dirty dishes

Writing is a paradoxical pursuit. It requires us to be wildly, freely imaginative, and meticulously disciplined about how we express those imaginings.

It sounds like the old rubbing-your-tummy-while-patting-your-head-trick. Luckily, we don’t have to do those jobs at same time. There is the drafting hat, and there is the revising hat.

When we’ve got the drafting hat on, we must (must!) drop our attachment to writing drafts that are "good.” We must suspend judgment and be willing to spew raw matter onto the page. We must do quite a bit of this, to sniff out the character and her need, and unearth the shape of the  story we want to tell. Much of our drafting will take place in this freewheeling mode of discovery.

I call it the messy mudpie stage. A writer should stay in this mode for as long as she needs to be there. But at some point during the first draft, or perhaps after it’s complete, it’s time to take off the mud-splattered art smock and put on a lab coat.

Instead of drafting freely and without judgement, we squint unforgivingly at our work, looking for flaws. It’s time to whip this mess into shape. 

Now a whole different set of faculties come into play. We prune, we streamline, we apply every bit our story structure and writing craft expertise to go word by word through the manuscript and fix, polish, fix, polish. 

The tricky bit is knowing when to switch hats. Too much critical discernment at the wrong time will make our uninhibited drafting dry up. Too little discernment when it’s time to revise will make us fuzzy to what truly needs to be fixed. 

How do you know when to take off one hat and don the other? With practice, every writer finds their most happy-making mix of forging ahead with sloppy abandon and taking pit stops to polish and streamline. The rhythm may change from day to day, or from book to book. 

Maybe we write the way we cook. Some like to prepare and serve the meal and save all the dishes for later. Some like to tidy as they go. Either way, dinner is served and the job gets done, so both methods are perfectly correct.

Of course, the common pitfall is the writer who can't stop revising chapter one because she’s avoiding taking a whack at chapter two! To that writer I say — leave the dishes for later. Just get some food on the table!

TIP: Keep your drafting and revising hats separate. Choose when to be free and explore, and when to revise with rigor and discernment.

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