First draft – sometimes Hemingway is wrong

Ernest Hemingway famously said, “Everyone’s first draft is sh*t.”

Or perhaps someone else said it and it just sounded so much like Hemingway that the attribution stuck. In any case, it’s mostly true.

Except for when it isn’t. Sometimes a first draft can be brilliant.

The secret to first drafts—well you can find it right in that adjective: they’re first. Which automatically implies that there could well be a second, or third. Or, if you’re like one old client I miss not one bit, a 27th.

If everybody agrees that the first draft can (and likely will) change, then you get to throw all sorts of outlandish ideas into it. Make it the first draft of your dreams.

With new clients, I always send the draft with a note, something like:

I threw some unexpected stuff in here, but if it seems like too much—hey, it’s a first draft.

With older clients, I often skip the caveat. And mostly they’ll play with me. Being bold on the first draft—and the client’s complete buy-in on the idea—won me my Cicero Award for best speech on diversity. You can read the story here.

First draft, second draft

Sometimes, though, even a longstanding client will push back. Not ten minutes ago, I opened an email expecting it to be full of praise for my brilliant, hysterical, and admittedly unconventional approach to a standard business topic.

Oh the client loved it, alright. But they don’t feel they can publish it.

Sucks? Sure.

But I still remember how elated I felt when I finished writing it and hit send. I felt creative; I felt free.

And, you know what? I still do.

Let your creativity loose on the first draft—it may be your only opportunity. And if the client pushes back, well, it’s their work in the end. And they’re paying you to be creative, whether they realize it or not.

If your first draft doesn’t fly, put your fabulous idea in your Outtakes folder and move on. That’s what I’m going to do. I’ll let this sit over the weekend and then rewrite on Monday.

And who knows? Maybe Hemingway will be right about my second draft.

William Finn’s Falsettos — Songs for a Sun…er, Friday

William Finn's Falsettos
By Source, Fair use, drawing by Keith Haring

My “Song for a Sunday” arrives two days early this week, thanks to the reminder I received that William Finn’s Falsettos airs on Live from Lincoln Center tonight—October 27th—at 9pm (check your local PBS listings).

It’s not actually a live performance—the show ended its limited run early this year—but it was recorded during a live performance. Which I suppose is close to the same thing.

I’ve embedded the “Sneak Peak!” they put together but I honestly don’t know what you’ll make of it. I’ve seen this material probably four times in total and if I didn’t know the plot, this mishmash of music wouldn’t do much to enlighten me. And not a note of one of the most beautiful ballads William Finn has ever written, “What More Can I Say?” (Alan Cumming does a gorgeous rendition of this on one of his albums).

William Finn’s Falsettos and the power of revision

Falsettos is actually two musicals, written nearly a decade apart—the final two sections of a trilogy about Marvin, a married man with a wife and child who discovers he’s gay.

The show that now comprises the first act of William Finn’s FalsettosMarch of the Falsettos—was the first show I saw in New York as a newly minted theatre major. A show about a gay man! Written by a gay man! Being staged in a real theatre! With a cast album, even. Okay, so what if the man and his lover had a rather pugilistic relationship. They were gay and onstage; the world seemed full of possibilities.

Nine years later, composer William Finn was back with a sequel, Falsettoland, that updated Marvin’s life in the age of AIDS. Marvin and his lover acquired a couple of lesbian friends (lesbians! onstage!). And while the show featured the aforementioned gorgeous ballad and a funny song about baseball, a show about the age of AIDS premiering in the midst of the age of AIDS…well, you’d do well to bring your Kleenex.

With a little judicious trimming, the two separate shows became one—first show, first act; second show, second act.

This 2016 production surprised me; Christian Borle’s Marvin is a bit of a narcissistic a-hole. Actually, more than a bit. Maybe I’d been blinded by the character’s gayness and just didn’t notice that back in the ’80s. Or maybe my tolerance for narcissistic a-holes has declined as I’ve gotten older, like my tolerance for wearing high heels.

It’s also possible they revised the book to make Marvin more of an antihero, though I can’t find any backup for that. While we’re on the subject of revision—since this is one thing I talk to my writers about a lot—please notice that if William Finn had said “Nope. March of the Falsettos is finished. I will not change a word or a note,” then Falsettos would never have existed.

Be open to new possibilities for your work. Try things out; you can always restore your work to the original form. (This is where art made of words has a distinct advantage over art made of things. Once you’ve sawed your painting in half, it’s hard to change your mind.)

