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.

“How should I use research?” — Frequent Questions

Q: How should I use research when I present? Don’t people need to see it?
A: That depends. Do you want to get them in action or put them to sleep?

I’m a hard-core researcher myself. I once wrote a 40-minute presentation with over 500 footnotes. The footnotes weren’t on the slides, though; they were in the script. And the client didn’t read them—they were just there in case anyone asked. This particular client was famous for talking off the top of his head and I wanted the audience (his clients) to know he’d done his homework.

Okay, I’d done his homework. Which may be verboten in academia, but in the business world it’s, well, business as usual.

use research, and cite your sourcesI use many quotations when I’m teaching. It’s in my DNA; I grew up reading primary sources. And I always cite the author and work it comes from on the slide, as you can see. When I’m giving a speech or guesting on a podcast, I’ll also prepare a resource sheet for my audience with a list of books I mentioned and URLs of any web-based resources.

I don’t like having my clients speak with slides. So if I wanted to use that quotation, I’d have my client say something like:

As Elizabeth Gilbert wrote in her book Big Magic—quote—”Creativity cannot take a single step forward without fear marching right alongside it.” Gilbert is talking about creativity, but I think it’s true in any endeavor.

The second mention of the author’s name serves as an “unquote.” It also reminds the audience again what her name is—a little speechwriters’ trick.

Can I ever use research?

Of course you need to use research. And source it properly, or you cross the line from “using research” to “plagiarizing.”

While dissertations bristling with footnotes may bring all the academics to the yard—or the quad, as the case may be—in the “real world,” you need to integrate your research seamlessly into your presentation or your writing. You need to—and say it with me, regular readers; it seems to be the theme this week—

Tell A Story.

I’ve been there. I once labored for months over a piece of writing—for myself, not for a client. I researched the hell out of this thing, drawing material from places obvious and obscure. I committed to send it to a friend and set a deadline for myself, so I would actually finish it. The day after I emailed my precious piece to my friend, I re-read it. And saw…

It was garbage. It read like I’d written it for an academic journal. Nothing wrong with that, but I had intended it to be entertaining. Definitely missed the mark there.

I sent my friend another email:

“I just re-read this thing and it’s terrible. And that’s not false modesty. Don’t waste your time reading it.”

A few weeks later, I got a reply. My friend, looking for the silver lining:

“You sure did a lot of research.”

So—is that what you want to hear after someone hears you speak? Is that what you want the audience to remember?

Or do you want them to remember your ideas, the story you tell?

It’s your choice.


Hello False Start, my old friend: transparency in editing

edit out the false startI’d been planning to focus on editing in my class this week, so when I got an email with a classic writing error, I thanked the universe and pasted the copy onto a slide. The writer had made a false start: the first paragraph bore no relation to the headline or to the actual point of the post.

Many writers fall into the false start. Sometimes it’s unconscious throat-clearing before launching into the main subject. Other times the writer may (also unconsciously) have something to get off her chest before she can continue with her real subject. That was the problem with the email, and my writers saw it immediately when I presented it in class.

On occasion, the false start happens because writers cannot pass up opportunities to talk about themselves. I once came across a blog post whose first paragraph ended with the sentence:

“But I digress.”

The occasional digression can be entertaining. But if you find yourself apologizing for a digression in your first paragraph, that’s a pretty good sign you’ve made a false start.

I knew that. But I did it anyway.

False Start, true story

Yes, the second example of false start I offered my writers came from this very blog. I figured, to paraphrase the Bible, that I can’t criticize the mote in another writer’s work while ignoring the beam in my own. (And because I always like to give proper credit, hat-tip to Matthew…or his ghostwriter.)

I didn’t have to scroll too far through the blog archives to find a false start. My post from April 1st, “It’s all about story at Smith College Women’s Leadership Conference,” contained a doozy. I should have started right in to praise the fascinating presentations I’d heard. But instead I used three of the first four sentences to praise my own. And then tried to justify hijacking my own blog post by adding, “But I digress.”

The post also had a pretty poor excuse for a conclusion, and I outed that to my writers as well. The last paragraph focuses on authenticity—which is an element of storytelling, certainly. But to fulfill the promise of the headline, the conclusion needed to focus on the bigger picture.

The second-to-last paragraph does that very well. So why did I add more? I was drunk on Demon SEO, and 15 words short of the magic number: 300. So I added 80 irrelevant words.

Now, that may be an acceptable choice for some people—the kind of people who just shovel words onto the interwebs in the hope that Lady Google will smile on them. But I’m not a word-shoveler; I’m a writer. I owe it to my readers and myself to deliver pieces written with integrity.

