Are you a skater, too?

I used to be a world-class skater.

revise

Not an ice skater — I’m far too uncoordinated for that. No, I skated on my writing assignments, handing in first drafts all through college.

And I got by. People even called me a good writer. I always translated that secretly as “good enough.” Because I suspected I could do better. But what if I was wrong? Better not to waste the energy trying to revise only to find out that “good enough” was really, truly, the best I could do.

I didn’t begin revising until I became a professional writer. My clients gave me notes about things they wanted to add or change; I incorporated them and started tweaking another word here, a phrase there. Then reordering paragraphs, changing the structure—revising. And I saw that “good enough” could become “good.” And even “great”—great enough to win awards.

Find your “great”

You know it’s true: second thoughts make a better first impression. Like me, you probably suspect you can do better the second (or even third) time. And you’re right.

So how do you learn the fine art of revision?

First, find yourself some clients. Make sure they’re picky and change their minds frequently. Then spend years chasing their approval as you try to teach yourself what works and avoid what doesn’t.

Or—and maybe this is easier—invest some time with me.

I’ve put together a program to help you discover how to enjoy revising—as your work gets better, right before your eyes. If you’re interested in getting more information, sign up here and you’ll be the first to know when I release it.

Cutting remarks — when clients edit (sigh)

When clients edit, the result is often not prettyStrange things can happen to speeches when clients edit them.

I’ve been writing speeches for over 25 years; you’d think I’d be used to this by now. And largely I am. I don’t let myself get too attached to any piece of work. I’m very clear that it’s my clients’ work, not mine. So when they ask me to shorten, I cut with a razor blade, delicately: It’s amazing how much you can tighten up writing by taking out a word here, a sentence there.

But when clients edit a speech themselves, they whack through it like Indiana Jones in the jungle. Was Indiana Jones ever in a jungle? Well, if he were he wouldn’t care what foliage he ruined; he’d just be trying to clear a path. And I have to confess, if I were escaping Nazis I would probably not be worried about aesthetics either. But as far as I know, no one’s ever shortened a speech to escape Nazis.

When clients edit what they don’t understand

I recently wrote a speech for a new client. Heard back from the staff person: the client loved it, the people who’d booked the client loved it, the audience loved it. Hooray!

And then I opened up the final remarks. All the facts were there. But the story I’d constructed around them was nowhere to be found. And I have to say, I was sad.

The event organizers requested a shorter piece. If I had been there, I would gladly have wielded my razor blade. Instead, someone used a machete. They cut out all the story, leaving only a jagged trail of facts.

Look, facts are essential. The provide proof; they give your story weight. But facts alone do not tell a story.

Analogies are not just the poetic bits that hold the facts in place. They are the mechanism that transports facts into the listener’s brain. They help us synthesize information—something we have to do before we can draw on it. There’s a reason our elementary school math teacher made us figure out how many apples Joan had ended up with if she started with four and Johnny gave her two more. Yes, you may get the same answer just by adding the numbers (did everybody get 6?), but it gets stored into a different part of your brain. Because: story.

Same reason so many of us learned French by following the travails of a young man as he encountered the world. In the textbook’s first chapter, he made a phone call. Feel free to recite along with me:

Allo. C’est Philippe LeDoux?
–Oui, c’est moi.

Memorize all the vocabulary words you want; they’ll fly out of your head as soon as the test is over. But put those words in the context of a story, and they stick with you for life. C’est vrai, n’est-ce pas?

Our brain organizes information in story form. But why make it do all that extra work? Tell the story your way and your listeners’ brains will store it your way. People will not only remember what you’ve said; they’ll act on it.

If you’ve got too much to say in the time allotted, don’t cut out the story. Cut down on the content. Audiences can only take in two or three ideas per speech. You can force feed them more, of course. They’ll sit there politely and listen. But they won’t remember a thing.

The client was happy; the organizers were happy; the audience was, reportedly, happy as well. But I know they could have been happier. My client could have had more of an impact. A missed opportunity. Tant pis.


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Is my writing good? Frequent Questions

Q: Is my writing good? How can I tell?

A: You can’t.

There are many answers to this question, and I’ll get to them in a minute. But the best news is you’re asking it, which means you’ve written. So hooray for you!

Too many people get hung up about even starting to write. The pens and office supplies need to be arrayed just so, the room soundproofed, the children—just to be on the safe side—muzzled in their rooms. Ridiculous!

