Coulda Shoulda Woulda: Rethinking the Rewrite During the Write

Mobile phone

Mobile phone (Photo credit: Matthew Burpee)

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.” – Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

I was right in the middle of working on my book when a notion popped into my head:

Wait a minute. Maybe if I move critical point #1 to physical location #3, then I could do away with physical location #2 which, while it could be great, may not be neccessary, so I could just pull the last 80 pages of the book and resctructure the book entirely. Granted that would kill months of work and possibly the outcome of the orignial intent of the book but would that help?

Back in the day, I would drive myself nuts trying to perfect each senctence I just wrote and then trying to perfect the sentence I was about to write. I convinced myself perfecting the prose would bypass the need for a rough-draft rewrite. Even though I embraced my love of perfectionism, I would talk to wife and complain that I had spent hours to only end up completing one paragraph on my book. After a while of me whining and complaining to my wife again, she would cut me off with, “just finish the damn book already! Quit worrying about every little detail and just write! Don’t even stop for typos. As a matter of fact, turn off the grammar and spell checker and just write. Get it all out and worry about all the commas and crap later.”

One of the main things that I love/hate about my wife is that she’s (always) right. It kind of drives me nuts some/all of the time, but in this particular situation I listened to her and have done my best to embrace completing what she, like Anne Lamott calls, the Shitty First Draft.

I’ve second quessed myself for most of my writing career with few exceptions, namely the projects that I’ve actually finished. Crazy that: I’ll finish a short story or a blog post. Then I’ll go back and read through it to make sure it’s, well…good. But one of the best parts of writing something is getting to the end and then spending a moment looking back at it and thinking, “holy crap. I just wrote [insert project]. Awesome.”

Earlier, I caught myself thinking about my Coulda Woulda Shoulda and stopped. I thought back to what my wife said. Here I actually considered tossing a huge chunk of my book and then spending a good chunk of my time rewriting another part of it. And the crazy thing is that it might have worked but on the other hand it might NOT have worked. I sure wouldn’t know if either direction would be best because I would still be clinging onto my perfectionism and not doing the one thing that I should have tatooed on my forehead:

Finish it.

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2 thoughts on “Coulda Shoulda Woulda: Rethinking the Rewrite During the Write

  1. I recently finished my first story in 20 years. Since 1992 I’ve started writing quite a few novels but never finished anything, and in retrospect I think it was because I tried to outline.

    Now, outlining should be a good thing. I believe in structuring a story, and probably most writers would benefit from working with an outline. But what kind of writing are they trying to create? Stories that center on ideas or events or milieus or events probably work best with outlines. But character-driven stories are … well, driven by the characters.

    I’m a character writer who was trying to be George Lucas writing his prequels (and we all wish George Lucas hadn’t been George Lucas writing his prequels). What happened is, as I would start writing, I would keep a second file for all the great ideas I came up with, of scenes and dialogue exchanges and plot twists that were just so good, they HAD to be worked in.

    But eventually I got paralyzed by an awareness of all those irreplaceable, great ideas, and started doing more outlining than story-writing.

    Two things happened in March this year so that I could finish a project by April 3. First, I had just a small idea, one fit for a short story — or as turned out, a novelette of just 15,000 words. So even though I started making the same mistake and barfing up great ideas that I moved into a second file, I made so much progress on the story — compared to its projected length — in a single day’s writing, that some of those ideas were quickly overtaken by developments as the characters spoke to me and dictated events.

    And I realized, I’m never gonna run out of ideas. Just because something seems brilliant one moment doesn’t mean it’s the only useful idea I’ll get, and that another won’t be as good or better. And I even started trusting my memory more, so that things I didn’t write down tended to fade away if they weren’t strong enough to stay with me until the next time I sat down to type.

    So far, I do back up and copy-edit and remove inconsistencies. Maybe I’d do better to skip that, but I find it useful to reacquaint myself with what’s already written, and since my first media job was as a newspaper copy editor and I compulsively brush up the grammar in Wikipedia — well, I don’t think I can help doing that to my own work.

    But many writers experience some kind of vapor lock from their overheated perfectionism, and it’s wise of us to listen to the voice of those who tell us to worry less and trust ourselves more, and to just get the freakin’ story written first.

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