We’ve all grown up around people who seemed destined to become writers. Everything they did was designed to give off that impression. Whether it was carrying around a journal at all times, to name-dropping all the au courant authors, or giving advice to their peers without ever having published anything, they seemed more interested in acting like writers than in learning the craft.
I doubt whether these types ever made it as writers. Self-indulgence is a cardinal sin in the field, which is why Faulkner advised, “In writing, you must kill your darlings.”
In any case, I was never one of those people. I was less interested in becoming “a writer” than in living the lifestyle that being a writer would allow me. Specifically:
• Not having an alarm clock
• Not having to go into an office
• Never having to interact with someone I didn’t want to (for an introvert, that’s the best thing ever).
I almost quit writing as quickly as I began. At the time, Chuck Palahniuk was constantly singing the praises of Denis Johnson’s book of short stories, Jesus’ Son. When I read the work I was filled with despair. The writing was so beautiful that I knew that I could never come close to reaching its splendor. I could never be Denis Johnson—but neither, I soon realized, could Chuck Palahniuk. My metric for success had to be internal. I had to aspire to be the best writer I could possibly be.
As a ghostwriter for celebrities, I pay my rent by using my technical skill to help prominent personalities tell their stories. I got to this point by making good decisions and by making many enormous mistakes from which I later learned. Frankly, I didn’t have much of a choice but to make those mistakes. While all my friends were very encouraging, “Keep at it!” wasn’t actually advice. And I could have used advice more than anything else.
No one questions that writing is very hard work. Personally, I can only write for two hours a day because of the intensity under which I perform. As Dorothy Parker put it, “I hate writing, I love having written.” But just because something is necessarily hard doesn’t mean it can’t be easier. And there’s one major mistake that I—and pretty much every writer I know—started out making. It’s a mistake that’s crippling, one that turns many people away from writing altogether. But it’s also a mistake that can be remedied immediately and without any effort. Whenever I get asked for writing advice, my immediate response is this:
Never edit as you write.
Everyone starts a new writing project with enormous enthusiasm. The idea is great, it’s the best thing ever, and this is going to be my path to literary superstardom. But it’s very difficult to sustain that enthusiasm, especially without any positive external feedback. Maintaining one’s inner stamina is the most challenging aspect of being a writer. Every day, every paragraph, presents a new opportunity to give up and throw in the towel. And there is no easier way to become discouraged than by editing as you go along.
The situation is universally familiar: You spend the day working hard—but when you read back you find that everything’s a mess. Words are repeated, phrases are awkward at best, and the syntax is confusing. Instead of feeling great about having written three more pages, it seems like you’ve effectively spent the day accomplishing nothing. What’s the point, right?
Books, speeches, and articles are read from start to end. Editing should be done in the same manner. Not in chunks, but from start to end. No one has a good first draft, let alone a great one. But I’d rather have a crappy, sloppy first draft of a manuscript than, say, fifty perfectly edited pages. Edmund Hillary commented that climbing to the top of a mountain was only half the job—next you have to get back down. But surely the return journey is a hell of a lot easier knowing that you’ve already done it once before. Editing while you write is like climbing down the mountain as you try to reach the summit. Get the job done first, and only then should you try to go back.
The beautiful thing is, writing need not be done sequentially. If you’re stuck in a given scene, teleport forward in the narrative and simply write a note to yourself where you dropped off. Can’t get a phrase right? Don’t sit and wait for the exact right synonym. Write the wrong word, that first one that comes to mind, and next to that note [find better word]. The writing will still be challenging, but it won’t be anywhere near as daunting. And when you go back to fix the text, you’ll know that everything you need is pretty much all there.