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Getting messy

I’m learning how to get messy again. No, not like rolling in the mud, though that might spark some creative thoughts as well. I mean get messy with my writing. Why? Because I’ve spent the last two years learning about the craft of writing, and with each subsequent lesson, it gets harder to turn off the internal editor and just write.

When I started writing seriously in January 2009, I had no clue what I was doing. I was an avid reader with a story idea, and I was having a blast. I wrote into the mist, made u-turns, and head-hopped my way to the conclusion of a 50,000-word book. I wasn’t tracking word count, or following an outline, just following the joy.

Well, I want it back. And Anne Lamott, author of Bird by Bird, reminded me how. In her chapter on Perfectionism, she basically recommends puking all over the page, writing whatever comes to mind, and worrying about sifting and deleting later.

This chapter, incidentally, comes just before the one on Shitty First Drafts.

Because I’m a bit of a perfectionist by nature, overwriting in order to glean one small gem is hard for me. Some writers pound out 200K tomes and then edit them down to 90K. I tend to get the whole thing done in about 65K and then sweat to layer in the emotion, setting, and senses that I missed in the first pass.

So, I may never throw up all over the page or produce six-digit first drafts, and I still intend to have a basic outline before I start, but I’m learning how to gag that little editor who likes to sit on my shoulder and point out the word tics, passive sentences, and passages of “telling”.

How? First, I set high word count goals. Well, high for me, like 2000 words per day. If you're writing 10K per day, great, but I don't want to know about it. And I hate you. But back to getting messy… Next, I set the timer (I like the Mac Tea Timer gadget) for one hour, and try not to stop to stew over my prose.

Finally, when I find myself agonizing over a sentence or a paragraph, I smack the editor and just keep writing. The beauty of first drafts is that no one else has to read them. Only I need to know just how bad they really are. And the more I spew, the more my brains turns things over and comes up with great ideas, either to fix something, or for what's coming next.

So it turns out that of all the things I need to learn to improve my writing—both the quality and the experience of it—one of the most important is something I knew from the beginning: Just write.


Tell your friends!


  1. Reply

    You’re too funny. Great post! You seriously made me laugh and it is very true. Nothing you can do but write. And getting messy sounds like an awesome idea. I think that is what i have to do today…

    Thanks so much for the inspiration!

    • Reply

      Thanks, Kathy. It’s a constant struggle. I put a sticky note on my computer that says “Make a mess”. Whenever I find myself staring off into space and thinking too hard, it reminds me to just start typing.

  2. Reply

    Great post, Gwen.

    Anne Lamott is my absolute favorite “advice” person. I’ve actually used her advice (though not her language *g*) in teaching my students how to write.

    Hope you find the enjoyment again. I know exactly what you’re talking about.

  3. Curtis


    Yo, Gwen! Have you ever done any racing? The gray haired old man asks with a glint in his eye. He eases back in his black leather chair, scratches the back of his neck and floats an idea. Hmmmm, he thinks to himself. NaNoWriMo? 🙂

    The old goose leans in toward his iBook and types a title — Shagnasty.– Last year his Rooster Town came in at 50 K and change. He pantsed the whole thing. He did it once. But, you have to ask yourself has he lost a step, maybe two in the last year? A lot of water goes under the bridge in a year for a man his age.

    Yo, Gwen! Have you ever done any racing? I’ll bet you will see a messy first draft and find the pure joy of words flowing at the speed of thought while the cursor blisters across your computer screen.

    It is just a thought. Please consider it a suggestion. It is certainly not a challenge. It is only an offer. If you think it will help,I’ll be glad to give it a go. If not, it’s all good. I’m going to be there anyway. 🙂

    • Reply

      Curtis, you crack me up. Actually, I’m already signed up for NaNoWriMo this year (my first time). The subject of this post was the main reason I decided to try it.

      So, great minds think alike, I guess. 😉 Good luck!

      • Curtis


        My bride and I never stop laughing. 🙂

        Since I am competitive I signed up for a charting service that my region offered. There were about thirty of us throwing our daily count in. The race was on. I found this interesting. Of those who participated all but three reached the goal.

        NaNoWriMo is a great process. Hint. If you are the least bit obsessive/compulsive once you get rolling your world narrows decidedly. You might warn those around you what is about to happen. Once you bust that first 1600 word day you will begin to wonder,How many words can I write at a stretch. I predict you will see at least one 5000 word day before you are done.

        • Reply

          Thanks for the warning, Curtis. I let my hubby know. 😉 I’ll have to let you know my best day when it’s all over. Maybe a NaNo recap post…

  4. Reply

    Curtis is right. The faster you write, the messier you’ll get–the more fun you’ll have with the first draft. I remember writing that first draft in a week and I’ve been cleaning up the mess ever since that one week. But it was GREAT when I did the first draft and I still farm it for each revision.

    Great post!

    • Reply

      Thanks, Christine. I figured I needed to take some extreme measures to knock that editor off my shoulder. If I write fast enough, maybe he won’t be able to keep up. =)

  5. Reply

    Totally agree with you Gwen. And the more you write, the easier it gets. I’ve relaxed so much with my writing over the years. I am struggling so much less with it than even a couple of years ago.

    I did Nano myself just to force myself past that stupid internal editor. A Snake in Paradise is the result of the 2007 Nano. So, I think it’s worth it, if only for a push start. 🙂 Good luck to you!

    • Reply

      Thanks, Brenda. It’s funny how we sometimes have to go backwards to move forward. Obviously, I can’t dump everything I’ve learned, and it’s sure to inform my writing (hopefully for the better), but I can keep it from paralyzing me.

      I’m glad to hear you’re having success with your own writing process. Good luck with the book!

  6. Reply

    I love this post… I want to love writing. Yes, it’s a job, but it is the work I love. If I can finish a first draft and love the characters and the story… All else can be fixed (although, I hate editing) with time, but the creativity will continue.

    • Reply

      I’m with you, Linda. It’s the work I love, but I had been sucking out some of the joy by over-thinking it instead of letting my subconscious filter everything I’d learned through my fingers.

      And, of course, I was probably trying to avoid editing too. 😉 Thanks!!

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