How do you know if something is a bad idea? — Frequent Questions

Q: How do you know if something is a bad idea?
A: Have you tried asking it?

bad ideaSome days I think the definition of a bad idea must be any idea that originated in my head. I’ll bet you’ve had days like that too. Especially if you’re a writer.

But my answer above isn’t 100% snark. If the idea that seemed so promising when you wrote it down last night (last week, last year) seems somewhere between clichéd and imbecilic today—well, it might be. You could be seeing it clearly and objectively for the first time. Or maybe the moment of clarity happened when you created the idea, and you’ve just stopped trusting yourself in the interim.

So take that idea out for a spin. Spend 15 minutes writing about it. Outfit it with the best words you know how to create. Then wait. Close the file or put the papers in a drawer overnight. Look at it again in the morning. That old idea just might surprise you.

The way-ay-ting is the hardest part

Please notice that sentence in the previous paragraph—two words right about in the middle:

Then wait.

Whether you start with a bad idea or good idea, do not judge your first draft immediately after writing it.

That’s one of the key principles I talk about when I teach revision techniques. And even though my writers have heard me say it a million times, they still succumb to temptation.

Especially if you’re the kind of person who judges your work harshly—yes, I’m talking to you, Dear Writer-Who-Thinks-All-Your-Ideas-are-Bad—you need to get some distance from your work before you make any decisions about it.

You need to trust your instincts, but if your instincts tell you to trash every idea you come up with, you might need to recalibrate. Find a trusted friend, a teacher, someone whose writing you admire, and run the idea by them. Chances are, you’ll have a glint of a good idea in there somewhere. Just keep looking for it, as objectively as possible.


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Valuable stuff — permission to write

“Take the attitude that what you are thinking and feeling is valuable stuff, and then be naive enough to get it all down on paper.”

valuable stuffThat’s what Anne Lamott says in her great book on writing Bird by Bird. And I wouldn’t dream of arguing with her.

I’m in the “naive enough” stage with a personal project I’m working on. Every time my fingers hit the keyboard I have to remind myself that it doesn’t matter whether anyone will want to read it. It matters even less whether anyone will want to buy it. What matters is that I give myself permission to write.

That doesn’t quite rise to the level of believing that what I’m “thinking and feeling is valuable”—but it’s good enough to make words appear on my screen. And that’s my goal right now.

Don’t let the noise mask the valuable stuff

Lamott again:

“The discouraging voices will hound you—”This is all piffle,” they will say, and they may be right. What you are doing may just be practice. But this is how you are going to get better, and there is no point in practicing if you don’t finish.”

And so I write. Every damn day. Because some of what falls out of my fingers onto the screen may turn out to be valuable stuff.

Which is the valuable stuff and which is the crap?

That’s for sorting out another day—when the discouraging voices take their coffee break. Try to revise when the discouraging voices are on duty and you’ll end up throwing it all into the trash. Which I know writers don’t really do anymore—all we have to do is drag an icon into the trash bin icon. But that’s hardly satisfying.

No, when the discouraging voices shout their loudest you’ll be ready to print out the whole draft for the sheer joy of chucking it into the real-life trash bin just to hear the satisfying CLUNK.

But it’s not, you know. It’s not all crap. There’s some valuable stuff in there, and you’ll see it once you’ve given yourself some distance. So step away from the computer. And breathe.


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Do unnecessary words slow your game?

I love baseball. But some people find the game too slow. The powers that be in Major League Baseball have lately instituted various rules to shorten the game—they’re even considering a pitch clock.

When coaches consult with pitchers during the game, that’s timed now—and from the moment the coach steps out of the dugout. So we now get to see out-of-shape middle-aged men running at top speed to the pitchers mound, arriving with just enough breath to gasp out their essential advice: “Throw strikes.”

Pitching coaches often teach their charges to eliminate unnecessary movements from their windup. I think the game could also benefit from eliminating unnecessary words. In fact, we all can.

