Friday, August 29, 2014

August 29 2014. What every writer needs: “The courage to write badly.”

I hate first drafts, and it never gets easier. People always wonder what kind of superhero power they'd like to have. I wanted the ability for someone to just open up my brain and take out the entire first draft and lay it down in front of me so I can just focus on the second, third and fourth drafts.

Judy Blume

Generally speaking, I don’t have a problem with originating ideas (executing them is another matter—that’s when I shed blood, to paraphrase Hemingway). Still, I’m always on the lookout for ways to enhance my creativity—and it was in that spirit that I read a post on by Herbert Lui headed: 6 Unorthodox Ways to Spark Your Creativity. Worth reading. The following is an extract.


The higher your expectations, the more difficult it is to get started. Bird by Bird author Anne Lamott once wrote: “People tend to look at successful writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially and think… that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter. But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated.”

Everyone writes terrible first drafts. It’s practically inevitable for the majority of writers, designers, and other creatives. On the PLOS Blog, author Josh Shenk wrote, “When I wrote the last page of my first draft of Lincoln’s Melancholy, I thought, Oh, shit, now I get the shape of this. But I had wasted years, literally years, writing and re-writing the first third to first half. The old writer’s rule applies: Have the courage to write badly.”

Consider the related concept of the minimum viable product, which entrepreneurs use to gain customer feedback and improve their products. Minimum viable products are the entrepreneurial version of crappy first drafts—the real improvements come later on (e.g., the story of how Instagram emerged from Burbn).


We run into creative blocks during most projects. It can be tempting to avoid the problem in front of us and indulge in distractions, but that only means we’ll remain stuck. Conversely, movement—in any direction—builds momentum for future progress.

Author Fred Waitzkin explained his solution to creative roadblocks in an interview with Tim Ferriss: “I have a couple of friends [who] I rely upon. I listen closely to what they think. I’ve done this many times. My wife Bonnie has helped me many times like this. Here is the curious thing: Often her advice or the idea of a friend isn’t what I end up doing. But listening to the ideas engenders a new idea. The whole point is that you have to get moving. Movement begets movement. You need to get unstuck.”

When you’re stuck, a simple solution is to talk out your problems with a friend. You don’t have to take any advice—but listening to ideas and responses could spark new ones of your own.


Our memories are hardly reliable sources for inspiration. We end up tainting them with cognitive biases. We also don’t notice and recognize patterns until we go back and examine them in detail.

Author and former marketer Jack Cheng created his first novel from a concept he wrote down in a journal. In an interview with One Skinnyj, he said: “I’m a big proponent of journaling, because it builds self-awareness, which is always the first step to improvement… I believe we all have a natural understanding of the appropriate timing for ourselves, but the problem for most of us is that it’s buried under layers of false expectations and misplaced obligations. Honest journaling helps you face your own fear and neglect.”


The unlikely combination of neuroscience and architecture is linked to a process known as neurogenesis, the creation of new brain cells. This reaction is accelerated by physical environments.

If you find yourself making breakthroughs in new settings, you’re in good company. “Early in his career, when he was still struggling to find a cure for polio, Jonas Salk retreated to Umbria, Italy, to the monastery at the Basilica of Assisi,” wrote Pacific Standard columnist Emily Badger. “Salk would insist, for the rest of his life, that something about this place—the design and the environment in which he found himself—helped to clear his obstructed mind, inspiring the solution that led to his famous polio vaccine.”

Do I believe that all first drafts are terrible? No, I don’t—or even close. However, I have yet to write a first draft that could not be improved fairly significantly. As a consequence, re-writing is a necessary discipline for most of us.

It is one I have learned to enjoy. I like the challenge, and the sense of being stretched intellectually. I didn’t feel that way at the beginning,

These blogs are not re-written—which I regret—but time does not permit it. They are normally left overnight, re-read, and the most egregious errors corrected—and then up they go. For practical reasons, I blog on the basis that, “the  best is the enemy of the good.”

My books—on the other hand—go through multiple drafts. How many is multiple? Enough to make you go pale. Actually, the number is somewhat misleading because I change the number even if I make fairly minor revisions—just so I know which draft is which. But one manuscript has gone through well over 20 drafts—and I still haven’t finished the process.

Dozens of drafts have a tendency to test the most resolute.

Re-reading—as if out-loud—plays an important role in re-writing. If a passage doesn’t have a rhythm, the chances are there is something wrong with it. I don’t literally read out-loud, but I hear the result in my mind as if I was. Let me add that I don’t normally read that way (too slow), but when I am re-writing I find it’s a technique that works for me—and I will re-read a passage again and again, if necessary. Sometimes, I’ll know there is a problem, but, initially, be unable to pinpoint it.

All it takes is work.

How do I know when a book is as good as I can make it? I really don’t—because there are always passages I feel fairly sure I could do better. Instead, I tend to focus on what I perceive are weaknesses—and try and eliminate them completely, either by cutting or re-writing. The end result  is always something of a compromise—but, hopefully, a highly readable compromise. In the end, I rely on my inner voice. When it says, “You’re done,” I pay attention.

How long should a book take? It depends upon the book. I try and write a non-fiction first draft in three or four months, but it could well take longer. Overall, I tend to believe in the aphorism that “a book takes as long as it takes.” If it’s a good book, the time taken is always worth it—even if years are involved.

Worth it in a financial sense? No necessarily—though it can be. No, I mean worth it in the sense of creative satisfaction—of that deep and powerful feeling you get when have done something that is creatively worthwhile, and as good as you can make it. It may or may not be the best book in the world—the odds are somewhat stacked against you—but it is your book, and that is very special.

Traditional publishers like authors to turn out a book a year like clockwork. Well, we aren’t clocks. Even writers are human (though some may doubt it)—and we have lives to lead; we have good times and bad times; we get ill—and so on.

So far, I have written ten books. I would like to write another ten before departing this life—but who knows. It seems unlikely, but it is important to set the bar high—and where writing is concerned, I have become both faster and more confident. Also, not all those books will be big thrillers. Some will be short. Some won’t be thrillers. But, writing is a voyage of exploration into the unknown, and rarely works out quite as planned. That is part of its attraction.

If you want an easy, predictable, and secure life, positively don’t become a writer.

And yet.

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