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.

Living (and creating) while imperfect

Raise your hand if you’re imperfect.

Okay, put it down; you’re gonna need it to scroll through this post.

Most of us accept imperfections in our life:

  • The eyeliner on your left eye that never quite matches the line on your right.
  • The burned roast—but it’s only burned on one side; you can slice that right off. Or—hey!—become a vegan.
  • The attempt at parallel parking that…Well, do I really need to detail all the ways that can go wrong?

imperfectionWe park the car imperfectly and move on. Because we have to. Because if we futzed around until it was perfect we’d miss our lunch appointment…and probably dinner too.

Why can’t we do the same thing when our writing is imperfect?

So your writing’s imperfect? Join the club

No one writes well all the time. No one. I’ve said it before—many people have said it before, but none as eloquently as Ernest Hemingway, who opined:

Everyone’s first draft is shit.

And of course he was right. I mean, maybe one in a million people writes brilliantly right out of the gate. More likely that one in a million just thinks that—and they’re wrong.

So what do you do with imperfect writing?

You figure out how much time you can spend parallel parking it, and then you get out of the car—step away from the computer—and make it to your appointment on time.

Your appointment, in this case, is not lunch but your writer’s group, or your class, or your blog, or your supportive best friend who’s been writing for longer than you.

Get out of the car, no matter how badly you’ve parked it, and let another human being read your work. Yes, your imperfect, human work.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking

But maybe they’ll hate it.

And indeed, maybe they will. But did you ever consider this? Maybe they won’t.

You can try all the confidence-boosting tricks in the book—and I’ll be sharing some tomorrow on my free webinar “Confidence & Creativity for writers and other humans.”

But nothing—No. Thing.—can replace feedback from an actual reader.

I mean, that’s what you’re writing for, right? To be read.

Don’t be shy about it. It’s a perfectly fine goal, even for an imperfect writer like you. And me.

So make a commitment:

  • When you will share.
  • How you will share.
  • With whom you will share.
  • What you will share.

And then make like Nike: Just do it.

(And join us at the Confidence & Creativity webinar tomorrow.)

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.

Short sentences—the gold nuggets of writing

Writing short sentences and snappy, to-the-point paragraphs is not nearly as easy as it looks. As someone said, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” That wisdom has been attributed to everyone from 17th century French mathematician Blaise Pascal to 19th century American novelist Mark Twain to that titan of 20th century statesmanship Winston Churchill.

Still, it’s worth spending time to wash away the excess verbiage to find the gold nuggets in your writing. Because short sentences pack a memorable punch.

Ernest Hemingway reportedly wrote a “novel” in only six words: “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.” I’ve suggested the phrase “micro-story” to describe the kind of short sentence so rich in description that it evokes an emotion. Hillary Clinton’s convention speech contained one:

“Way too many dreams die in the parking lots of banks.”

You can feel it—can’t you?—the disappointment of an entrepreneur just denied funding for their dream. Data points generally exit our brains as quickly as they enter. But those dying dreams will stay with listeners a long while. Why?

As the Heath Brothers, Chip and Dan, remind us in their book Made to Stick:

“We are wired to feel things for people, not for abstractions.”

And you don’t need 10,000 words to create a feeling. Secretary Clinton did it with just 11. But that’s practically an epic in the world of short sentences.

How low can you go?

Wordcount-wise, I mean. How many words does it take to be memorable? I’ll offer you two examples.

First, this year’s winner of the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. British novelist Edward George Earl Bulwer-Lytton built a reputation—and a remarkable readership back in Victorian times—for stuffing his writing so full of words as to render it almost unreadable. My favorite entry this year is one of the runners-up, by Neal T. Godden:

“After his seventh shot of Jack Daniels, Billy reflected that only a certain kind of man, a Roman Catholic priest, born under the sign of Gemini, whose loved one had been run down by a bus full of inebriated Lazio supporters on a glorious Sunday morning in early April outside a provincial church whose bells were ringing Bach’s Tocatta and Fugue in B minor, would truly be able to understand the abyss of despair in which he was drowning.”

That there’s a bunch of words. But what does it mean? You have to re-read it several times. Or maybe just skip to the last clause: Ah! The protagonist is unhappy.

Contrast with this:

“I think this may require therapy.”

That six-word gem comes from a blogger who goes by the name Alto. He’s created a feature called The Saturday Six, in which he posts a few six-word stories and invites his readers to add their own in the comments.

Next time you think more words equal more meaning, pay a visit to Mr. Bulwer-Lytton. And if you think you can’t say much without saying a lot, check out The Saturday Six. Short sentences create big impact.