This is not the first time I’ve covered this topic on this blog, but it’s worth repeating. Whatever it is you’re writing–an essay, a blog, short story, novel, a book report–it will not just come off your fingertips in good form. I know this from experience, and recently I proved it to myself all over again.
I put myself under a little bit of pressure recently with a report I did for a new group of people I’m working with. The mistake I made, basically, was declaring ahead of time that I’m a capable writer, instead of just keeping my mouth shut and letting the final product speak for itself. I’m almost 50 years old and I’m still capable of doing dumb shit like that.
Anyway, so I had to write this sort of annual report based on a small and scattered collection of facts.
The first draft was a good 40% longer than it needed to be–which is about what I wanted. It was full of adjectives, run on sentences, and excessively cute turns of phrase, which is usually how it goes for me.
The second draft wasn’t that much better, but I was on track with how I work on pretty much every writing project:
- gather the relevant source material and read through it
- decide on an overall theme (in the case of this report, it was something like “we did more great stuff last year than you might realize”)
- sketch out an organizational structure for the piece (I’m a big outline proponent–it saves a lot of time if you have a general idea of where you’re going and how you’ll get there)
- vomit everything onto the page in an excessively long first draft
- on the second pass, include more details and info (to make sure everything you might possibly want to include in the final piece is represented).
- starting on the third pass, flag problematic words, phrases, and passages while you start to refine the language (ask yourself “is this the right word?” and “does this need to be here?”)
- ask someone who you know can look past the sloppiness to see what you’re trying to do and offer you advice based on your end goal
- keep stripping away words (literary people call it “killing your darlings,” but really it’s just ruthless deletion–any word that does not need to be there must go)
- read it outloud
The mistake I made was sending an early draft of my piece to my new team, none of whom I had specifically prepped for what they would encounter. At least one person reacted with something like “these words are all wrong,” which was basically a true statement. I already knew that because I have written hundreds of pieces, and so I know that it never starts out good.
But I did suddenly feel more pressure to deliver a quality final product. I’d already declared my writing prowess, and so far, I hadn’t shown it. And second . . . what if the process failed me? What if I had just been lucky all those other times? Maybe I wouldn’t be able to bring it all together. Maybe I am an imposter. Just a dude posing as a writer.
With no choice but to stay the course, I kept refining the words.
When I came across an adjective, I asked myself is this really the right word?, and if it was, does this need to be here? You know how they say “show, don’t tell”? Be careful of adjectives because they tend to tell, not show. (“We had a busy first year,” for example. You’re telling the reader you were busy, which is weak. Better to demonstrate the busyness in some other way, maybe by listing all the activities you were involved in.)
Every clause got a hard look. Do I really need this?, I asked myself. Much of the time the answer was no. Something like “we were able to coordinate . . .” became “we coordinated . . .”.
By the time I got done cutting and refining, my product was 40% lighter and a lot more what I call muscular. I like thinking of writing in these kinds of body-type terms. Adjectives and adverbs tend to be fattening. It’s the nouns and verbs that provide the core strength.
That same attraction we have for strong, flexible bodies translates to the page too. No one really wants to see a doughy woman on the cover of the Swimsuit Issue or a beer-gut dude fronting Men’s Heath. And we don’t want to see it on the page either.
You don’t get those bodies by accident. And you don’t arrive at a lean, letter perfect piece of writing casually. It takes discipline and focus over the course of many rounds.
That’s the bad news. But the good news is, it works every time.