Nobody’s perfect—that’s why we edit

Which is not to say that you can expect perfect writing from me every time you click on a post. Nobody can deliver that. Our job as writers is just to do the best we can. Write every day and over time (I believe) your worst work will get a little less-bad, and your best work will shine.

If you want to do a deep dive on all the problems I found in my post, download the edited document here.

And if you’re interested in joining me for an editing program I’m putting together, click here to get on the list.

Lost in translation: Siri’s ideas about writing

“James says he writes the first draft you really quickly and doesn’t look back at it until it’s done right to And then he writes it 10 times.”

Fenway's transcription might make as much sense as Siri's ideasOne of the podcasts I listened to a couple of weeks ago gave me some great ideas for a blog, so I asked Siri to take a note. I might have done better to ask Fenway:

“Woof woof woof, grrr…”

No, she doesn’t growl—unless you’re a squirrel. But I digress.

If I pulled over every time someone says something interesting on a podcast, I’d never get anywhere. Perhaps someday I’ll be rich enough to have an assistant travel with me everywhere, notetaking app in hand, to capture every brilliant thought as it happens. Until then, to paraphrase someone who can afford a traveling assistant but lacks the thoughts worth capturing, “Siri—you’re not fired.”

Siri’s ideas about writing, translated

So here’s my wisdom for you today: Someone named James, or perhaps someone on The James Altucher Show, says he writes the first draft really quickly and doesn’t look back at it. I give the same advice to my writers—at least for the duration of their 15 minutes a day of writing: Don’t stop to edit. But this Mystery Writer doesn’t just write for 15 minutes. He writes the whole damn draft. And as I recall, we were talking about book-length works here, not little blog posts.

But after the first draft is done? Well, then all bets are off. He will rewrite his book ten to thirteen times (13 is not a number you forget easily, unless you’re Siri).

Hyperbole? I don’t know. Often my second drafts end up as major overhauls of the first, but I can’t imagine I would need to strip it down to the studs eleven more times. Is this a case of rampant perfectionism? An unwillingness to let go? Or is Draft 13 really that significantly better than Draft 3?

So, lessons:

  • Write until you’re done.
  • Edit, absolutely.
  • Be willing to abandon most of what you’ve written (not into the Trash, into the Outtakes folder)
  • But also recognize and celebrate the good parts.

Oh, and one more: Review and edit Siri’s ideas the same day. Well, only if I want them to make any sense.


Want to communicate more courageously? Click here to get my e-book Do It Anyway: Tips for Courageous Writing

The 10 Writing Commandments of Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard, writer
Elmore Leonard – Flickr, Creative Commons license

Writing about editing the other day, I was fishing around for that great Elmore Leonard quote—you know:

“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

And I discovered it’s part of an entire article he wrote about writing in The New York Times. It’s his 10 Commandments of writing, and—spoiler alert—he calls this the “most important rule.” And so it is.

But many of the others are well worth your attention—even if you don’t write highly stylized mystery novels.

“1. Never open a book with weather.”

Now, most of my people don’t write books. But this rule works as well for speakers and writers of nonfiction as it does for novelists.

“If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people.”

Yes, even in a business context “the reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for”—if not people, then at least story. Some human connection. Give it to them as quickly as possible. In fact, start with it, weather be damned.

“2. Avoid prologues.”

Leonard warns against prologues because:

“They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword.”

Many speeches contain prologues—the endless lists of people to thank, throat-clearing about insignificant stuff: “Thanks for coming out in this rain, folks.” (See rule #1.) Get to the point.

Watch yourself some TED Talks. No prologue there. The speaker dives right into the story, and you’re riveted. Don’t you want your audience to be riveted too? Do that: dive in.

“5. Keep your exclamation points under control.”

“You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.”

Especially in business writing, there’s really no place for that level of excitement.

But my favorite piece of advice—seriously, I love this so much I may have to embroider it on a pillow:

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

Right? But how do you know what part that is?

Well, what parts do you skip? For me, it’s lists. Sometimes writers try to disguise a list as a paragraph. Lazy, lazy writing. If it’s so important for me to know about each of these things, then tell me why. Don’t just list a bunch of brands, for instance, and expect me to be impressed. What did you do for each of those brands? How did you leave their companies different than you found them?

Of course, Leonard is thinking about fiction:

“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.”

“I’ll bet you don’t skip the dialogue.”

Business writers don’t often deal with dialogue. But we do tell stories. Or we should. You don’t skip the stories. You pay attention—always—when there’s an emotional connection between you and the material. So do that. Always.

And if it sounds like writing, rewrite.


