Write, Damn It

January 7, 2019 § 45 Comments

tawni watersBy Tawni Waters

Can anything be sadder
than work left unfinished?
Yes, work never begun.

-Christina Rossetti

For five years, I’ve lived on the road, earning money to support my travel addiction by writing books, freelance editing, and teaching writing. Between editing and teaching, I’ve read thousands of manuscripts and worked with hundreds of writers, from beginners to professionals. This process has taught me much about writing, because when you work with so many writers and read so many manuscripts, you see patterns emerging, mistakes that almost everyone makes, hesitancies and deficiencies that are reflected in your own writing life.

The biggest mistake writers consistently make is failing to write. I’ve discovered that writers like to think about writing. They like to talk about writing. They like to wax rhapsodic about their big ideas. But they don’t like putting pen to page.

I work with writers who pay me $100 an hour for editing services and then spend all of their hours on the phone, telling me what they think will happen to their characters or how epic their big climax is going to be. When I say, “That sounds great, now write it!” they balk. Almost universally, they say, “I don’t know how.” I say, “You do know how. You pick up a pen, put it to the page, and start writing words.”

This never seems to help. They don’t write words. Instead, they call me a week later and spend another $100 telling me about bigger, better ideas for their award-winning book. “What do you think of my pacing, plotting, and characterizations?” they ask about work not-yet-written. This is the equivalent of telling me about an idea for a painting and then asking me to critique your use of form and color. It’s also the moment in the conversation when I resist the urge to bang my head against the table. Instead, I say something like this:

“I don’t know. Your plot sounds great, but sometimes plots that look lovely in outline form don’t pan out on the page. I’m glad you understand your protagonist loves macramé and detests her mother, but whether or not these nuances translate to the page believably will be seen after I read your manuscript. I can’t possibly tell you if your pacing is working when you haven’t put a word on the page. Well, yes, I can. Your pacing isn’t working. There is no pacing. Pacing is about the way words, ideas, and events flow on a page. You have no words, ideas, or events on a page, so you have no pacing.”

In interviews, I am often asked for my best writing advice. I’ve changed my answer through the years. But now, I think my best advice is this: Write, damn it.

Think of writing that first draft as vomiting. I’m using an ugly metaphor on purpose. I don’t want you to feel compelled to produce something beautiful. If I said sculpting or skating or embroidering, you’d freeze up on me. No pressure here. We are talking about puke. Think back to that time you drank too much cheap tequila in college, or last Christmas when Aunt Helga’s meat pie brought on a legendary case of food poisoning. Remember kneeling in front of the toilet, possessed by the urge to get what was inside you out? You weren’t worried about being pretty. You had to cleanse. And what you brought into the world certainly wasn’t pretty, nor consistent. It came in big heaves and little burbles. You didn’t always hit the toilet. Sometimes, you hit the wall. And finally, when it was all over, you cleaned up the mess.

Right now, if you’re resisting writing work that has been rumbling inside you for a long, long time, you need to throw up. You need to get it on the page, knowing it’s going to be god-awful. You need to let it come as it will, without chastising yourself for getting vomit on the linoleum. It’s not going to be pretty, profound, or publishable.

But when you’re done puking, you can go back and clean it up. When all your great ideas are on the page, you can start to shape the material, adding nuance to the characterizations, motivation to the plotting, consistency to the pacing. You have something to work with, so you can work. But until you have a draft, you have nothing but thoughts, which are basically air. It’s so hard to make air into good art. (If I now rhapsodized about the possibilities of a nice vomit sculpture, you might accuse me of carrying the metaphor too far.)

Until you write something, my dear friend, you are not a writer. You are a thinker. And while writing is a profession, thinking isn’t (unless you’re living in ancient Greece, in which case, you have either greater powers or bigger problems than I’m equipped to handle). Stop trying to figure how to write. You know how to write. Put your pen to the page and write words.

Write, damn it. Write.

Tawni Waters is the author of two novels, Beauty of the Broken and The Long Ride Home, and two poetry collections, Siren Song and So Speak the StarsBeauty of the Broken was adapted for the stage and performed live and is now being adapted for the screen. Her writing has garnered multiple awards, including the prestigious International Literacy Association Award for Young Adult Literature, and has been published in myriad journals, magazines, and anthologies, including Best Travel Writing 2010 and The Soul of a Great Traveler. She teaches creative writing at various universities and writers conferences throughout the U.S., Europe, and Mexico. A professional wanderer, she lives on the road full time. Learn more at tawniwaters.com.

§ 45 Responses to Write, Damn It

  • SD Gates says:

    Very good advice. I have been a thinker of late – and I don’t understand why I just dont “puke” all of these ideas out onto paper. I just need to suck it up and do it, and if it sucks, I just go back and tidy. It sounds so easy on paper!! Why isn’t it so easy to implement?

  • Cathy B says:

    Just what’s needed on a Monday morning, thank you!!!

  • Thanks for a great piece. In addition “puking on the page” — as I also recommend — covering the laptop’s screen with a file folder (or turning off the monitor) can throw cold water on self-consciousness and self-editing. For a while, at least, it forces me to keep my head down.

    • tawniwaters says:

      Love this advice. Clearly, my reading comprehension isn’t what it should be, but the first time I read this, I thought you were recommending throwing cold water on yourself to make yourself write. I was like, “You know, it’s crazy, but it just might work!” Ha!

