“I write best when I’m inspired”

One of my friends is writing a book, but it’s taking longer than she expected. Why? “I write best when I’m inspired,” she says. So even though she’s blocked off time to write on her calendar, she often doesn’t fill it.

I pulled out the Somerset Maugham quotation:

“I write only when I’m inspired. Fortunately, inspiration arrives at 9:30 every morning.”

We all write best when we’re inspired; no surprise there. But inspiration is a lot like Godot—you never know when (or if) it will arrive.

Real writers—by which I mean the kind of writers who finish projects and ship them out into the world—write even when inspiration gets grounded by a tornado at O’Hare. Will it be our best work? Not bloody likely. But it will be something. And “something,” we can always edit that to make it better.

Write best when you edit later

write best when you edit laterMy friend took my advice to sit down and write, whether or not she felt like it. The next day, she confessed how hard it was to write without editing. She didn’t like leaving her work “imperfect.”

I guess she didn’t get the memo: Nothing is ever perfect. And, anyway, how can you know what “perfect” looks like if you’ve only written a few paragraphs. You can’t possibly know how those paragraphs will fit in the jigsaw puzzle of words you’re assembling. Besides, you need to let the writing sit before you edit it. Otherwise you’re like a car stuck in a muddy rut: you can spin your wheels but you won’t make any forward progress.

Writing engages your creativity. Editing engages your critical faculties. Nothing shuts down creativity faster than a critic, especially when the critic is in your own head.

So give yourself free rein to write when you write. And let the critic wait until you’re done—yes, with the entire piece—before you edit. In fact, finish writing the entire project and then put it away for a day, a week, a month—the longer it took you to write, the longer you should wait. And then revise. It’ll be worth it in the end, I promise.


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How many rewrites until I have a final draft?

Q: How many rewrites until I have a final draft?
A: Do you want someone to publish it?

One of my writers recently admitted, “I get tired of what I’m writing after about three drafts.” Give her points for honesty. To be clear: I don’t think that means she’s giving up after three drafts. She’ll just give it a rest, until she’s got the stamina for another three drafts.

A writer I know recently sold her first article to a very prestigious publication. Took her 12 drafts. Yes, a dozen. And give her points for recognizing that each draft made the piece that much better.

Neither of those people would have passed muster in my friend Vanessa Park‘s middle school English class. This cartoon sums up the experience of one of her students—a young woman whose mother is New Yorker cartoonist Liza Donnelly.

how many drafts until the final draft?

“Uh-oh. You did 82 drafts??!” the young man says. “I only did 79!”

The point, of course, is not quantity but quality. So how do you know when to take the D-word off the top of the page and call it a finished piece?

Sometimes you run into another D-word: Deadline. I could futz and finesse all day, but if I told the client she’d have it by 5pm then by God she has it by 4:59.

But if you don’t have an external deadline, give yourself an internal one. The futzing and finessing stage can last (probably literally) forever. When you find your revisions shrinking from paragraphs to sentences to words, you’re getting as close as you’re ever going to get.

Is it perfect? No. Because it’s never going to be. As my old coach Samantha Bennett (no relation) says, “Get a C.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sent “C” work out into the world and found it received as an A-plus.

We writers can be unreliable judges of our own work. That’s why we need trusted colleagues to read and comment. Sometimes that’s a writing group. Other times it’s a sympathetic magazine editor who asks for Draft 9, then 10, 11, 12. Each time you get feedback, your work gets better.

How long until you have a final draft? If your editor doesn’t tell you, your deadlines will.


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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.