Unnecessary words — yer out!

unnecessary wordsIf the folks who run baseball teams are really serious about shortening games, I direct their attention to the announcer’s booth. Let’s start with a sentence intoned by the public address announcer before the National Anthem that kicks off every game:

“At this time, we ask that you rise and remove your caps.”

No, I’m not suggesting that we stop singing the National Anthem. But look at that sentence:

“At this time”—to use a technical term: Duh.

You’re not saying, “In 15 minutes, we’re going to ask that you rise and remove your caps.” No, you’re making the announcement now. The cap-removal starts now. You don’t need to add that NOW is when we’re asking you to do it.

And if you really feel a need for a redundancy, then a simple “Now” will do. “We now ask…” But again, now is clearly when you’re asking.

And “ask”? I mean, yes, it’s nice to ask. But it’s a law or something that we remove headgear when they play the National Anthem. So is the announcer really asking?

Note: There’s no law, as far as I know, that requires any particular reverent gestures for Irving Berlin songs, and yet a security guard in Yankee Stadium once ejected a paying customer who tried to leave the stands to go to the bathroom during the singing of Berlin’s “God Bless America.” The man sued, and won.

At any rate: “At this time”—redundant; “we ask”—unnecessary. Which leaves us with:

“Rise and remove your caps.”

I’d throw a “please” in front of that because my mother raised me right.

“Please rise and remove your caps.”

There: I just shaved 30 seconds off the game.

At this time, you may thank me. A simple tip of the cap will do.


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How do I know what to cut — Frequent Questions

Q: How do I know what writing to cut?
A: Start with the boring parts.

Elmore Leonard is one of my favorite writers. He’s famous for his novels, of course, but I’ve never read a word of them. No, I’m an Elmore Leonard fan because of his advice about writing. Particularly this gem:

“Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

He continues:

“Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.”

Of course he’s talking about fiction: that’s his wheelhouse. But the advice applies to nonfiction as well. And especially to business writing.

Elmore Leonard knows what to cut

cut wellNow, a business speaker is unlikely to break into an extended discussion of the weather in mid-speech, but she may go off on a tangent. Something occurs to her in the moment and because it interests her she assumes it will interest her audience. Trust your preparation (one reason it pays to rehearse) and dance with the speech that brung ya. You don’t want to be accused of “perpetrating hooptedoodle,” do you? Cut the ad libs.

When you’re reading, do you enjoy encountering long paragraphs of dense prose? They’re hard to get through, aren’t they? Well, they’re even harder for audiences listening to a speech. So break it up. Figure out the main idea you want to leave your audience with and concentrate on that. Would you rather have them grasp one concept thoroughly than hear five and forget them all? Cut the extraneous stuff; focus on what’s essential.

And no lists! If you’re tempted to include a list, think about it. Hard. And then cut it. Yes, completely.

But I have to list my clients, you may be thinking. That’s my social proof!

Well, what’s important about the clients you’ve worked for? Instead of listing company names, tell stories about the work you’ve done for one or two clients.

Just as readers don’t skip dialogue, listeners don’t skip stories. Especially stories that resonate with them. Stories that move them to laughter or to tears are my favorites. But if you can interrupt their thought processes even for a moment, get them to think about old concepts in new ways, that’s a win.

Whether you’re writing a speech or an article, after you’ve got the first draft down, go through it from the audience’s point of view. Is there anything confusing? Anything that doesn’t directly enhance the reader’s or listener’s understanding of your main idea? Hooptedoodle. Cut it.

And thank Elmore Leonard for helping your business writing to shine.


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Scissors v. pencil — writers on revising

scissorsOne Saturday morning when I was five or six, I found my mother in the breakfast nook with her scissors, cutting up paper for some sort of crazy art project. The snippets were all different shapes, sizes, and colors, wider ones taped next to narrower ones, jaggedly forming a longer sheet. All covered in her very neat cursive.