  • kperrymn says:

    I love this post. I’d heard the part about vomiting the first draft, but I have always hated throwing up and try to avoid it at all costs, so the metaphor didn’t work for me until today. Thanks for taking it just a bit further–the need to get it out and then clean up speaks to me very clearly. And I love the Christina Rossetti quote too. The combination of gritty reality and inspiration makes for an effective motivator for a Monday morning. Thanks so much!

  • Christine says:

    I do work similar to yours and found myself saying, YES! over and over as I read.

  • 1WriteWay says:

    Great essay! Vomit as a metaphor is perfect. I’ve used NaNoWriMo to “vomit” my writing, to just write and not care about plot, pace, grammar, spelling. The hard part for me is … cleaning up the vomit 😏

  • So very true. I am guilty of the sin. Have you been to India?

    • tawniwaters says:

      I have not, though I long to go. I travel alone most of the time, and going to India feels intimidating to me because I know nothing of the language or place. I keep thinking I’ll go if I ever get married. I know I’m being a huge chicken.

  • jmhoward says:

    I love the metaphor of vomiting. May I use your essay with my writing students?


    Joanna Howard

    Professor of English Montgomery College, Rockville Campus Rockville, Maryland 20850

    220 Macklin Tower


    “All will be well and all will be well and all manner of things will be well.”

  • jennilene says:

    A way to motivate the writers! And the vomit metaphor was spot on! Thanks! Great read!

  • Christine Corrigan says:

    Great essay! Love the metaphor. Forcing myself to puke all day today!

  • Your essay made me nauseous… but in a good way!

  • […] writing craft advice is “just write.” There is a post today on Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog advocating exactly this approach. It compares forcing out a first draft to purging after a night of […]

  • Barb Knowles says:

    What an important article to read, yet the advice seems obvious. I have lots of ideas partially written, and lots of rejections from things I have written (with a couple of successes). I excuse myself by thinking “when I retire” or ” when I have more time. ” I need to tell myself “when I have no more excuses.”

    Thank you for this so beautifully written reminder.

  • I’m hoping that paying myself that $100 per hour while I take a break from working with a writing coach (who also gives the same “just write” advice among other good counsel) might keep me motivated!

  • This is fabulous advice and put in a form that not only gets your attention. It might just get people to make that big step from thinking to writing.

  • The visual is helpful, freedom. Thanks 🙂

  • I really enjoyed this piece! I’m a college student just coming up in the writing world, just decidied to make this blog even, so I very much needed this motivation. Thank you for this(:

  • Yes!finally I’ve changed my role as a writer from thinker:)thank you tawni!now,am gonna vomit words that was veiled in my mind:0

  • Ari says:

    This was really good to read, as someone who hasn’t put pen to paper in a long time. I’ve had writer’s block, but I think maybe I can do it now. It won’t be pretty, but there’s time for that later. Thank you so much for this!

  • Chad VanRens says:

    Thanks for this post. Best advice I’ve seen about writing.

    Your rather graphic metaphor is all too familiar. Even something as simple as a blog post often begins that way. Spew words onto the page, see what’s working and what isn’t, clean up the mess, re-write, and even repeat three or four times.

  • Lloyd Lindley II says:

    Thanks. I’ve puked out about 500 pages. Now the hard part comes – Cleaning entails remodeling the entire house. Cheers L

  • Well, you’ve completely shattered my procrastination excuse. Thanks *sarcasm*. I’m pleasantly inspired now, though!

  • melinda says:

    Thank you for this wonderful piece. Advice, by which I am deeply inspired.

  • This was wonderful. I am new at writing and I am in the midst of writing my thesis and this was some good advice. No one is paying me for just thinking.

  • BlueRaccoon says:

    I am yet to write my first blog. This comment constitutes my first, small but brave attempt to puke on wordpress. It’s like my brain has been in the deep-freeze for the longest possible time. Forget writing, I have been procrastinating even on reading. That’s how sad things are at my end! Thank you for the kick in the butt. It was much-needed.

  • Adus Dorsey says:

    I think I will go throw up now.

  • […] via Write, Damn It — BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog […]

  • Hmmm… That’s a pretty interesting perspective on things. I enjoyed that, especially since I’m new to this whole blogging thing. Anyways, thanks for the vomit advice!

  • Vanesa says:

    I can definitely feel this being towards me, hahaha thanks for sharing this.

  • The words I’ve been needing to hear! I’ve been so cooped up with the planning of my content, that I’ve forgotten about actually writing it! Now to start prioritizing that and setting aside time for it.

  • Seamokele says:

    No one has ever made puke look any more beautiful and meaningful that yohave. Funny story though: i am a medical student, graduating next year. Usually we ask our patients;” any nausea and vomiting? ” if they say yes we probe further for other features of that vomitus like color, texture, taste, nature, bubbles, blood…. all these arent pretty features bu are all cardinal to a proper diagnosis and management of my patient for a quick recovery. See? Puke is important because thats where it all starts for moat conditions and after a bit of probing ( clean up) diagnosis is reached (climax) and madication is given (final edit) and healing happens (publishing. Happy. Proud. Alive.). Thsnk you. I wish i had a $100 to call you and just hear you tell me, “Puke you geneus”. Love. Seamie. Ohh i have finished my fist collection of poems almost done editing but i dont know where to publish it, any advice? And am working on my second, almost done while in between i do a lot od script writing… lets say between hospital and big books and lovely patients, i do massive writing… and i am ever gonna puke and clean up😍😍😍

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