Writing is YES (And Then We Edit)

At a recent writer’s conference, I was following along with the speaker’s thoughts about “sh*tty first drafts” when a phrase popped into my head: “Writing is YES.” I wrote it down… and now I’m going to try to explain what it means (to both myself and to you).

It’s very hard to turn off the editor inside my head, but that’s exactly what’s required to get fresh ideas on “paper”—which is the only place to see if they are worth sharing with anyone else. Spewing out thoughts and then following the most promising to see where they lead is how I start each blog post and novel and boat story. If I start thinking too far ahead, about what a story will look like in its final form, both fingers and brain freeze up: that’s not smooth enough, or those words are too flowery, or… you get the idea.

The first step to telling a story (especially the ones that originate inside my head) is to write it all out. Only then can I start editing it down to what I’m really trying to say—which often ends up in a different place from where I started.

So if writing is YES, editing is Yes AND (or, for more blunt authors, Yes BUT). I’ve written before about the different hats necessary to see any project through to a successful finish, but I’ve come to accept that those three avatars also need to coexist inside my brain. Ideally, I would collect all of the raw ideas and fresh imagery on the page (YES) before moving into the AND/BUT phase; finding the courage and discipline to throw out what’s not working. In reality, it sometimes becomes a wrestling match.

Here’s an example from a recent post: I was trying to draw attention to a quote from a 1966 regatta report that captured both the timelessness and changes in sailboat racing, and the idiom “in a nutshell” rose to the surface. Wouldn’t it be so much fresher if I shortened that to just “nutshell,” as in: “This nutshell phrase shows us what’s changed and what hasn’t.” ? I finally decided that skimming readers would find my shorthand distracting, and non-English speakers might even be confused; the final version reads, “a phrase that captures…” Much less colorful, and also much clearer. 

Like all of them, this blog post too has morphed as I’ve written. And now that I’ve captured the YES, I need to go back and see what I’m really trying to say; I’ll add in a few “ANDs,” and maybe even one or two “BUTs” (though that’s a word I definitely try to avoid). What do you think of my new phrase, and my theory (in a nutshell)? Share your comments below, or send me an email. I read every single one, with gratitude.

2 Replies to “Writing is YES (And Then We Edit)”

  1. Trying to use “in a nutshell)”, to me is trying to be too cute. Wait does “to cute” work. Thanks for the years of helping me start to learn how to edit. So many people say they can write, but only get to the “Yes”, the good writers are some of the best editors.

    Great post as always.

  2. Thanks Paul. I find myself using such phrases as shorthand but try to edit out the worst cliches, unless they serve the story/post. It’s been fun watching your writing’s continuous improvement!

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