Be willing to look at your work honestly. If something works, it works. If it doesn’t, quit beating an old horse. Go on writing. Something else will come up. There’s enough bad writing in the world. Write one good line, you’ll be famous. Write a lot of lukewarm pieces, you’ll put people to sleep. – Natalie Goldberg
“It’s great just like this. I love the energy of it. The freshness. But no one else seems to like it.”
I hear students and clients say versions of these two things all the time, and both of them are failures to recognize one central thing about writing:
Writing requires the freedom to create with abandon AND the ruthless ability to critique, cut, and start over.
Writers whose critical voices out shout their true voice usually encounter this first problem. They keep trying to perfect on sentence at a time, plowing through that same field of words over and over again, and when they do this, they rarely get anywhere. These writers have a hard time taking any critique because they are already too critical of themselves.
I’ve had students who never finished a paper because they couldn’t get the introduction right. Somehow, they think that writing has to be linear – first this, then this. They fall into the trap of perfectionism, and almost every time, they fail to produce anything at all in the process.
In the second group, they believe all the energy of their writing lives in that first draft (or maybe in the third draft even), and they don’t realize that they need to hone down to the parts of the piece that are truly living, breathing. Those parts that move on their own. The parts with “energy,” as Goldberg categorizes them. These writers have trouble taking critique because they think too highly of themselves.
I’ve had clients (or had friends with clients) who send manuscripts to proofread when really the story makes no sense, the research is faulty, and the character’s undeveloped. They miss out on the opportunity to improve their work in the fury to get something to press, and that almost never goes well – either for a writer’s reputation or her sales.
Of course, both of these unbalanced views of writing are fear-based. They come from that deep fear that every writer I know has – the one that taunts us with the idea that we’re not “good enough.
The truth is writers need both the hot fury of the creative pool and the cold sword of the Samurai – to use Goldberg’s language. It’s that writing adage writ new – “Write hot. Edit Cold.” Strong writers recognize the necessity of both parts.
For writers who struggle with perfecting each sentence, I’d give this advice that was handed to me by Ted Gup – “Write through. Write to the end. Don’t stop until you’re finished.” It’s wisdom that has served me well because it helps me produce work and not get caught up in shaping each sentence to the detriment of the whole.
For those of us who think our writing is finished before it really is, I share this from Goldberg – “Each line should be alive. Keep those parts of a piece; get rid of the rest.” It’s a painful thing to realize that 25%, 50%, 90% of something you write two days ago is weak, but it’s a good thing because it means you are beginning to see what lives on the page; you’re beginning to find the energy. And it make take us 16 drafts to get it right, but when we do, hold on to your seats.
As writers we need both hot and cold – action and contemplation – fever and the cold ice of editing. If we don’t have both, our writing is mediocre at best. It’s calculated and dead, or it’s engorged and clumsy. Hot, then cold. Hot, then cold.
What do you struggle with as a writer – getting the words down or revising them? How do you find the balance?