Do watch Falsettos if you get a chance (I’ve set my DVR, since it conflicts with the World Series). And bring your Kleenex.

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Judy Gitenstein’s Commandments — Guest Post

Judy GitensteinJudy Gitenstein has worked on staff at Dell Publishing, Random House, Avon Books and Bantam Books, and now independently with writers who want to get the inside scoop on the industry. She is a writing coach, editor . . . and secret weapon.

Especially this week, she’s my secret weapon. I’d asked her to guest back in August, when I went on vacation, but she wasn’t able to fit it into her busy schedule. But—hallelujah!—her blog arrived at exactly the right time: when my doctor ordered me to bed for two days. Thank you, Judy Gitenstein!


Commandment 3 (of my ten commandments of writing and publishing): Do what works for you

by Judy Gitenstein

When I was growing up, I liked to figure out people’s names backward. Mine was Yduj Nietsnetig, and sounded like “E-dudge Ni-etz-netig.” Other kids played with their food; I played with words. Go figure. As an editor I’m in the right business.

So, thank you, Eniale, for offering this guest slot on your blog.

I started in publishing before anyone was called a writing coach and now I find I am one. It’s what I’ve always done, just with a new title. Writing coaches nowadays freely share their process by which you can—pick one—write/deliver your essay/book/memoir/speech. By following 3/5/10 steps during a weekend/week-long workshop/boot camp or six/eight/ten webinars, you can finish your essay/book/memoir/speech in record time.

There’s only one problem.

You’re learning someone else’s process. Workshop and boot camp leaders are teaching you what works for them. It may work for you while you’re taking the course because you’re being helped through the process. Their process. But it won’t work when you’re on your own.

Find your process

So, the very most important thing I can tell you, Elaine’s readers, is to find what works for you. Figure out, try out, and refine your process, whatever it is, no matter how weird it may seem. It’s the quirkiness, the “you-ness” that distinguishes you from other writers. This is what I tell my clients all the time.

Yes, take the course. Learn someone else’s process. Then create your own.

The next time you have to write something, do what you normally do and simply notice your inclinations. Do you think first or write first? Do you write a little every day or write it all in one sitting? Do you spill out a draft or craft each sentence as you go? Do you work in the morning or in the middle of the night?

There is no right answer. There is only the answer that works for you.

My process

I write best under deadline, real or self-imposed, and I pretty much write best in crisis mode, with fear as my motivator.

There are those who get a certain amount done every day. If something’s on their calendar, they do it and check it off. I’m not one of those people and I realized only recently that I’ll never be one of those people. In fact, I don’t want to be one of those people. I want to follow my natural pattern. I kind of like immersing myself in what I’m doing so that I can take walks, ponder, fiddle, nap, and get down to work, often in the middle of the night. I isolate myself so I can focus. I love the feeling of swimming upstream while I’m working and I love the feeling of joining the world again when I’m done.

I have on my wall a New Yorker cartoon of a king looking out over a parapet in the middle of the night. The caption is: “It’s nice when it’s quiet.”

What a relief it’s been to allow myself to be even more who I am, and in the process be even more productive and effective.

This method is not for everyone. In fact, it’s not for anyone but me. As for you, figure out what you do, embrace it, refine it, and most of all remember it so that you don’t reinvent it every time you write.

What starts as the hardest, most insurmountable task can in a flash become the most wonderful, satisfying experience—so much so that you’ll quickly forget the excruciating part when you sit down to write again. Find something for your wall that reminds you of that while you’re struggling with the tough part of your process.

What’s your process?

What’s the thing you do that seems the most useful but that might also be counterintuitive, simple or just downright funny? Share it with us in the comments.

And please visit I’m working on all ten of my commandments of writing and publishing (each one in the middle of the night, of course) and am eager to share them with you. Join my mailing list to read them all. And please note: by making this promise to you I’m creating a crisis whereby I now have to write them. My crisis, my process. My way.

Write better when you write daily. My next 5-day writing challenge kicks off on September 18th.

Draft Z — the nightmare of endless revisions

New clients are often surprised when they open up my first draft and find “DRAFT A” at the top. Don’t people usually number their drafts? Show me a numbered draft and I’ll show you a writer who’s never had to do endless revisions.

endless revisions make a writer unhappyI switched over to letters early on in my career, when I had a client who got me to Draft 23, or perhaps beyond. They were paying me well for the privilege of being picky (or indecisive), so I couldn’t complain. But I did celebrate when the project ended.

