural Way, 2000, p. 208)

Mopping Up Isn’t Stalling

As you see by these authors’ methods, mopping up isn’t avoiding and is undoubtedly a necessary part of our craft. It’s up to us when we choose to do it—in answer to those possibly uncomfortable questions above. 

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 these authors helped me reconcile the surface disparity between the creative thrill of barreling ahead and my erroneous perception of the secretarial mundanity of mopping up. 

Two Reasons Not to Mop Up for Too Long 

Extreme mopping up, though, like too much barreling ahead, can have its drawbacks. As barreling ahead opens the gate for the creative wild stallion, mopping up can pen him into a too-tight stall. 

  1. 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 it whether (as per Oscar Wilde) a comma should come next or not.
  2. Without fear of contradiction, you can use the faultless rationale that you’re “writing.” Granted, writing may be essentially 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, perilous pool of new writing. 

What Works for You?

Barreling ahead and mopping up aren’t mutually exclusive, no matter what pronouncements you heard in high school English, writers’ workshops, or MFA programs. Sometimes barreling ahead provides loose-shirt relief from brain-wrenching close editing, just as mopping up gives a welcome reprieve from galloping thoughts. Listen more closely to your Writing Guide within, and you’ll recognize its nudges at different times toward either mode, depending on where you are in the draft. 

You’ll gradually develop a balance and flow between barreling ahead and mopping up. Each serves you at different writing phrases. As you use the two methods, you’ll produce a finished work that fulfills your creative urging, satisfies your critical eye, and delights your readers. 

 

Two Drops of Ink: The Literary Home for Collaborative Writing

 

Bio: Dr. Noelle Sterne is an author, editor, writing coach, writing and meditation workshop leader, spiritual counselor, and gentle nag, Noelle has published over 700 writing craft articles, spiritual pieces, essays, short stories, and occasional poems.

Publications

Author Magazine: https://www.authormagazine.org/search?q=noelle

Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation, A PowerPoint Teaser: http://trustyourlifenow.com/more-for-dissertation-writers/challenges-in-writing-your-dissertation-a-little-teaser/

Journal of Expressive Writing: https://www.journalofexpressivewriting.com/post/i-don-t-have-to-be-amanda-gorman

Life and Everything After: https://lifeandeverythingafter.com/angel-in-the-mall/

Live Write Thrive: https://www.livewritethrive.com/2021/02/08/a-startling-remedy-for-jealousy-of-other-writers/#comments

Pen & Prosper: http://penandprosper.blogspot.com/2018/10/making-most-of-your-memoir-dr-noelle.html

Women on Writing: https://www.wow-womenonwriting.com/55-How2-MatchQuerytoManuscript.html

Writer’s Digest: https://www.writersdigest.com/write-better-fiction/shocking-fun-short-story-writing-technique

Additional Publications

Publications include: Chicken Soup for the Soul (sixth story forthcoming November 2021) Mused, Romance Writers Report, Ruminate, Sasee, Textbook and Academic Authors Association blog (monthly), Thesis Whisperer, Transformation Coaching (bimonthly), Two Drops of Ink blog, Unity Daily Word, Unity Magazine, WE Magazine for Women, Women in Higher Education, Writing and Wellness, and The Writer.

In July and August 2018, she was one of six webinar presenters for TAA’s “Writing Gym.” Her topic: “Get Started, Continue Your Draft, and Finish”, which continues to be offered. Dr. Sterne is also one of several coaches in TAA’s program of free one-hour academic coaching to members.

She also contributes pieces to other national and international publications on dissertation issues  and writing. In July and August 2018, she, was one of six webinar presenters for its “Writing Gym.” Her topic: “Get Started, Continue Your Draft, and Finish”, which continues to be offered.

Taking her own advice (hard as it may be), she is completing her third novel.

Noelle’s books

Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal and Spiritual Struggles

Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams

Website: www.trustyourlifenow.com 

Columnist: Textbook and Academic Authors Association 

Columnist: Two Drops of Ink

Dr. Sterne’s Published posts on Two Drops of Ink

Literary Services Offered by Dr. Noelle Sterne

 

Guest Post Opportunities

Whether you’re barreling ahead or stopping to mop up, when you’ve got a finished poem or problem-solving post for writers and bloggers, a guest post will help you gain a new audience, provide you with backlinks to your books, blogs, or other writing, so finish that post and submit today. 

 

 

 

2 comments

  1. Thank you, Traci. As you are finding, either method can be effective at different times. I applaud you for following your intuition. And the very best with your writing.

  2. I’ve used both methods. Sometimes mopping works better for me. Other times, it’s barreling ahead. I do whichever helps to push the story forward. Lately, it’s been the mopping in which I read the last two paragraphs of what I’m working on and continue from there.

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