This is a conversation that my roomie Claire and I have had more than once, so I thought perhaps I should get my thoughts out into the interwebs.
Like many struggling creative writers, my biggest problem was simply getting started. I’d have story ideas, but no idea where to start writing (when does the first chapter take place?). Or I’d start writing, but the inward-editor-voice was so strong and obsessive, I’d start re-writing the sentence before my fingers had finished typing it. That’s a pretty crippling thing, editing content that’s barely formed.
As Claire and I talked about the process of First-Draft-ing and Editing and Such, I began to see the creative writing process in light of my academic writing process. Once that hit me, I felt silly I hadn’t made the connection before… like say twelve-something years ago when I started grad school and realized that papers at this level were a Whole Other Cookie from work I’d been praised for as an undergrad.
None of items below is rocket-science, and if you’ve ever read a book or article on either creative or academic writing, you probably know it. But for me, it took being successful and habitual about these items academically to begin to use them creatively.
My Writing Rules
1. Get the content down.
Shut up that inner editor, ignore it, stifle it, hogtie it and gag it and stuff it in the closet during that first draft. Leave brackets or question marks where you can’t think of a word or a sentence or a paragraph or heck a whole chapter–you’ll come back later.
2. Leave it be.
Go look at your research, notes, inspirational images, whatever sparked your idea in the first place. Ruminate on your draft WITHOUT reading it. Think about what you THINK that draft says, and think about what you want it to say. DO NOT READ YOUR DRAFT.
3. …Then go back to that draft with an editing eye.
Cut out your darlings, hack away at those needless words “very,” “just,” etc. Keep in mind that memory of your draft and what you want it to be, and determine if you draft achieves those goals.
4. Take out everything except what you can’t live without.
Make your point transparent, your words precise. Do you need that word? Probably not–so kill it.*
5. Print it out & edit again.
Preferably in blue or red or something not black. Tangible edits somehow make invisible errors obvious.
6. Oh, just submit the thing already.
Granted, I haven’t done this creatively yet–I’m a VERY slow creative writer–but I struggled with it a long time in academia until I realized I would NEVER present papers or get published unless I submitted something. Since then I’ve been surprised to find that maybe 70% of what I’ve sent in is accepted. I don’t send in a lot of submissions, but I try to find things right up my alley, and I’ve been lucky enough that the reviewers/editors/organizers have often agreed. Being a perfectionist can be KILLER to an academic publishing career, so after a few rounds of edits I have to give myself a deadline, shut my eyes, and hit “send.”
I’m trying these now on two longtime writing projects, a novel and a picture-book/mid-grade-novel/graphic-novel. Neither is getting my full attention, what with PhD qualifying exams, dissertation, and a fulltime job already vying for that spot, but at least I’m making progress. My “expiration date” for Publishing First Novel At Ridiculously Young Age already having passed, I feel more relaxed now about allowing myself this slower pace. Yes, I’m over thirty and haven’t had anything creatively published: this does not mean I have failed at my life. Hurray for perspective!
But thinking of creativity in the same way I think of academics has been helpful, and exciting, and a more disciplined, rational approach than I’ve taken before. Go thou and do likewise.
*NOTE: this does not apply to my blog posts. On my old blog, I was obsessive about crafting great posts, to the point that I abandoned it nearly two years ago when my job and PhD collectively hit a fever pitch. I want to blog again, but I haven’t time for perfection, so I’m skipping #4 in favor of #6.