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Criticism & editing

“I could never be a writer,” my friend said at dinner last night. Why? “I couldn’t stand the criticism.”

We’d been talking about editing, so that surprised me. I’d just quoted Hemingway’s line about everyone’s first drafts being shit.

Once you recognize that everyone writes crap, how can there be any shame in editing?

editing is not the same as criticismStill, people hate the very thought of editing. So they do one of two things: they avoid writing, like my friend; or they publish crap. I couldn’t survive at either of those extremes. So I write. And I edit.

We’re more than two-thirds of the way through my 12-week writing class. And I still haven’t talked about editing. It’s coming—not this week, maybe the next. If I think editing is so important how could I leave it so late in the course? Because I wanted to get my people writing.

I wanted to give them the space to write without being self-conscious about whether they’re doing it “right.” So they take their weekly writing prompts and run with them, or they write on their own projects. And they feel more confident every day. They’re starting to believe me when I say that they have all the tools they need to “find their voice” or write for a business audience or incorporate humor into their work. That “writing” is not something other than what they’ve been doing their whole lives—and that they can refine what they’ve been doing instinctively to make it even better.

I’ve taught them to start everything with the same sentence–simple, but true: “I am a good writer.”

And they are, amazing and creative. It’s a joy to watch them come into their own.

Is editing criticism?

That’s not to say I haven’t made suggestions. They’re not paying me to be a cheerleader. And a good thing; I have terrible pom-pom technique. I’ve even offered to edit one piece for each of them, so they can see what I would suggest.

But I hope they don’t think of editing as criticism. Certainly not the first edit—when you’re editing yourself. I think of it as pruning (and that’s an analogy my friend would understand—I wish I’d thought of it last night). Or sculpting, which, as Michelangelo explained was merely chipping away at the marble until everything that wasn’t the statue was gone. Sometimes our ideas get encrusted in words and they need us to free them. As Elmore Leonard said, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

Some writers may dread the editing process. I don’t, perhaps because I don’t think of it as “editing.” I think of it as the second (or third, or…) stage in writing.

Everyone does it. There’s no need for criticism, or shame.


Write better when you write more often. The Bennett Ink 90-Day Writing Challenge—it’s time to get serious.

Positivity, unconscious editing — and a song

unconscious editing: when "spring" means rabbit poop, not crocusesI don’t usually publish my first drafts, but here’s one poorly written paragraph to make a point:

I realized spring had arrived the other day—it had, briefly, despite the snow on the ground today. Now, some people may recognize the onset of spring when they see crocuses begin to emerge. In the past, that’s been my signal as well. But this year I realized spring had arrived when I saw rabbit poop on the lawn.

A few minutes later, that became:

I realized spring had arrived when I saw the rabbit poop on the lawn. Some people notice crocuses—and to be fair, I’ve done that in the past too. But this year my marker for the change of seasons was, literally, shit.

That’s conscious editing. I tightened up my lede, deleted extraneous details, buttoned the paragraph with an unexpected profanity. The second draft far outshines the first, she said modestly.

But what about unconscious editing? I started thinking about that after receiving this email the other day:

“I like your pieces and the content in them and would love to have you write some pieces for [the website].

However, I noted that the tone of the message are focused on what people are doing wrong, instead of highlighting things that people do right.  If you can focus the writing to be about tips and best practices on what you see that’s working well, then I would love to post them…”

 

I reviewed the clips I’d sent this editor. Sure enough, they all called out missteps—and offered ways around them.

I have to say, I was surprised. I’m sure my coaching clients experience me as a supportive guide, shining a light on the positive aspects of their work while also suggesting ways to improve. But in my blogging, the editor was correct: I am much more likely to be critical. Not gratuitously critical—constructively critical. But critical nevertheless.

To be clear: I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with my style. Maybe I’m just not a good fit for this website. But I think it’s worth looking at my work through her eyes, if only for a bit.

Unconscious editing

And so I find myself wondering: Where does the critical voice come from?

Is it easier, for some reason, for me to see the negative right now? Rabbit poop rather than crocuses; challenges rather than successes? Am I framing my writing unconsciously, editing out the positive and zeroing in on the negative?

Or is it just that no one’s ever planted crocuses around here?

I plan to experiment, see if I can find more positive frames for my writing. Watch this space.

Oh, and it’s Sunday. So here’s your song. One of my favorite musical theatre writers singing the work of one of the giants of musical theatre: Andrew Lippa singing Stephen Sondheim‘s ode to positivity, “Everybody Says Don’t.”


Write better when you write more often. Join my 5-day writing challenge: Write for 15 minutes a day and I’ll donate your registration fee to a global literacy nonprofit. More info and registration link here.