Shortcuts for Writers

There are no shortcuts for writers. (Gotcha!)

But now that you’re here, a brief summary of the wisdom I’ve gleaned from countless articles about writing (just the parts that have worked for me):

1. The shortest route between the idea in your head and the story you’d like to have written is … writing it down. To do that, you normally have to sit in a chair, turn off distractions, and write. If you find an alternative, let me know.

2. This will produce a draft that ranges on the scale of -10 to 1, compared to the idea you originally had. In case you’re naively optimistic, let me spell that out : You’re at Minus Ten to Plus One, and Plus Ten equals “exactly what I meant to write.” (I’m talking to newby writers, after all. Once you’re Stephen King, it’s probably on a range from 2-6, or so he claims.) What this means is that the shortest route from this first draft to whatever your idea originally was will be an arduous mountain pass through the terrain of revision. See below.

Bwlch Maesgwyn on Horseback

Bwlch Maesgwyn on Horseback (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

3.  The next leg of your shortcut, before revision, is waiting. Not doing anything with your draft. Letting it sit. Better yet: writing something else. I’ve found helpful the advice of waiting a minimum of 6 weeks between the writing of your first draft and the reading of the same. If this is your first time through, I highly recommend reading some books about the writing and revision process during this period. (I particularly enjoyed works by Orson Scott Card and Stephen King’s On Writing. You can also brush up on Elements of Style.)

4. After your requisite time off, your journey to the recovery of your brilliant idea will require mapping that shapeless lump called your first draft. This process is known as revision. A lot of new writers (I was one) hate this part at first. Later it comes to be your friend. Embrace it. Forget shortcuts. Get shortcuts out of your head. Revision (sometimes rewriting) can take longer than writing the first draft, especially if you have bad writing habits. (Some of mine were: telling vs. showing, using needless words, letting language carry me away without paying attention to it, letting readers know too much or too little, and failing to get to the point.)

5. There’s a decent chance that you’ll find your brilliant idea wasn’t worth as much as you thought, or that you didn’t have the tools at this stage of your life to bring it off in a way that’s pleasing to you. If you’re thinking publication (and who isn’t?), then likely the fastest route will be to put aside what you’ve revised, and just start a new project. The first draft of your next project is likely to be better than the last draft of your last project. Best advice I got early on was that, just as an artist doesn’t expect to sell her first painting, neither should a writer his first story.

But before you throw the thing out, if you have even a glimmer of a notion that this thing you’ve written might be readable, you can always pass it on to some readers who are willing to give you a hard time and really criticize it. If your mom is like mine, she won’t be one of them. If they give you good ideas and/or if they see some promise in the story, go ahead and revise it again. If not, move on.

Either way: Congratulations, you’ve reached your destination, a something-or-other version of what your idea was. If you wrote it down, you should be proud. A lot of people don’t get that far. If you managed to revise it and make it better, you should be even prouder: you’re learning the craft. If, wildest of all possibilities, it comes out publishable (in your view) and you actually send it out to some editors, you should be still prouder: you’re in the game. And finally, on the extravagant chance that an editor likes it and publishes it, even albeit without paying you a single cent for your hard work, then give yourself a pat on the back. By some route or another, you’ve just become an author.

All right, fellow scribblers: What did I leave out? Any advice you’d like to share?

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5 thoughts on “Shortcuts for Writers

  1. Added resource suggestion: “Getting the Words Right: how to rewrite, edit and revise”, by Theodore A. Rees Cheney.

  2. Good stuff!

    I think the ‘set it aside for a while’ advice is very good although depending on your style and writing maturity, it might make sense to do that after a first revision if, as you wrote the first draft, you came up with a lot of things you’d like to fix immediately.

    I think the write it, revise it and move on advice is sound but some care is needed about abandoning something too soon. On the other hand, I came across a blog of someone who has been working 5 years on the same project and I just cringe. Almost certainly time to move on.

    Thanks for the post; great thoughts!

    • Good points, both. I have to admit that I do a bit of editing during the initial write. I think it was James Patterson who said he does the same thing: primes the pump by lightly editing the tail-end of the last writing session. But once I feel like I’ve got the story more or less “down,” it’s time to wait (for me).
      And yes, some folks are way too harsh on their own writing, and others way too easy. I suppose a rule of thumb would be, if you think everything you write is trash, you’re probably being too hard on yourself. And if you think it’s all brilliant, way too easy.
      For me, the waiting part helps here. After I’ve kind of forgotten what I wrote on that first draft, if I go back to it and think, “ooh, there’s some good stuff in here,” then I feel it’s worth the trouble to edit it. Otherwise, I chalk it up to writing experience.

      • I definitely agree with the waiting part- it’s one of the hardy learned lessons but very important. In the long, it saves a lot of time: you may decide to start the next project (saving further effort on the current one) or if you continue on it, there will be fewer overall drafts if you do a draft with fresh eyes.

        While I let one project sit, I like to do work on the next one- which is what I’m doing now.

        From a timing of the gap point of view, for me, I like to pause after it is passable enough for an ‘alpha read’ (which you can get from friends or a critiquing forum, local or something like critters.org). As long as the readers know it is alpha stage, it can be useful feedback, both overall (does it seem to be working for the readers) and practical (e.g., do I need to rethink the ending)

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