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6 Writing Tips from John Steinbeck

Brain Pickings has become one of my favorite newsletters. It’s as handy for discovering books and authors to read as it is for discovering those to avoid, which is worth something because our time is worth something.

This past Sunday’s version offered 6 writing tips from John Steinbeck:

Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.

I used to be a fan of “brain dumps,” or writing down everything that came to mind – be it for a list, a physical project, writing, whatever. Later, I thought, “this must be terribly ineffecient. It’s like annotating a book after having read it.” I decided from the on to iterate as I went.

But there’s a real cost to this, and it’s not always marginal.

Fixing the bike as you ride limits your potential “product.” You may take first place in the first lap, but you’ll find yourself in eight come the sixth lap. So, you need to decide which race is a sprint and which race is for distance, for longevity and sustainability. Previously, I had a penchant for the latter despite my ‘efficienct’ approach to writing. However, I’ve come to learn that executing fast and hitting ‘good enough’ is often great, and the ‘best’ approach. If I find myself splitting hairs over a tweek in hue where the image is not the focal point of the project, or even a sub-focal point, then I am better off settling at ‘good enough’ and moving on. There are other things that, given that additional time, contribute far more value and the return on tweaks tends to diminish quickly. If, however, I was machining pin chambers for a company whose tumbler locks had never been compromised, then I need absolute precision, perfection, tweaking. It’s required.

There’s a place and time for unconscious creation, and staging it prior to any evaluation feels pretty good, too. A certain satisfaction and clarity come from knowing you have thrown everything at the wall and now it’s time to sit down, take a look at it, remove what’s necessary, and combine what you like.

Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audienceis one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person - a real person you know or an imagined person and write to that person.

I’m still deciding on who those people are. I also believe it changes from post to post. But, perhaps, I am writing to a person that I have not yet met. I like the sound of that.

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