I love bourbon. But I can’t imagine myself spending over $1000 for a bottle of it. That’s what a bottle of legendary Pappy Van Winkle 23 costs. Today it comes from the Buffalo Trace distillery where Julian Van Winkle III overseas today’s product.
Julian is the grandson of legendary (there’s that word again) Julian Van Winkle, the original Pappy. Pappy thought there were five keys to great bourbon. Each one is a different stage of the process. The keys are grains, yeast, fermentation, distillation, and aging.
As I was drinking my bourbon the other evening, it occurred to me that there are five keys to a great piece of writing, too. That was the start of this post, which is my homage to Pappy Van Winkle, great bourbon, and great writing.
Process is important. Every writer has a unique process. But no matter what process you develop keep these five keys in mind.
If you want to write a great piece, you need to have something to draw on. You need quality inputs. Sure, that’s your research for the piece, but it’s also everything that makes you the writer you are today.
Read a lot. Listen to lots of people. Reach outside your comfort zone. Ask questions. Go deep and go wide. Do everything you can to make yourself the best writer you can be today and a better writer tomorrow
Inspiration starts with that first flash of an idea for a piece. The thing about inspiration is that it’s fickle and fleeting. Ideas and insight come when you least expect them and leave quickly. Often you can’t remember them even a few moments later.
Be ready to catch those ideas when they show up. Carry a small notebook or index cards or a pocket digital recorder with you everywhere. Make capturing ideas a habit.
Just getting and recording ideas won’t get you much unless you do something with them. Save your ideas. Review them. There will be new flashes of inspiration when your brain combines ideas and inputs with more inputs and ideas to give you the start of a great piece.
Get It Out of Your Head
Even when you start putting good ideas together, they won’t affect anything if they stay between your ears. So, get everything you can out of your head and onto a page or into a file. It isn’t writing until you write it down and it can’t become great writing until you start writing.
You might choose to do a zero draft. That’s where you write your whole piece straight through without worrying about what research you need and how you can say things differently. At the end of that process, you’ll have the start of something great.
You could do a first draft. Actually, among those of us who write about writing, “first draft” is almost always modified by an adjective like “crappy” or “terrible” or “awful.”
That’s OK. Everything great starts out that way.
Rewrite and Revise Until Done
Great writing is rewriting. Lots of people have said that in lots of ways. Ernest Hemingway said, “the only kind of writing is rewriting.” They all say it because it’s the truth. No great writing starts out great. It’s rewriting and revising over and over that turn that awful first draft into an acceptable and then a good and then a great piece.
Give It Time
Great writing takes time. It takes time to construct the drafts and work through them to make them better. Great writing needs time between drafts, too. Let go of the grind of writing and let your brain work below the surface to give you good ideas about how to improve it. Let your writing ripen.
There’s another idea about making fine bourbon and making fine writing. It’s Pappy Van Winkle’s company motto.
“We make fine bourbon at a profit if we can, at a loss if we must, but always find bourbon.”
Increase the quality of your inputs. Go deep and go wide.
Capture your good ideas. Save them. Review them.
Get it out of your head and into a file or onto a page.
All treat writing is rewriting. Rewrite and revise until done.
Give your work time to ripen.
One More Note on Great Writing
I learned about Julian III and Pappy and bourbon from Wright Thompson’s book, Pappyland: A Story of Family, Fine Bourbon, and the Things that Last. It’s an example of great writing.