“Put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.”
– Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette
“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”
– Mark Twain
Writing isn’t a clean process.
In general, attempting to be creative isn’t a clean process. It’s filthy. I wish I could poo diamonds, but — alas — I am not built for such miracles. Instead, I plod and stumble my way through revisions, hacking at mental cobwebs and killing inner demons. Eventually, enough caffeine and wine permitting, I might look down and see something that doesn’t make me gag.
To give you an idea, below are some hand edits of the Introduction to The 4-Hour Chef, which–much improvement later–hit the NYT and WSJ bestseller lists in November of 2012. As I write this, it’s hovering around #180 on Amazon. Keep in mind that the below is after 5-10 drafts:
Download a full-size PDF of my edits here
Even this simple blog post, as one example, was revised and rewritten 14 times. The iteration pays off — it ended up getting 700+ comments. Conversely, one-take wonders usually get burned at the stake, and rightly so.
“Revising,” “iterating” (in start-up speak), “editing”…no matter what you call it, it’s tweaking something bad or mediocre until it finally works. As Ernest Hemingway said, “The first draft of anything is shit.”
This applies to much more than writing. Ernest would no doubt agree that my first attempt at a blog was shittier than shitty. Here are the “before” pics from 2007. Note that my friend Ramit Sethi and others had equally hideous “rough drafts” of their sites. It’s par for the course…
Here’s the first Apple computer. Ground-breaking, to be sure, but it’s not exactly as sleek as a Ferrari. It didn’t need to be.
How often we self-sabotage in the name of “perfectionism”! Perfectionism may be better than sloth, but it can become a clever hand-waving exercise. “Not yet!” one might say (and I have said often). More research, more preparation, more interviews, more… procrastination. Let’s call it what it often is: a forgiving term for a terrible habit. It’s like calling someone “eccentric” instead of “crazy.”
To create anything remarkable, it takes not one giant leap after perfect prep, but many baby steps in the right direction once you have barely enough to get started.
To start something big, you have to first start something small. From a past interview of mine on the creative process; note the bolded portion:
“I do my best writing between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.. Almost every friend I have who is a consistently productive writer, does their best writing between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m. My quota is two crappy pages per day. I keep it really low so I’m not so intimidated that I never get started. I will do the gathering of interviews and research throughout the day. I’ll get all my notes and materials together and then I’ll do the synthesis between 10 p.m. to bed, which is usually 4 or 5 a.m.”
How can you take something you’re putting off and make the first step tiny?
How can you use an easy quota like “two crappy pages per day” to get started?