Better Writing: Getting It Wrong is Part of Getting It Right

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Most of my clients are embarrassed about their first drafts. When they send them to me, they often include a comment. The comments go something like this:

* “It’s very rough.”
* “Excuse the bad grammar.”
* “I apologize for the quality of the writing.”
* “I hope you can do something with this.”

Ernest Hemingway was right. He may have been optimistic.

Ernest Hemingway said it succinctly. “All first drafts are crap.” He meant all first drafts. He meant your first drafts and my first drafts and his first drafts. They’re all crap.

This Is Not School and I Am Not Your English Teacher

When you were in school and wrote a paper, the purpose was to find out if you understood how to write. The teacher’s job was to grade your writing. Neither of those things is true when you’re writing a book.

When you write your first draft, you won’t get a grade. The purpose of writing a first draft is to get the ideas and stories that will be in your book out of your head. Then we can make everything better.

Once we’ve got that first draft, we can start doing things to make the book great. We can determine if we’ve got everything we need. We can decide if we have the most important points in the right order. We can sharpen the language and polish the prose.

The Willie Stark Rule

Willie Stark is a character in Robert Penn Warren’s novel, All the King’s Men. Willie is a ruthless politician. The character is based on the real-life Huey Long.

When he gets criticized for his methods, here’s what he says. I call it “The Willie Stark Rule.”

“You’ve got to make good out of bad. That’s all there is to make it with.”

Bottom Line

You will not get a grade on your first draft, but you will learn a lot. The most important thing you’ll learn is what you need to do to take your book from where it is now to a book you can be proud of. Getting it wrong is part of getting it right.

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