Thursday, February 17, 2011


I’ve got to get through it, that first attempt at getting my story down, living as my characters live, moving toward an inevitable yet unpredictable end. Those sh__ty first drafts, as Anne Lamott calls them in her brilliant book, Bird by Bird. All the workshops, all the books, all the talented and successful writers I know tell me to cage up the editor and whip through the sentences, to puke out the chapters, clean up the mess later. My brain, however, thinks more like an editor. I spit out a sentence, stop, fix that sentence, spit out more, notice that I didn’t backload a paragraph with the most powerful sentence, then the grammar checker is indicating I need to look at a word back where I wrote that clever reversal. Then there’s that pesky run-on sentence…

I’m not talking about scrolling back a few pages to edit and refresh my memory, then moving forward into my next chapter. I’m talking about scrolling back each paragraph and, on a particularly critical day, scrolling back each sentence. Yes, I’m an obsessive editor. I’ve always written that way. In fourth grade I did it. Back then I wrote mostly poetry, a very tight and disciplined form. That didn’t help. Next I graduated to a twelve-year-old version of erotica--wish I’d kept some of those scenes to compare to my adult notes. But I digress. Doesn’t it go figure, I’ve reinforced the early analyzing habit by becoming a professional editor.

Some tell me not to worry over it. I’m still prolific, having written almost a dozen screenplays, three novels, a literary cookbook, newspaper and magazine articles, and short stories (some of them erotica--hopefully different than my grade-school imaginings). I wrote all that while raising two boys. Sure, pat myself on the back, but get on with the writing, and slap that hand that continues to go back, go back, go back. As if I just can’t do my book justice without making every entence perfect as I go. What's up with that?!

To make matters worse, I write my sh—ty first drafts long hand, scrawling my additions and corrections all over the yellow pad –yellow to boost creativity. Unfortunately, yellow also nourishes my editing fixation. To make matters doubly frustrating, I have the worst handwriting known to the literate world. So my crazy first drafts are often indecipherable. Even to me. I have only my sisters to turn to when I’m puzzled to the point of pop-eyed madness, for they know me so well that they often step in to save my sh__ty first draft by interpreting my Gs that look like Ss and my Rs that look like Is and my ups and downs and arrows and my bubbles with sentences that are absolutely necessary to the line above or below or up the side and let’s not forget the middle phrase in the run-on sentence near the bottom of the page. This is no exaggeration. It’s a joke between us.

But when I’m working away solo at a restaurant over lunch, it’s not a joke. Sometimes I wish I could ask my waitress just what it was I wrote half a page up. Ten minutes ago. But then they’d think I wouldn’t be able to read the menu and so would bring me the picture menu. If they had one. OK, now my train of thought has drifted from editing to first drafts to penmanship. I think I need to go back and consider giving this blog entry a work out. Yes, the above photo is of a typical sh__ty rough draft page of mine, taken by my sister Storm Petrel. Is there a 12-step program for this obnoxious inclination?

It’s no use for me to seek advice on what I can do to improve my penmanship; teachers have been trying to help me there since my early erotica days. But I do ask, dear blog visitor, if you have any hints about how I can turn off my editor.

Gratefully, Inkpot


  1. Skootch a cheek over on the editor bench, my dear friend. :) I'm just as bad. Though I don't write long hand anymore, I still scrawl out shitty first drafts and go back over pages/paragraphs/sentences over and over again.

    I don't fight it. I simply embrace it because that's my process. Maybe it's yours, too. I get a rush out of it, actually. It makes me feel good to go back and run my words through my editing filters, and it's just how I write. It feels good to traipse and skip through the words I've already written, and it actually kicks my muse's ass. Seriously. It's what I do and I'm okay with that.


  2. I agree with Karen, Inky. Don't fight with what works...and everyone's process is different. My current process is checking e-mail, watching TV, sleeping, vacuuming, and napping. Sharpening pens. Cleaning out the garage (in my mind). Reading those 112 magazines I never get to, checking out blogs, and getting some good staring-out-the-window time with our cat. Oh, yeah, and my handwriting SUCKS. I feel your pain, there, too. Hmmm, maybe you shouldn't listen to me, and just take out that pen of yours and edit the hell out of this comment....

