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.