Is your writing good? I don't know, but this challenge will help you write moreSo you’ve written. Congratulations! And if you’d like to develop the discipline of writing every day, please check out this little end-of-year challenge I’ve put together to benefit charity.

But is your writing good? How can you tell? The answer depends on when you’re asking.

If you’re re-reading something immediately after you’ve written it, then see my answer above. You can’t tell if it’s any good because you’re too close to it.

When I’m writing for clients I always try to arrange deadlines so I can write, go away and live my life for a while (maybe even sleep on it), and then come back to review and tinker.

When you’re writing for yourself, you’re more wrapped up in the material. I know it’s so hard to wait. You’re like a little kid who can’t wait for her birthday cake to cool enough to put the frosting on. You put in all those yummy ingredients; you want to taste (or read) the finished product.

Patience, grasshopper.

If you judge your work too soon, you’ll invariably get it wrong. You’ll rework perfectly good sentences and turn them into dreck. You’ll decide that the call-to-action sounds annoyingly enthusiastic and really has to go. No! You’re just tired of working on this piece. Take a walk, take a break. The cake will be so much better later.

How long a break you need depends on how long you’ve been working on the piece. A novel you’ve been wrestling with for a year requires a little more distance than that op-ed you’ve been working on all day. For the former, take a vacation; for the latter, take a night off. The newsletter you banged out in an hour? Take a walk.

Good writing emerges on reflection

Putting some time and space between you and your writing will help you get some perspective on your work. But it’s still just you and the words. If you have a way to share your work with a trusted colleague or a writer whose work you think is better than yours, you might want to do that. Maybe you can find a writer’s group to join.

The best advice I ever got about critiquing other people’s work came from my college Playwrighting teacher, the inimitable Len Berkman. On the first day of class, Len reminded us that we weren’t there to talk about the play we would have written, given the characters and scene we were reviewing. Our job was to talk about the play before us, the play our classmate had written.

If the person you ask for advice doesn’t understand the distinction, say “thank you very much” and move on. Life is too short to have people tromp on your creativity.

That said, be open to constructive criticism. If someone says, “I think you might grab the reader’s attention faster if you open with a discussion of the program at work, rather than starting with how you designed the program,” that’s a thoughtful critique. Something for you to consider.

If you’re aiming to self-publish your work, absolutely run it by a professional writer or editor, who can tell you if the structure of the book makes sense and help you tighten up the writing. And when it’s closer to publication, a copy-editor (someone who checks for grammatical errors and typos).

Most people use self-published books as a calling card to get in the door for opportunities. Or they’ll sell the books after speaking engagements. You wouldn’t show up to a speaking engagement with coffee all over your shirt—but you’ll make an equally bad impression by showing up with a book full of typos and poor writing.

Is your writing good? If you feel it is, that’s half the battle. And—again—it’s awesome that you’re even writing to begin with! But share it with a trusted colleague or a professional advisor and be willing to accept constructive criticism. Your writing may be good—but I bet it could be even better.

Relocate your darlings: Editing advice

Perhaps the most famous editing advice ever given:

“In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”

Usually people attribute this to William Faulkner, who did indeed say it. But so did many other people.Stephen King offers excellent editing advice

My favorite variation on this theme comes from Stephen King. I’ve never read his novels, but I found his book On Writing: A memoir of the craft wise and witty.

In it, King wrote

“…kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

I love King’s formulation of this advice because in it I hear the frustration of both the writer asked to hit “delete” and the editor who recognizes the (temporary) narcissism of a writer admiring the creation. And of course all good writers must have both writer and editor living inside them. The trick is to know which one to unleash, and when.

An editor surveying King’s advice might itch to red-line the two extra iterations of “kill your darlings.” (They are a bit much.) The writer will recognize that repeating the words doesn’t convey additional information, but the poet inside the writer will take a stand for the words: Because they convey emotion. And words that can do that are golden. They keep your reader or listener engaged; in fact, they deepen that engagement.

Still, editors have more objectivity than we do. So if you’re lucky enough to work with an external editor (i.e., one who doesn’t live inside your head), try to pay attention to their reasoning. Sometimes they see our work better than we do.

If you’re editing yourself, as all of us do in our early drafts, you may have to manufacture some objectivity. Put the work away for a day, two days—a week if you can—and then go back to edit.

Practical editing advice: When, how, what

“Go back to edit.” Yes, writing and editing use separate parts of your brain, so don’t try to do them both at once.