When I tried to get a closer look she screamed, “NO!” in the same tone of voice she used when I ventured too close to the hot stove.

Imagine having to revise your Master’s thesis with scissors and tape. I would have locked my kid in her room and not let her out until my grade came back.

Yes, dear Reader, before “cut” and “paste” became items on a computer menu, they were literal things you had to do to revise your work.

“I’m all for the scissors. I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.” —Truman Capote, Conversations With Capote by Lawrence Grobel, 1985

I never wielded the scissors much. Why? I never revised much when I was in school. And because some genius invented erasable typing paper. It was more expensive than the regular kind, sure, but an excellent investment if it kept me from having to retype an entire paper. Word processors and then computers changed the game completely. I finally became a reviser—and, wonder of wonders, a better writer too. Surely a coincidence, right?

Skip the scissors, keep the revision

Technology has made the physical act of revision so much easier. Now if only someone would invent something to ease the emotional challenges!

Whether you’re crumpling your words into a ball and throwing it across the room or highlighting and hitting the “delete” key, “killing your darlings” is never easy. It got easier for me when I ditched the violent metaphor and resolved to relocate my darlings instead.

Ah, the power of reframing. You may find it useful for all sorts of things you dread doing. But that’s for another blog.

They say the first step is recognizing you have a problem. So stop thinking your work doesn’t require revision. Write—write badly if you must, but write. And then revise. The best writers swear by it.

“I have rewritten—often several times—every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.” —Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory, 1966


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Why don’t more writers revise? — Frequent Questions

Q: Why don’t more writers revise their work?
A: Revising your work requires reading it.

I have a theory about that:

They’re scared.

They’re scared of diving in and discovering just how very bad their first draft is. Or they’re scared of making their work even worse.

Yes, revising your work does require reading it.

Do it anyway.


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Will I ever write well? — Frequent Questions

Q: Will I ever write well?
A: Yes—probably more often than you recognize.

All writers have moments when they hate their writing. That’s why you should never edit your work right away. Give it some space and come back to it.

When you do come back to it, you might be absolutely correct—it may be terrible. But look more closely. You may find a word that delights you, a combination of words that feels utterly fresh.

When you do find these things, cut yourself a break and admit you can write well. In fact, you just have. Copy those good words or phrases into a new document and see what you can build from there.

Don’t expect to write well in the first draft

Hemingway knew to write well you need to revise
Hemingway at work, photo by Lloyd Arnold, Public Domain

Ernest Hemingway said, “All first drafts are shit.”

Well, okay, that may be apocryphal. But it’s also true.

Nobody—not Hemingway, not me, not you—nobody should expect to write well in a first drafts. First drafts aren’t for polishing, they’re for collecting raw material. Ideas. Some of them will be good ideas and some will make you laugh so hard you’ll print them out and stick them on the bulletin board behind your computer so you can remind yourself of how ridiculously you can write and still survive. Not that that’s ever happened to me. (Well, not daily.)

That’s the thing about first drafts: terrible-ness is not fatal. No one cares how badly you write because no one but you ever sees it. (You’re not still submitting first drafts as final products, right?)

But how do you turn a first draft into a second draft, and a second draft into something you’re ready to send into the world with something resembling pride?

You revise.

It’s a skill you can learn. And if you want to write well, it’s a skill you must learn.

Ernest Hemingway knew that. Here’s an exchange from a 1958 interview in The Paris Review:

Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?
Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.
Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Hemingway: Getting the words right.

If you want some help “getting the words right,” I can help.

But if you’re secretly attached to your files full of unfinished writing …if you enjoy collecting rejection emails…if you worry that effective marketing would generate too much income for your business DO NOT register for my VIP class on Revision.

Writing advice from Coco Chanel

Coco Chanel
Gabrielle Bonheur “Coco” Chanel in 1928, Public Domain,

No doubt you’ve heard of Coco Chanel, the French fashion designer who liberated women from stiff, formal clothing and popularized the still-ubiquitous “Little Black Dress.” Her fashion advice remains legendary—just Google “remove one accessory” and your screen will fill with blogs and articles quoting or misquoting her famous dictum

“Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.”