  3. Time constraints required me to fire my editor. Generally, I can only write in one-hour increments so have to charge onward each day and save the clean up for later.

  4. I too have this problem--sometimes it's great to revise as I go, but it can also be a way to avoid writing anything new...

  5. I'm a neurotic editor as well. So Ihave to use a couple of tricks to get myself to stop. One of them came from Nancy Lamb's book on crafting stories for children. I try to think of my first draft as a writing journal, because after all - "no one can flunk journaling."
    Second, because I also write my first drafts longhand a lot I always give myself a brief lecture before I start, telling myself that I will have plenty of opportunity to edit when I sit down and put it into the computer.
    Last - I tend to write early in the morning when I am still too groggy to argue with myself! Once I get rolling it's easier to just keep rolling and I find that magic groove that tells me not to stop for anything, not even a horribly wrought sentence!
    Finally - I agree with the people above, it it works for you, just relax and be happy that you're writing (and publishing)!
    Hope that helps! Good luck!

  6. Hey, if ain't broke, etc. etc.

    Now, if it were that nagging little negative voice-which I call The Heckler, because it serves no useful purpose-then you'd have a problem. When he pops up, I write a dialogue between him and my Writer. Things like "What makes you think you're a writer?" and "Well, I always got As on my writing in school." and so on. Sometimes the Heckler wins the argument. Sometimes the Writer does. Sometimes, it's a draw. But the more I do it, the more the Writer wins and the Heckler shuts up.

  7. Great post. I'm always amazed at people who can write out the first draft on paper. Not that I wasn't already amazed by Karen. :)

  8. Thanks for this blog and all the comments. I now feel much less alone in my writing and my own crazy thoughts and process. Writing short stories: I've pretty much given in to "my way" and find it is teaching me a thing or two. I tend to make minor changes to a story many, many times thinking "okay, that'll do it," then come back for changes number 30 or 50. After that, I don't know why I even wrote the story in the first place and set it aside. Some weeks, months or so later, I pick it up and discover exactly what I need to do. Make a lot of major changes and additions, tweek, tweek, and twiddlety tweek a whole lot, having a very happy time. The concoction of my story eventually boils down quite nicely with only a few areas to meditate upon or wait for the right word or wording to pop into my mind. This is the time for trusted readers. If their feedback isn't a total slashfest, and the gist of the story still holds water, I dig deeper into what I am attempting to convey, make sure all parts of the story hold together, and that no word or sentence trips me up (too much - perfection isn't possible, it's taken me a long time to say that.) Finally, the story is as good as I can make it. I feel sad that our time together is over. It's graduation day, I'll be an emptynester again until the next story takes hold.

  9. The perfectionist critic plagues me until I give her free rein. Debbie wrote of having a dialog with this devil, which I love and have done, but I have to give the devil free rein on the same canvas that "I" am working on. I play scribe for her and do my best to see how she is doing her best to take care of me. After all, there is really no "she" or "he" haunting me, but some part of my own psyche replaying my mother's nasty caveat, "Never write anything down that you don't want the whole world to read." Heaven knows what once happened to her that gave birth to this lifelong warning. Sigh.

    I've gone online before for a light moment of relief and played that Charlie Daniels song The Devil Went Down to Georgia. The Devil challenges an accomplished young fiddle player to play for his soul--high stakes--and the young player wins. Hurray! I'm not a country music fan in general, but this song is SO lively and fun that it can blow in, break up a hot stagnant day of inversion and bring back sweet fresh air. In this case the fresh air is my forward movement when writing. With the fiddle player, I win every time.

  10. I've had to work on this. My natural inclination is to constantly stop, go back over the last few paragraphs and make them shine before continuing on. I'm slowly, but surely, becoming a recovering editor-as-I-go.