Friday, November 28, 2014

Conference Insights: Getting It Down vs. Getting It Right

Dani Shapiro, author of Still Writing, Devotion: A Memoir, and Slow Motion, among other varied works, gave an early keynote presentation at the 2014 Writer's Digest Conference East this past August.

She spoke about her writing process, calling herself a writer, what makes a writer's personality, and more.

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One item that struck me from her keynote was a deliberate conscious choice she makes. She calls it the difference between "writing to get it down and writing to get it right."

Getting It Right

Writing to "get it right" keeps a would-be-published author foundering in fear and anxiety. Often, this writer neurotically writes and rewrites and re-rewrites the first chapter, or the first page, or even the very first line of a work-in-progress, and never gets past that portion of the manuscript.

The writer has excellent intentions. He or she wants to be very sure that every word is in the right place for maximum impact and effect. That's a noble goal, a worthwhile goal for a writer who wants to get published.

The problem is that when you focus so completely on getting every single word right, and in the right place, as you're writing, you'll probably never make it past the first line, page, or chapter. Certainly, you'll never get the whole manuscript written. And how many writers are out there who have never actually finished a manuscript?

Estimates suggest that an astronomically high percentage of people who sit down to start a book never actually finish it.

I'd like to suggest that overdeveloped perfectionism and the desire to control the entire process are two factors that contribute.

It isn't bad to want to get your writing right. What's bad is getting so locked in to getting it right early in the process that you never even finish the manuscript. Discouragement, depression, and burnout quickly follow.

Don't fall into the trap of thinking you have to get every word right the very first time.

Getting It Down

You can revise bad writing (as long as it's been written). You can't revise no writing.

If there are no words on the page, there's no way to correct word order, grammar, punctuation, syntax, spelling, voice, theme, consistency, or anything else. There's no way to align one sentence or page or chapter with all the others in the manuscript when there isn't a manuscript.

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Don't pressure yourself to write perfectly.

Instead, find ways to build the writing routine into your life.

Set measurable goals and write them down.

Mark your progress on a calender or in a spreadsheet.

Measure your progress by the number of hours a day or a week you write, or by the number of pages or words you produce.

Set up a small reward system for every several thousand words or every twenty pages you write.

Write early in the morning, if that's when you're most creative and have the most energy and free, uninterrupted time.

Or write in the evenings, after everyone else is in bed.

Or write on Saturdays --- keep the time sacred, and write from noon to five o'clock in the evening before you emerge. If you write five pages an hour, you'll have twenty-five pages in that span of time. A typical book is usually three to four hundred pages long, double-spaced. Twelve or sixteen Saturdays, and you have a completed manuscript.

That's a completed manuscript in three or four months.

And it won't be perfect. It's not supposed to be perfect.

Writing isn't about getting every single word right the first time you put it on the page. It's about discovering the edges of the story you're really telling, and what you're trying to say about human nature or life or love or friendship or loss.

Once you've got that figured out --- once the entire first draft is down on the page, as terrible as I promise it will be --- then you revise and work to get it right.

Do it in reverse, and frustrate yourself unnecessarily.

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