But while Chanel intended that as fashion advice, I think it works just as well for writers.

How many adverbs have you used? Surely you don’t need them all. And those adjectives—wouldn’t a few descriptive phrases enliven your work more?

Of course, before you can revise—your outfit or your writing—you have to create it first. Write until you’ve finished the draft. But before it “leaves the house,” give it a good once-over. Is every word, every sentence, necessary? If it isn’t—copy, cut, and paste. Slap it into the writer’s equivalent of a jewelry box, the Outtakes file.

More advice from Coco Chanel

“Take one thing off” may be Chanel’s most-quoted piece of advice. But I found another one I like quite a lot in this slideshow from Australian Vogue:

“In order to be irreplaceable one must be different.”

While we’re on the subject of revising, I’d lop off “In order” at the top of that sentence. But let’s not blame Chanel; perhaps it got added in translation.

“To be irreplaceable, one must be different.” I tell my writers a variation of this all the time. And my clients, too. They talk about subjects that thousands—millions—of people have already talked about: diversity, ethics, management. How can they differentiate themselves from the crowd? By weaving their own stories into the mix. No one else has had your experiences, has your perspective.

Make your communications irreplaceable—and your ideas memorable—by being your own, unique self. (Little Black Dress optional.)


Writing is just the first part of the process. Revising—that’s the secret sauce that gives your writing zing. Join my free webinar on revising.

Your vision, clarified — when editing helps

editing helpsEditing helps only if it’s the right kind of editing. Some people will read a manuscript about, for instance, a farmer with an apple orchard and say, “Wouldn’t it be better to write about a farmer growing avocados?” Well, avocado farming may be fascinating, but that’s not what the piece is about. The best editors respect the writer’s vision.

As I learned from my legendary playwrighting teacher Len Berkman, the best editing enhances and clarifies the text but does not change the writer’s intent. “Comment on the piece the writer has written,” Len told us on the first day of class, “not on whatever you would have written given that material.”

An editor can help you weed out the great writing that must be in the piece from the (perhaps equally great) writing that weighs the piece down.

Does every detail drive the story forward? If not, move the passage into your Outtakes file.

Yes, no matter how brilliant your writing is, you will have passages that don’t belong in what you’re writing. Editing them out of this piece doesn’t mean losing them forever when you maintain an Outtakes file for each project. You’re not “killing your darlings,” just moving them to another room until you find the right place for them to live.

Editing helps identify overused tricks

Do you have any favorite stylistic devices? Things you just love to make words do. When you dip into your bag of writer’s tricks too often, you draw attention away from what you’re saying. Instead, the reader focuses on how you’re saying it. Not good.

Every writer has tricks like that—in fact, I just edited one out of the paragraph beginning “As I learned from…” Originally, the paragraph read:

The best editing, as I learned from my legendary playwrighting teacher Len Berkman, enhances and clarifies the text but does not change the writer’s intent. “Comment on the piece the writer has written,” Len told us on the first day of class, “not on whatever you would have written given that material.”

What’s wrong with that? Nothing much, except that I make the same stylistic choice in two back-to-back sentences. I interrupt the narrative flow with a clause set off by commas—”as I learned from my legendary playwrighting teacher Len Berkman” and “Len told us on the first day of class.”

I love identifying a speaker in mid-quote. But you can’t pull that sort of trick in every sentence. It gets really boring, really quickly. So I kept the mid-quote identification and edited the previous sentence instead.

Do-It-Yourself editing

When you’re studying writing, your teacher becomes your first editor. Eventually, you learn enough to become your own first editor. Even Fran Lebowitz—who famously doesn’t let anyone else edit her—edits herself. Probably too much. As she told The Paris Review:

“I write a sentence a thousand times, changing it all the time to look at it in different ways.”

