Lady knitting on her own hat

Last week I was writing a business proposal for work, and it took me five revisions to get it right. When I say “right,” I don’t mean it was perfect. I mean I was finally satisfied that it presented what I wanted to say, backed up with hard numbers and strong examples, in a logical structure that was easy to digest. It didn’t include too much information or too little. This is not an easy balance to strike. It takes time to get it right.

Because here’s the thing: writing is rewriting. Nobody gets it right the first time. Nobody. If they say they do, they are lying. Or delusional. Maybe both.

Writing well takes practice. It’s like the hundreds of back handsprings I did on a mattress on the floor of our basement when I was taking gymnastic lessons as a kid. Repetition is key. And yes, sometimes I fell on my head.

Responding to my post about the importance of deleting unnecessary adverbs and adjectives, one reader commented:

Thanks Laurie for the great reminder! I would add that you never, ever get this right the first time.

I don’t know about you, but I find I have to print my work off, get out my carefully sharpened pencil and be ruthless before I get the clarity I need. It takes time, but it’s always worth it.

She’s right. So in this post, dear reader, I bring you a message of peace: be patient with yourself. Diligent but patient. It’s not easy to get your thoughts down on paper in a logical, coherent, lean, and engaging manner.

When one of my journalism professors broke the news to us that “writing is rewriting,” I didn’t want to believe him. I wanted to think I could dash off an award-winning article in one try. Fifteen years later, I understand the process doesn’t work that way. Writing something I’m proud of requires more long showers and trips to the vending machine for Doritos than I’d like to admit.

In her helpful and often funny book, Bird by Bird, American author Anne Lamott describes the misconception about the lives of writers:

People tend to look at successful writers and think they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter. But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated. I know some great writers, writers who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much.

Lamott says the only way she gets anything done is by writing “really, really shitty first drafts.” In fact, she devotes an entire chapter, “Shitty First Drafts,” to describing this part of her process.

She explains:

Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something – anything – down on paper. A friend of mine says the first draft is the down draft – you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft – you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.

During the revision process, I find it helpful to elicit feedback from those I trust. When I was writing that business proposal I mentioned, I asked three colleagues to review it. I knew it wasn’t there yet, and I wasn’t sure why. Their feedback was invaluable in helping me realize where I had left out crucial details, how I needed to rework the structure, and where I needed to cut. (“Remember, keep it pithy!” one of my reviewers said.)

Note that I did not ask them to edit my proposal. I asked them for their comments so that I could learn from fixing it myself. And I did not implement all of the changes they recommended but picked and chose from those I agreed with. Just because someone gives you feedback doesn’t mean you have to incorporate their every point. You are a writer — not a short-order cook.

So remember, as you’re working to improve your writing, be patient with yourself. Trust the process. The sometimes painful, often anxiety-provoking, ultimately satisfying process. This doesn’t mean being passive or complacent. Nor does it mean biting your nails through endless revisions. There is an appropriate time to say, “Pencils down.”

Being patient with yourself means being willing to stick with it until you produce your best work. Not perfect work, but the best you are capable of in the time frame you have. You’ll know when you’re there. Your intuition will tell you.

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