Malcolm Gladwell: the extraordinary freedom to rewrite

Writers, unlike surgeons, do not have to get it right on the first try. They can write as many terrible drafts as they like, and nobody is going to die. That’s a very good thing. It’s nearly impossible to get it right on the first try.

The writer must also be a manager of him or her self. The central responsibility of the manager is to lower the bar.

One way to do that, says Malcolm Gladwell, is to rewrite. Start by getting it down on the page with a shitty first draft. Then step away. Then come back later and rewrite. Repeat. Eventually you’ll have a quality piece of writing — and you won’t have traumatized yourself in the making of it.

You can always rewrite it. You can change it. That’s the great luxury of being a writer. We’re not surgeons. The world does not hold us to our first pass. If we botch the heart — if we kill the heart patient — we just get to operate again. Ten times before we get the operation right.

So make use of that extraordinary freedom. And just get stuff down and come back to it.

I might go through it countless times. Dozens of times, sometimes. Each time I’m doing something different to it. And each time stopping well before I’m finished. I don’t want to get bogged down, and I don’t want to get sick of it. I want to keep coming back to it fresh.

Malcolm Gladwell, from his course on Masterclass

Anne Lamott: shitty first drafts

Anne Lamott has a fantastic short essay about lowering the bar by setting out to write shitty first drafts.

You write shitty first drafts because you couldn’t possibly write a good first draft.

Very few writers really know what they are doing until they’ve done it.
The only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.

In the first draft you write whatever crazy stuff comes into your head.

The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page. If one of the characters wants to say, “Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?,” you let her. No one is going to see it. If the kid wants to get into really sentimental, weepy, emotional territory, you let him.

Some of that crazy stuff won’t be so crazy.

Just get it all down on paper because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means. There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you’re supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go — but there was no way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages.

But even if you know that your job is to write a shitty first draft, it’s still hard to get yourself to do it.

I’d sit down at my desk with my notes and try to write the review. Even after I’d been doing this for years, panic would set in. I’d try to write a lead, but instead I’d write a couple of dreadful sentences, XX them out, try again, XX everything out, and then feel despair and worry settle on my chest like an x-ray apron. It’s over, I’d think calmly. I’m not going to be able to get the magic to work this time. I’m ruined.

But you remind yourself: no one is going to see it. All you have to do is write something shitty. And gosh darn it, you are good enough to write something shitty.

So I’d start writing without reining myself in. It was almost just typing, just making my fingers move. And the writing would be terrible. I’d write a lead paragraph that was a whole page, even though the entire review could only be three pages long, and then I’d start writing up descriptions of the food, one dish at a time, bird by bird, and the critics would be sitting on my shoulders, commenting like cartoon characters. They’d be pretending to snore, or rolling their eyes at my overwrought descriptions

Stick with it and finish the shitty first draft, despite the internal critics that are telling you (probably accurately) that it’s shit.

The whole thing would be so long and incoherent and hideous that for the rest of the day I’d obsess about getting creamed by a car before I could write a decent second draft.

Whatever! You did it! Congratulate yourself.

And then come back to it later.

The next day, I’d sit down, go through it all with a colored pen, take out everything I possibly could, find a new lead somewhere on the second page, figure out a kicky place to end it, and then write a second draft. It always turned out fine, sometimes even funny and weird and helpful. I’d go over it one more time and mail it in.

And then the cycle will repeat again next time. But that’s okay. That’s the process.

Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something — anything — down on paper.

Malcolm Gladwell: just keep writing

As a writer, what do you do when you get stuck? Malcolm Gladwell says that the most important thing is to not quit. But that doesn’t mean you have to stay in the place where you’re stuck. Just work on something else. This part that you’re stuck on? Let it be incomplete or broken for now.

To get stuck and move to another part is not failure or defeat. It’s the process. Writers do not resolve all of the problems in their head — nobody is that smart. Problems will invariably get resolved. So have a little faith and just keep getting stuff down on the page.

I never react to being stuck by stopping. I react by — either I jump ahead, or I redo something, or I’ll write little pieces of an article without knowing where they fit.

The important thing is just to keep going. Because a lot of problems are resolved in the doing. The reason you get stuck, I think, in writer’s block is that you’re trying to imagine how to solve the problem at hand in your head — trying to work it all out and then put it down on paper. As opposed to understanding that no — put it down on paper and it will invariably work itself out.

The task of the successful writer is to lower the bar. You want to avoid areas of high difficulty. So a high difficulty task is having your story in your head before you write it. That’s too hard to do. You gotta be really smart to do that. I’m not smart enough. So why would I put myself in that position? Just start writing. And then work it out.

