Write sloppy, then cut

penBeginning writers often lack the confidence to write sloppy, anything-goes first drafts. Veterans will tell you these writers have an internal editor that judges every word before it reaches the page or screen.

Sometimes the internal editor looks like Mom, Dad, Reverend Johnson or Professor Smith in the English department. These people have opinions about writing, right and wrong and what you ought to do with your life. If you can hear them saying “tisk tisk” while you write your first draft, that draft is probably going to be anal.

Neither your imagination nor your flow of words needs to be restricted when you write the first draft.

It also takes confidence to cut words. Veteran writers refer to a writer’s favorite scenes and sentences as “your darlings.” These are wonderful in the wrong way. They’re funny, tragic or the best poetry you’ve ever seen. The problem? They don’t fit the story.

Many students in a creative writing or basic news reporting classes are shocked when their short stories and practice news reports come back marked with a red pen. Instructors cut unnecessary words we use in conversation but shouldn’t be using when we write.

Adverbs have a bad reputation. Adjectives are next on the list of suspects. So are weak verbs. Look at each one while you’re cutting words and see if it adds anything to the sentence.

On Facebook these days, it’s rather a fad to say “I’m totally addicted to this TV show.” The word “totally” adds nothing because addicted is addicted. Many TV news reporters didn’t get the message when they took basic reporting in college and heard the instructor say “stop using the words ‘totally destroyed.'” A destroyed condition is already total.

Saying “so totally addicted” might sound “in” on Facebook and at the local mall, but the words slow down your writing. Worse yet, they date your writing; by that I mean, once they do out of style, your story will go out of style, too.

Consider this exercise: Look for short story and creative nonfiction writing competitions with strict maximum word counts. Think of a plot or subject and then write the first draft with the idea that you’re going to have twice as many words as you need. Now cut the first draft so it fits the competition’s requirements. You’ll be amazed at how much stronger the work becomes when the unnecessary words are polished away.

Sculptors have said that creating a statue out of a block of marble is a process of taking away the unwanted stone. You’re doing this when you delete the words you don’t need.  The resulting writing sings just as the sculptor’s best work looks like stone that lives and breathes.

Your first-draft sloppiness gets all the ingredients in place. Editing smooths away everything that will get in the way of the final story.


LandBetweenCoverMalcolm R. Campbell is the author of contemporary fantasies, folktales and paranormal short stories. His latest three-story set, “The Land Between the Rivers,” was released on Kindle September 29.

6 thoughts on “Write sloppy, then cut

  1. Smoky Zeidel

    I’m, like, so totally in to what you’re, like, saying here, Malcolm. And, like, I can totally say that, because I no longer am a writer. I’m an artist-at-large. LOL!

  2. melindaclayton

    Really good advice that I need to have in front of me whenever I write. I find myself (lately – this didn’t happen in the beginning) so worried about what I’m writing and the reaction it might get that I’m paralyzed.

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