Spring 2002

‘Writing is all about rewriting, which means you’ve got to get something down.’

By Chip Scanlan
Steps for Managing Your Stories
  • Lower your standards.
  • Get something down.
  • Swallow the bile that rises in your throat when you write a first draft.
  • Print out early.
  • Read aloud.
  • Apply very critical standards.

Audience members line up to ask questions.

I find that what writers are asking for more than anything is permission—permission to do what we want. And so writers will say, “Could I do this?” And my reaction is usually “Sure. You may fail, but of course you can do it.” I keep a piece of paper over my desk, a quote from Samuel Beckett, the playwright. And it’s three lines: “Fail, fail again, fail better.”

Sigmund Freud once reflected on Friedrich Schiller’s observation that there is within us a watcher at the gates, and that is the critical voice. It is the voice that says, “You suck.” And it is probably one of the key reasons why you can answer the question, “If I manage my time, my stories, and myself better, I would be—” and you’re not those things right now. It’s because of doubt, of the critic’s voice. And it cheats you and me and all of us of the opportunity to experience writing for what it is: a journey, a process of discovery.

So many writers have said, “I don’t know what I think until I write it down.” So the question is how do you get past that? How do you get past the watcher at the gates? Gail Godwin wrote a wonderful essay called “The Watcher at the Gates” in the mid-1970’s in The New York Times in which she said, in essence, my job as a writer is to start writing really fast so I can sneak past that watcher of the gates before the watcher can say, “Hey wait a minute. You suck. You can’t write.” That’s the principle. The device is free writing.

Earlier, a woman looked at me and said, “What are you speaking about?” And I said, “Well, I guess what I’d say is my advice to writers is lower your standards.” She is a teacher, so she was horrified. But that’s what it’s all about. Lower your standards. And the way you do that is free writing.

So if there’s ever a day when you think, I can’t get anything done, just say, “Look. I’m going to write for two minutes.” I don’t just say to myself, “Lower your standards”—I say abandon them.

Writing is all about rewriting, which means you’ve got to get something down. But there is this paradox that I think all of us probably have experienced, those moments where we begin to write and we stop thinking, and we’re just writing. And it begins to flow. The best writing comes from the gut, from the heart, in the sense almost when the mind is shut off or it’s on automatic. And, of course, not everything’s going to be perfect. But if you could at least start every day with writing something, getting something down, you’ve planted a seed that you can nourish all day long.

To manage your stories, there are essentially six steps. One, lower your standards. Get something down. Swallow the bile that rises in your throat when you write a first draft. Because the fact of the matter is, as you learn, that it contains the promise of the final one. Print out early. One of the downsides of the computer is we don’t hit the print button. Print out early. Read aloud. People don’t read aloud. Better yet, have someone else read it to you. If they’re stumbling, it’s probably because it’s not clear enough. It took me a long time to accept the fact, “I’m bored reading this.” Think about all the stories that have been published that if you read them aloud, you’d say, “God, this is boring. Who the hell would read this? I’m only reading it because I’m being paid to.” You have to be honest.

I mean, it’s this paradox. I’m saying, “Wait a minute. I think you said lower your standards?” Sure, lower your standards at first. But then you have to apply very critical standards.

3 Comments on ‘Writing is all about rewriting, which means you’ve got to get something down.’
Joesph Belgarde says:
March 16, 2013 at 11:48pm
It is actually somewhat of a compliment to the writer. What gets us into the game is our good taste, our high standards, and our desire to meet it. However, this standard gets in the way of writing, because the first draft is never even remotely as good as the final. So the first step is to lower your standards from perfection, and then, once you have a place to work from, raise those standards again.
Casey says:
March 16, 2013 at 4:48pm
RE: Sush kale

I think the point is to acknowledge that first drafts are usually pretty terrible, and accept it. Lose the perfectionism, and just write. Anything I write must meet my incredibly exacting standard before I let anyone else see it...and the rough drafts are always horrible.

Get something, anything down. Puke it onto the page. And when the terrible, miserable, awful rough draft is done, THEN you can start polishing it. THEN you can embrace those super-high standards.

But if I try to meet my own standards in the drafting phase, I never get anything done.
Sush kale says:
February 24, 2013 at 4:22pm
Loved reading this, but the suggestion 'lower your standards' is rather unpalatable! If standards are reduced then why would one rewrite? The first draft would in fact be the final one!
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