Write first. Write as much as you can—the whole draft, if possible. Don’t look back until you’re done. If you edit as you go, you won’t get very far. Oh, you might have a killer opening line, a brilliant first paragraph. But if that paragraph doesn’t lead to others and, eventually, to an equally brilliant closing paragraph, then no one will see that brilliance because you’ll never finish the work.

You can find lots of English teacher-y advice on how to edit a sentence. So let’s look at the bigger picture—your piece as a whole.

With each paragraph, each sentence, each phrase, ask yourself:

  • Is it redundant?
  • Does it contain emotion or other hooks (like humor) to engage the reader?
  • Does it move the story forward?

And make no mistake about it—you are telling a story, at least if you want people to remember what you have to say. So make sure every passage drives the story. If it doesn’t, then highlight, copy and…

Relocate your darlings

You don’t have to hit “delete.” You don’t have to “kill your darlings.” I prefer to relocate them instead. So I copy and paste things into an “Outtakes” document. That way the writer in me knows my brilliant prose is safe, and I can maintain the fiction that it’ll come in handy somewhere else. In 25 years of writing, I don’t think I’ve ever rescued something from the Outtakes file. But I could if I wanted to, and knowing that makes it so much easier to edit.

If you’re writing for yourself, these guidelines will serve you well. If you’re ghostwriting for a client, you have to strengthen your objectivity muscles. More on that another day.

 

Creative process: Everybody edits

One of the many things I love about Lin-Manuel Miranda is how transparent he is about his creative process, especially how he edits.

A few days ago, he tweeted this photo collage—drafts of the song “My Shot” from his brilliant musical Hamilton. (Yes, it deserves every ounce of praise heaped on it, and several tons more.)

Creative process: edit in progress. Lin-Manuel Miranda's drafts for one song from his musical Hamilton

Of course his creative process includes editing: Poetry that dense and complex doesn’t just materialize in an instant. And every single song in Hamilton is wall-to-wall with unexpected rhymes and metaphors.

“Songs take time,” he tweets. I don’t know too many people who would spend the time and energy to edit as thoroughly as Miranda. In fact, on the genius.com link to “My Shot,” above the photo, he says he spent an entire year on this one song. People write books in less time than that; then again, some people can spend that long on a chapter. A paragraph.

There’s no one “right” creative process. But if someone asked me to create a Ten Commandments for writers, I wouldn’t need a second tablet:

  1. What Lin-Manuel Miranda does: Do that.
  2. What Seth Godin does: Do that.
  3. Write every day.
  4. Put it out in the world.

Your creative process

Now, stop reading and go write something.

“That’s not what I wanted to say!”

One of the first lessons I learned as a speechwriter is that the first draft often serves as a whipping boy—the poor unfortunate member of the court who received the corporal punishment it was illegal to give the prince. Seeing another person suffer on his royal behalf, was supposed to make the prince feel chastened. I doubt it ever did. But I digress.

I remember the first time I wrote a speech for a CEO. I sat in his regal presence for an hour, dutifully copying down his words. I turned those words into a typescript of the appropriate length, and took them back to him. He looked at the paper and bellowed, “That’s not what I wanted to say! I wanted to say…” and he reeled off a bunch of data points, none of which had figured in our previous conversation.

That’s when I learned first drafts can be disposable. Sometimes people need to see what they don’t want to say before they can articulate what they do want to say. That’s an important lesson for a corporate writer to learn, and I think it’s one reason I have an easier time absorbing edits than my peers who write under their own names. I’ve always been clear that it’s not my work, it’s my client’s; when they’re happy, I’m happy. And I build that into the fee, of course—I base my rate on 2.5 drafts per speech: first draft, major revision, minor revision. Works almost every time.

Knowing first drafts are disposable allows me to take creative risks. And I’ll tell my new clients that, reminding them not to expect perfection on the first pass: “That’s why it says ‘draft’ at the top.”

Still, occasionally it’ll get to me. Like when a client gives me a very detailed outline and instructions to write only what’s in the outline—”don’t add a thing, because we want to keep this very lean.” So I do. And…you know what’s coming, don’t you? They returned the draft saying, “Why isn’t X in here? What about Y? How could you leave out Z?”

[That soft thudding sound you hear is my head meeting the desktop. Repeatedly.]

Half of my frustration stems from my clients’ indecision, or re-decision; the other half is me wondering how I can possibly be surprised by this. Clients change their minds. That’s their right. And, hey, at least on this project they’re paying me by the hour.