Imagine how much time that wastes—editing yourself sentence by sentence. No wonder she hasn’t published anything for more than two decades.

I advise my writers to just write—get their ideas out, create a first draft and then let it sit—for an hour, a day, a week, depending on how long it took you to write in the first place. Editing helps, but not until you’re ready for it. So you’ve got to take a break; let it rest.

And don’t edit a thousand times; edit once. Then let that draft sit while you do something else. And when your head has cleared, re-read it and see what you think.

I’m cooking up a webinar program to help writers become their own first editors. (Click here and I’ll let you know when we launch. ) Smart writers know their work can always be improved. Great writers discover how to do that themselves. And then they’re ready to seek advice from a trusted editor to make their work extraordinary.

“All first drafts are sh*t” — why editing matters

Ernest Hemingway allegedly said, “All first drafts are sh*t.” Of course, if he did say it he said it without the asterisk. But it’s the most concise explanation I’ve found for why editing matters.

I’ve written before about my friend who proudly announced that he’s never edited anything he’s written. He’s also never sold anything he’s written, and I think the two things are related. But Fran Lebowitz has published—and in The Paris Review interview I’ve been writing about all week, she claims:

I’ve never once been edited. I’ve never let anyone edit me, even when I was a kid. When I started publishing, I was writing for this small magazine, deservedly small, called Changes, which was what was then called an underground magazine. I wouldn’t let that editor edit me; it didn’t matter because they paid me ten dollars and no one read it. Then a few real magazines began calling me and asked, Would you be interested in writing for us?

I’d say, Well, yes, but you can’t edit me.

Click.

Then I started writing for Interview, where I made a deal (no editing), which also didn’t matter since no one read that magazine either. More people would call me, from real maga­zines now, like Esquire and New York magazine . . . and I said no editing.

Click.

My first book was not edited. Henry Robbins was my editor and before that Laurie Colwin. Neither one of them edited me. Joe Fox, who is now my editor at Random House, never edited me. So I’ve never had the experience of being edited and never will.

Fran Lebowitz goes it alone

The Paris Review published that interview in 1993. One year later, Lebowitz released a children’s book and her publisher released an anthology of the two books of essays she’d written. That was 1994. Since then…crickets.

I can’t say whether Lebowitz’s nearly three-decade-long drought has anything to do with her aversion to editing. But you’d have to think that having someone to bat ideas around with would help. Someone to say, “This is brilliant. This…maybe you want to rethink.” Actually, Lebowitz does have that someone—Joe Fox, her editor at Random House. She just refuses to accept any of his comments:

Lebowitz: In the novel I’m writing now, there is something that Joe doesn’t like, quite a big thing. He said, I’m just telling you what I think. I said, Fine. I don’t agree with you.

Interviewer: Even before he had said it?

No, I let him say it. I may be tough, but I am polite. He disagrees with the way I have the narrator narrating the book. What he would have me do would be an easy thing to change. But it’s just out of the question; it’s not something I would seriously entertain.

Why editing matters

That “novel I’m writing now”—that would be Exterior Signs of Wealth, a book that remains unfinished 24 years after Lebowitz gave that interview, and some 34 years after she signed the contract to write it.

Would making that narrative change solve a structural problem and make the novel easier to write? We can’t know that. But I do know that often when I feel I’ve written myself into a corner, I’ll ask someone whose opinion I trust to read it and comment.

Clients, though sometimes maddeningly conservative, can also offer fresh perspectives that can improve my work. And since it’s their work in the end, not mine, I have to listen to them. Some might find that constricting but I like it. It forces me to be accountable, and to ship. That’s why editing matters.

Fran Lebowitz has a distinctive way of looking at the world and a unique writer’s voice. It’s  a shame she can’t (or won’t) let us hear it.


Shape your stories to make them memorable—discover how in my hands-on editing workshop. Click here and I’ll let you know when we launch.