Lesson learned: Write fast, edit slow
By Paula LaRocque
The best advice I ever got was from a college English professor. He was a notoriously demanding teacher, and I wanted to do well in his class. Naturally, I depended upon my time-honored habits as an overachiever.
And was rewarded with paralysis.
“For some reason, I can’t seem to get started,” I complained.
“Yes, you can,” he said.
“Yes. All you have to do is lower your standards.”
I was shocked. My whole academic life was dedicated to overachieving. And no overachiever worthy of the label ever lowered her standards.
“Just temporarily,” he said, seeing my expression. “Just till you have a rough draft. That means you’ll stifle the urge to edit as you’re writing. Then you’ll raise your standards again when you start fixing the flaws — that is, when you start editing.”
That professor changed how I thought of writing. It was a process. It was not created perfect — and in fact might be plain crappy. It had to be made perfect.
I learned from him that writing was creative, and editing was mechanical — and that each was a function of different parts of the brain. I learned not to let editing get in the way of creativity, and vice versa. I learned that a writer’s best gift to a reader is fast reading — and that the best route to fast reading is fast writing.
I learned, in short, to write fast and edit slow.
I mention this because later I myself became a professor of writing and, later still, the writing coach for a major metropolitan daily. I switched from an academic world in which writing meant the “infinite taking of pains” to the boiler room of daily deadlines. In the newsroom, the stylebook was sacrosanct, content often took a back seat to form, and because of deadline, even fine writers often succumbed to the temptations of journalese or formula.
I watched writers staring into their screens, notebooks full of disparate facts and quotes at their elbows, trying to craft an opening sentence that would catch and connect. An hour later, they were still there, with little achieved but the transfer of some of those facts and quotes into the computer, still disparate and unconnected.
Or they had written something like this:
“Amid a firestorm of criticism spawned when President Obama seemed to contradict his earlier statements regarding the rollout of what is called “Obamacare” — his administration’s signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act — that people who wanted to could keep their current plans . . . ”
So many words, so little said.
Yet those reporters knew instinctively how to tell the story. They created an interesting lead when their editors asked for a summary. They just didn’t write that lead.
Here’s a question. If we were writing this story, and our editor asked what we had, would we respond “amid a firestorm of criticism spawned when . . .” Would we blather about “signature achievements” and the like, or would we say something that captured the story’s gist?
We would do the latter.
“The president’s in a peck of trouble,” we might say, “over his promise that people could keep their current insurance after the ACA rollout.”
We journalists need to trust our native storytelling skills and leave formula behind, both in vocabulary and approach. And for speed and efficiency, we need a roadmap to help us shape the work. It needn’t be ornate, but it should include main points and transitions.
Having a roadmap and writing fast actually saves time. It gets us to our destination faster because we don’t get lost and can ignore alternate routes. That’s why, before laying hand to keyboard, we should write a summarizing sentence capturing the story’s essence. We could think of it as a thesis statement, or it could even be our lead. Or we can write a headline, as long a headline as we like. The purpose of either is the same: to refine the whole story into a single nugget of meaning. That meaning is our destination. Then we should make a brief, informal outline. That’s our roadmap.
To see how quick and simple such an “outline” can be, here’s the roadmap I created before writing this column:
Summary:Best practices for both process and result: Write fast without editing, but edit slowly and carefully.
Beginning: Anecdotal. Professor advises student to suspend standards of perfection and create rough draft quickly — but to retain those standards while editing.
Middle: How this benefited student and could also benefit deadline writers. Value of “roadmap” in writing fast.
End/kicker: Reproduce roadmap for this column.
Paula LaRocque is author of “The Book on Writing,” “On Words,” “Championship Writing” and a mystery novel, “Chalk Line.” Website: paulalarocque.com