That’s when I decided I needed a more opaque draft-identifying system. Letters.

Yes, I could figure out that Draft W was actually Draft 23 in disguise. But that would take effort, and in the midst of revision that was effort I was unlikely to expend.

My numbering system got a bit more baroque when I worked in-house for a bit. My boss was a serial reviser and we also sent multiple revisions to the external clients. I needed to identify the drafts that had managed to escape—er, that the external folks had reviewed. So it became letters for external review, numbers for internal. Thus Draft B3—the third in-house revision of the second draft the external client would receive.

Did I say endless revisions? The external clients would approve before we got too far into the alphabet, but the internal numbers routinely broke two digits. You’d better believe I celebrated when I escaped that situation.

Endless revisions — the search for perfection

Look, I understand the constant search for “better”—my own personal writing projects can hit Draft L before I push them out of the nest. Fortunately that’s just a letter, not a Roman numeral.

But sometimes revisions make things worse.

So how do you know when to stop?

In the beginning, the best practice is just do to it. Stop. A lot. Stop after each draft and let the piece rest—overnight if you can; for 15 minutes if that’s all you’ve got. Heck, take a five minute walk around the office. That’s enough to refresh your perspective a little. Maybe enough to recognize that the piece is good.

Good. You can live with “good.” Good is better than average, better than most of the stuff out in the world. Good is good enough to ship.

Once you’ve sent “good” out into the world and the sky hasn’t fallen, it’s easier to do it a second time. And a third. And you’re on your way to stopping the cycle of endless revision.

Which is also good. And feels better every time.

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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.

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.

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.

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.


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.

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.

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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Declaration of Independence — history for our times

Today we celebrate the signing of one of the foundational documents of the United States. Unlike the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence holds no force of law. In fact, our founding fathers broke the law by signing it. They understood exactly what that meant, but they refused to be governed by an unjust authority.

Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence may not carry the force of law in our country—we have the Constitution for that. But it surely serves as a kind of moral law. It sets forth the principles by which Americans expected to be governed. It rejects blind allegiance to an authoritarian figure, King George III:

He has excited domestic insurrection among us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

Sorry to repeat the racist stereotyping of Native Americans. But I thought it was interesting that our founders dealt with a ruler who was attempting to spark “domestic insurrection” and to use a group of what we might call “outside agitators” to stir up trouble with law-abiding citizens.

Can’t imagine the leader of a country doing that kind of thing these days, can you?

Independence & Revision

I found an interesting website comparing Thomas Jefferson’s “Rough Draught” of the Declaration of Independence with the draft that was sent to the Continental Congress and the draft the Congress signed on July 4th 1776.

Let’s look at a couple of passages and how they changed:

The History of his present Majesty, is a History of unremitting Injuries and Usurpations, among which no one Fact stands Single or Solitary to contradict the uniform Tenor of the rest, all of which have in direct object, the Establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be Submitted to a candid World, for the Truth of which We pledge a Faith, as yet unsullied by falsehood.

That’s 72 words. It lost two in the next version:

The history of the present king of Great Britain is a history of unremitting injuries and usurpations, among which appears no solitary fact to contradict the uniform tenor of the rest; but all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states. To prove this let facts be submitted to a candid world, for the truth of which we pledge a faith yet unsullied by falsehood.

Still really long and redundant. Here’s a passage from the final, signed version

The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

It’s shrunk by a third: 42 words. We could certainly tighten it up further today, but for the 18th century this counts as pithy.

“A Tyrant” is unfit to rule this country

Removing extra words makes your points stand out much more strongly. And what’s your aim—to impress people with your flowery writing or to make change  happen? This  passage comes from what the Continental Congress might call its “discussion draft”:

In every stage of these oppressions we have petitioned for redress in the most humble terms; our repeated petitions have been answered only by repeated injuries. A prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a people who mean to be free. Future ages will scarce believe that the hardiness of one man adventured within the short compass of twelve years only, to build a foundation, so broad and undisguised for tyranny over a people fostered and fixed in principles of freedom.

The final shrinks these 95 words by nearly half:

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injuries.

A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

The final version carves out the most important points:

We asked you to help us; you only hurt us more. That’s the kind of stuff a bully does, a tyrant. You’re not fit to rule free people.

History. It can repeat itself, you know.

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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.

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.