Malcolm Gladwell, from his course on Masterclass

Malcolm Gladwell: set a reasonable bar

How much writing do you expect to produce in a session? It can be counterproductive to set your expectation too high. If you do, you’ll fail to meet your bar, and you’ll feel like a failure. This’ll produce stress and anxiety, and from that state of mind it will be harder to write.

So don’t set yourself up for disappointment. Appreciate that writing is strenuous, and set a reasonable expectation.

From Malcolm Gladwell’s course on Masterclass.

What is your expectation as a writer for how much you can write? I think it’s really important to set a realistic expectation.

The feeling of failure that writers sometimes have is very often caused by the fact that they have too high an expectation for how much they can produce in a given day. Or a given sitting. They’ll say, “oh, I only did two paragraphs today.” And they’ll feel like a failure and it’ll cause anxiety and they won’t sleep and the next day they’ll wake up and they’ll be exhausted and full of stress and they won’t be able to write.

The truth is you can’t write a lot in a day. You can’t. It’s demanding creative work. It’s physically strenuous. It’s mentally strenuous. It wears you out. I often find myself mulling over something just in my head for ten times longer than I would actually spend writing that section.

A productive day for me is a day where, if I have a good page, I’m delighted. If a book is 300 pages and I do a good page in a day, that suggests I can do a book in a reasonable period of time. That’s a lot actually.

Some writers would say if I only did four paragraphs in a day I’ve failed. I think you’ve set yourself up for disappointment if you raise the bar that high.

Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell: just get it down

Here’s Malcolm Gladwell talking about the importance of getting your writing down on the page and coming back later to revise, rather than waiting for it to be good enough to start writing. From his course on Masterclass.

“The perfect is the enemy of the good” is one of the most important aphorisms that I repeat to myself.

If you’re trying to produce the perfect piece, you’ll never produce it. So you have to accept the fact that your first couple of drafts are going to be bad. They’re always bad. By definition they’re bad. You don’t know what you’re doing yet. But it’s very very important to just go through the stage of just getting things on the page.

The act of explaining your argument, or telling your story, is how the story emerges. You figure out how to tell the story as you tell it. Necessarily. Responding to pieces that you think will work together don’t work together. Or pieces you think don’t work together do, unexpectedly. Or you find ways to link things just in the moment as you’re writing. So you have to trust that process. And just get things down.

So when I start I’m just getting things down on the page. And I have big gaps. Or if I have things I can’t resolve I just don’t resolve them. I’ll have a chapter of a book or something and I’ll just have two versions. I’ll just stick them in there and leave them. Keep going. And next time round I’ll decide which one works and then the next time round I’ll do another. I might go through it countless times. Dozens of times, sometimes. Each time I’m doing something different to it. And each time stopping well before I’m finished. Just so I don’t — I don’t want to get bogged down, and I don’t want to get sick of it. I want to keep coming back to it fresh.

Malcolm Gladwell, Masterclass

After the book is written and polished, read it aloud to a friend

Writing advice from Neil Strauss:

This is the key piece of writing a book for me. When I’m all done with a book, I’ll call a friend or have a friend come over, and I’ll read them the entire book from front to back. And they don’t even need to respond — I know when I’m losing them. When they’re bored, I’ll just mark that passage and come back to it.

Another thing is I’ll literally read the whole thing out loud. If I’m losing someone for some part of it, I can just tell. I don’t even need their feedback.

Become proactive about time instead of reactive

Writing advice from Neil Strauss:

Neil is super serious about this. These are his life-changing tips about productivity.

  • No email in the morning. He uses an app called Freedom to block his email and inbound messages in the morning. He gives his phone to someone or puts it in a drawer.
  • He schedules all of his meetings and tasks on Monday. Tuesday through Friday he just writes.
  • So that he doesn’t have to spend mental cycles thinking about lunch, he has automated his lunch deliveries.
  • Friends can be a pain in the ass if you’re trying to write. If you have 7 friends, and they all want to see you once a week, what do you do? Here’s what Neil does: Wednesday night dinner parties. You want to see me? Great. Wednesday night.

The process of writing is the fastest way to improve your thinking

Tim Ferriss on writing:

The process of writing is the fastest way to improve your thinking. Writing is thinking on paper. It’s pretty tough to improve your thinking in real time. So even if you don’t plan on being a writer, it’s really good training for just being a better thinker.

The best way to write a book is to have a looming deadline

Writing advice from Neil Strauss:

The best way to write a book is to have a looming deadline with hard real-world consequences. That’s the only way you get stuff done. If you don’t have a publisher or a deal to impose those consequences, find some way to make them real.