His beard was black,
His beard was long;
He always sang
A pirate song.
But now he’s dead,
He went and died.
And his grave is
The last thing I spied.
You know who wrote that masterpiece of verse? Me, at age ten.
Yes yes, cute; I know. But let’s be honest here: as poetry goes, it’s not very good. Cringeworthy, in fact. (“But now he’s dead, he went and died”? Really?)
I share this with you to make the point that sometimes, what I write is mud.
I thought of this because I’ve just spent the last few weeks digging in the mud, looking for buried treasure. For months I had worked on two books, one a parable, the other a book on Spec Ops snipers. I’d reached a point with both where I thought they were finished.
They weren’t. Turned out, both still needed major work.
Once I woke up from the happy, rose-colored illusion that they were perfect just as they are! every word just right! and looked at them with clearer lenses, it was plain to see that there was, yes, plenty of mud on the page.
I often get things wrong at first, and not just in writing.
I remember the first time I went to the step class my wife and I now attend three times a week. Half the steps, I just could not get right. I overcooked a lot of over easy eggs before I eventually learned they do better on medium heat. My first business went bankrupt. My first two tries at marriage … well, they both had their good points (like any first draft), but they did not hang together (like any first draft).
People ask, what does it take to write. There are quite a few good answers, but here is one of the best I know:
This, I think, is also a very solid answer to the question, What does it take to live a good life? Because in both cases — writing and living — if you’re really going to try and do it, do it in a meaningful way, do it a way that makes a difference, then you have to face the fact that most of your first efforts are going to get it all wrong.
If you want to be a writer, then you need, at minimum, these three attributes: 1) the courage to throw down mud onto the page, 2) the honesty to recognize it as mud, and 3) the humility to revise and rework it. To do it over.
The courage to start. The honesty to assess. The humility to continue from there.
Ernest Hemingway said, “The first draft of anything is crap.” I find this to be absolutely true, and if you don’t believe me, I offer the following as proof.
Here is the opening of The Go-Giver, the way it starts in its final, published version:
If there was anyone at the Clason-Hill Trust Corporation who was a go-getter, it was Joe. He worked hard, worked fast, and was headed for the top. At least, that was his plan. Joe was an ambitious young man, aiming for the stars.
Still, sometimes it felt as if the harder and faster he worked, the further away his goals appeared. For such a dedicated go-getter, it seemed like he was doing a lot of going but not a lot of getting.
Work being as busy as it was, though, Joe didn’t have much time to think about that. Especially on a day like today—a Friday, with only a week left in the quarter and a critical deadline to meet. A deadline he couldn’t afford not to meet.
What this has going for it is economy and clarity. Paragraph 1 tells us everything we need to know about Joe in 43 words. And the “at least, that was his plan” plants the seed for what’s coming in paragraph 2.
Paragraph 2 gives us the core challenge and dissatisfaction of Joe’s life (in 39 words).
And paragraph 3 gives us the immediate problem, the dragon Joe needs to slay, and the “ticking clock” that sets his quest — and the story itself — in motion (47 words).
One, two three. Not a word wasted.
Now, take a look at how this passage went in its first draft:
Once there was a man named Joe who worked for the Clason-Hill Financial Services Corporation. Joe worked hard, Joe worked fast, and Joe was headed for the top. At least, that was the plan.
Although only in his late twenties, Joe was ambitious, hard-working and a tough negotiator. He was not a man to be satisfied with anything less than primo performance, top dollar and a corner office. None of which, he had to admit, he seemed anywhere close to having. But he would. He was ambitious. Aiming for the stars.
If there was anyone in Clason-Hill Financial who was a go-getter, it was Joe.
But for all his hard work and enthusiasm, Joe wasn’t especially happy.
He worked hard in his business, not because he loved the work (although there had been a time when he had thought he loved it), but because he was determined to get ahead. Still, the harder he worked, the further off the goal seemed.
There was another reason Joe put in such long hours: it gave him a good excuse, even a noble one, not to be at home. Although Joe loved his wife Susan, he enjoyed spending time with her less and less. And it seemed to him that she felt the same way.
It’s not that they weren’t committed to their marriage. (They were.) And it’s not that they didn’t work hard at communication. (They did.) They had even spent quite a bit of time talking over their different ideas about how to raise their kids. (Not that they actually had any kids yet, but they planned to, eventually.) It was just that…well, Joe wasn’t sure what it was. And work being as busy as it was, he didn’t have much time to think about it anyway.
Especially on a day like today.
Notice a few differences?
For one thing, the first draft is more than twice as long as the final version. There was a lot in there that really, really needed to come out.
The first-draft version also has a labored, heavy-handed feel to it. Affected, even. The late master crime novelist Elmore Leonard said, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” That first draft really, really sounded like writing.
And then there was this whole lengthy passage about Joe and Susan that was entirely out of place here at the start of the story. It told us way more than we needed to know. There’s a time-honored principle in writing: “Show, don’t tell.” Don’t explain to me how things are, show me how they are. This original opening gave us a lot of tell and not much show.
We could go on and on, detailing the many ways this first draft was a muddy mess. But here’s the interesting thing about it:
The final version was already in there, somewhere.
The book that starts out with that revised, reworked, final-version opening has sold more than half a million copies. The first draft of that same book wouldn’t have sold ten copies — yet the potential was already in there, somewhere in that mudpuddle of words.
I think this is true of everything we do.
When you make a mess — of anything: an over easy egg, a class, a business, a relationship, a paragraph — just remember this: it’s a draft, not the final version. Hemingway has given you permission to mess it up, and then make it better.
And remember this, too: there is buried treasure in there.