Want to Write Something Great? Write Something Lousy First

laptopWriting one sermon is hard. Writing two is easier. The same goes for blog posts, articles, books… you name it.

You just have to follow this simple rule: Write a bad one first, then write a good one after that.

This discovery has been one of my most helpful tools in becoming a better writer. Here’s why.

The bad one is easier to write. Then the good one becomes easier to write after you’ve written the bad one. After all, you’ve already done the hard part. You’ve started. And by the time the bad one is done, the good one is halfway written already.

I follow this rule for all my writing. I start by getting everything on the page in one big mess. Then I start writing the good one out of the mess because it’s easier to fix a bad sermon than it is to start with a blank page or screen.

Here’s how I do it.

 

Writing Your Bad Stuff First

1. Start in the middle

The two hardest parts of any writing assignment are coming up with a great title and a great first sentence. When we’re speaking, we have to start at the beginning. But when we’re writing, we can start anywhere.

Start with the easy parts. Write down what you know for sure.

What almost always happens for me is that, after I get going on the middle parts, something I wrote for the middle either works as-is for the beginning, or it inspires something great for the beginning. 

 

2. Embrace poor spelling and bad grammar – they are your friends

Correct spelling and grammar are for the reader. I’m a grammar cop by nature, so it was really hard for me to learn this discipline. But once I did, it really freed up the continual flow of thought, making my writing more personal and readable.

Ignore those squiggly blue and red lines that appear under misspelled words and grammar mistakes in your first draft. They’ll still be there when it’s time to edit. Editing as you go kills the flow.

 

3. Forget about the audience

Write what you’re passionate about. Put down all those thoughts you’d never dare say out loud.

This allows your heart and passion to come through. And it frees you up to write things that you will be able to publish or say out loud, but would never make it to the page if you’re always self-editing.

If you’re worried that those unsay-able things might make it to the audience by mistake, that’s the reason for the next point…

 

4. Write off-line first

If what you’re writing is for online consumption, like a blog post, always – and I mean ALWAYS – write it offline first.

That “send” or “publish” button is too easy to hit by mistake. Writing off-line first has saved me a lot of regret.

 

 

Writing Your Good Stuff Next

Once you’ve written your lousy first draft, it’s time to start shifting into editor mode. Here are the steps I use to do that.

 

1. Organize everything

Since you dumped everything randomly on the page for your rough draft, the first task of writing your good draft is to put it all in a logical order. Build your case, tell your story, or whatever logical sequence you’re shooting for.

 

2. Toss the bad parts – and the good stuff that doesn’t fit

Get rid of what doesn’t work well. Remove repetitive statements (I usually have a lot of those). Delete or moderate the tone of the parts that aren’t right for public consumption.

When editors tell writers to do this, they use the phrase “kill your babies” because that’s how it can feel. You’ve slaved hard over this rough draft, but many of the lines you like the best (your babies) have to go. Sometimes because they’re not good writing, but sometimes because, even though it’s a great line, it doesn’t fit with the overall piece.

This is why reorganizing your thoughts comes first. If we don’t know where we’re heading, we can’t know what to keep or toss.

 

3. Keep the good parts

But what are the good parts?

They’re not the favorite turn of phrase or the beautiful alliteration.

They’re the parts that advance your story, your argument or your explanation. Even if they’re not phrased well yet.

 

4. Make the good parts better

This is the most fun part of writing for a lot of communicators. I know it is for me.

This is where you get to take already good material and finesse it. Take OK material and make it great.

This is also where you finally get to fix your grammar and spelling errors. Why wait until now? If you fix those errors earlier, you’re editing some parts that will end up getting deleted anyway. It’s a waste of time and energy.

(I know for some of us, leaving those squiggly blue and red lines one the screen for one second longer than necessary drives you crazy. If you have to fix that as you go, do it. But try to do it this way once. You might surprise yourself.)

 

Prayerfully Preach, Publish, Or Send It

By the time I stand before an audience, or hit “send” or “publish”, I want to have as much assurance as I can that what I’m putting out there is not just the best that I can do, but it’s what the Lord wants me to communicate.

Prayer needs to be in every step of this process. All the researching, writing and editing in the world means nothing without that.

But when the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and the hard work of the author or speaker comes together, some special things can happen.

 

So what do you think? Do you have any writing tips you can share with us?

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(Laptop photo from Daniel Foster • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

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11 thoughts on “Want to Write Something Great? Write Something Lousy First”

  1. Basically you are describing the technique for overcoming writer’s block that a psychiatrist with whom I worked commended to me years ago. First, you write down all your thoughts no matter how important or relevant and then you organize,reorganize, edit, rewrite, and polish to produce a finished product. Rough drafts are not so much bad or lousy as they are rough, preliminary. The important thing at that stage is to get your thoughts on paper.When I write articles for my blog and post them on the Internet,I may even tweak them after I have posted them–reword a phrase, add something that did not come to mind when I first wrote the article, and so on. I do the same thing with sermons on the occasions that I am invited to preach–write a rough draft and then a final draft but I never stick rigidly to what I have written. If I have access to the venue where I am preaching, I will make a dry run.This will suggest to me needed changes. Basically writing a sermon is a way of organizing your thoughts, focusing on what is important and pruning a way what is not. I do not read my sermons word for word. I will scan a few lines,look at the congregation, and repeat what I have read in a conversational manner. It is at this point may make a last minute change or addition if it appears needed. I usually write my sermons in thought blocks–a section of thoughts dealt with as a unit.

  2. Good timing. I’m working on my first book. I need all the feedback, tips, and prayers I can get. One question I do have is how much does one write? One individual stated that one chapter should be a lot of writing or pages.

    1. The best advice I ever had on that were three simple words, “write until done.” My advice on that would be to say what you need to say in as few and simple words as possible.

      1. Thanks Bro. Karl. Most of all I thank you for getting back so fast. I just got through preaching. We came from Luke 19:1-4 “A Short Man With Big Time Determination”. I was led to check my email to see if anyone had replied after the service. To be honest I didn’t expect to hear anything this soon. I thank you so much for the feedback. But again just to hear from you means a lot. I will take your advice.

  3. just a practical help for those who hate those squiggly lines to tell you something is misspelt or grammatically incorrect – you can with Microsoft Word and with Apple’s “Pages” (almost certain with others too) turn the “check spelling as you type” option OFF, then the lines don’t appear! It doesn’t stop you doing a spell check at any time, but it does hide those pesky little lines!

  4. Karl, I have been thinking of starting a blog for some time. I occasionally write on our church FB page devo’s or different thoughts, and typically get good responses. But, I am not sure where to start a blog at? Are there any services or sites that you recommend for someone that wants or is possibly feeling led to dip their toe in the water blogoshpere? Thanks brother!

    1. Start by looking at Blogspot and WordPress.com for simple, clean, out-of-the-box blogging. If you want to get more serious about it, go to WordPress.org, or SquareSpace. Those take more setup, but they give more options. Happy blogging!

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