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Why ‘Write Drunk: Edit Sober’ is Terrible Advice

by Chris Donovan 2 months ago in workflow
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Hemingway Wasn't Always Right

Why ‘Write Drunk: Edit Sober’ is Terrible Advice
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

I’ve been putting off the first draft of my (undoubtedly wonderful, unquestionably award-winning) debut novel for months.

It’s been researched, and mapped out to the nth degree. Trust me — less organizational effort has gone into Antarctic expeditions. Well, maybe not Shackleton’s — that one could have done with a smidge more planning.

All I had to do was write the damn thing.

Write. That’s it. One bad sentence after another. Easy.

However…

Every sentence I wrote was very (very) bad.

I know the first draft of anything is s**t but this was redefining the limits of excretion. It made Guy N. Smith look like Murakami.

Hemingway once said writing is easy — all you’ve got to do is bleed on the page. Well, I wasn’t bleeding; I was pooping all over the page like a man who’s been living on nothing but figs for the last decade.

But I had to get this ‘thing’ out. Onto the page. I needed to deliver this deformed, horrible beast. Once I had, I could proceed with the far more enjoyable task of editing it into something resembling coherency. Out, I say!! Begone!!

It refused. At least, anything good refused. The bad stuff? No problem at all — painless. But good writing? When I looked over the first twenty pages, I couldn’t see one positive thing. Wall-to-wall garbage. As far as the eye can see.

The worst bit was that it remained painful to write. I don’t mind writing crap (I do it every day, and am doing so now), but I do resent it when said writing of rubbish is a horrific experience. I’ll gladly suffer for good art; you can get stuffed if you think I’m doing so for utter tripe.

Faced with such an intractable problem, not for the first time, I turned again to Hemingway. No, not his actual stories; that would have required hard work. I jumped on Pinterest and got the condensed guide to his wisdom. And (light-bulb moment) there is was: “Write drunk; edit sober.” Yes! That was the answer; booze!

So, in an experiment that was conducted under no rigorous laboratory conditions whatsoever, I got bladdered every night for a week. And I wrote.

Boy, did I write.

And that writing taught me 3 very valuable lessons:

1. Don’t write drunk. Just don’t.

The first draft of anything might be s**t, but, if written sober, that first draft might end up obeying some of the rules regarding English punctuation, and grammar.

If written under the influence of half a bottle of Scotch, it will be a soup of words. Some of which appear to be English. Some of which could be Klingon. The rest? No idea. Truly, none.

As for grammar? I have no idea what tense I was aiming for. It skipped between the dimensions like an out of control Tardis. On LSD. My inebriated mind doesn’t like to be bound by the traditional limitations of mere past, present, or future; it merges them into one giant ball of inter-dimensional incomprehension.

Punctuation? Whilst drunk I seem to possess a gift for writing sentences that run the duration of an entire page, and are bereft of anything that looks like a full-stop, or comma. I’d like to say I was aiming for a Joycean, ‘Ulysses’ kind of effect, but we all know I’d be lying.

So, don’t write drunk. The effort involved in trying to knock all of that into shape so it actually become readable English was greater than the effort it took to spew that literary vomit. Don’t do it to yourselves.

2. Don’t write drunk. Just don’t. (Part Two)

Apparently I seem to have been inspired whilst writing, because my drunken mind decided it didn’t need to follow my carefully laid out plans; it could just improvise. As it happens, it’s as good as doing that as it with grammar, spelling, and punctuation.

My narrative veered off course with gay abandon. Where it either sunk in quicksand or crashed into a tree like a car being driven by a joy-riding teenager whilst under the influence of crack. In the final analysis, I’m not sure there was a beginning, or a middle, or an end. To be honest, I had no idea what was going on. It was the literary equivalent of a Captain Beefheart LP.

Important characters, who’d I’d spent months thinking about, either disappeared, or were merged into new creations who all appeared to be rough amalgamations of whatever I’d watched recently on Netflix. The Muppets had more emotional depth.

Maybe my drunken mind was aiming for some sort of Ionesco, Theatre of the Absurd, type of thing where the characters are aware they’re characters, and, as a result, do not require any complexity. If I was still talking to my drunken mind, I’d ask him if this was what he trying to do. But after this debacle we’re not on speaking on terms.

He’s an idiot, and I detest him.

3. Don’t write drunk. Just don’t. (Part Three)

Writing a novel is hard enough. Trying to write other items around said novel so you can buy things such as food is an added difficulty. And even more so if you waste half a day hungover where every second is spent battling the desire not to go back to bed.

However, I did learn another thing; writing when hungover is on par as as writing when drunk. If not worse. At least when you’re three sheets to the wind the words pour out of you. Hungover, they tumble out of you with the dynamism of a soporific snail who is zonked out on Prozac, and who’s been smoking weed for the last week. It took me a whole day to write fifty (50!) words for a friend’s blog.

Unsurprisingly, even that sucked.

By the end of the week, I was a wreck. I couldn’t even see straight, let alone type. I could barely breathe. And my writing ability was in sync with my physical state; zombified.

Instead of opening the floodgates, my week-long experiment resulted in the most unproductive seven days I’ve ever had. I was left with the first draft of a novel that may as well have been written in Sanskrit for all the sense it made, and an array of abysmal articles I was lucky to be paid for.

And I nearly died.

However, I did (unequivocally) learn that writing drunk is to be avoided. And that any ‘wisdom’ handed down from our heroes is to be taken with a very large pinch of salt. Just leave out the slice of lime, and shot of tequila that normally goes with it.

We’re not all Hemingway. And, now, I’m not sure I even want to be.

Write sober; edit sober.

Granted, it’s not as catchy. But it’s better advice. And heeding it might mean you make it to the end of the year alive.

As well as with a manuscript that, you know, you can actually read.

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If you've liked what you've read, please check out the rest of my work on Vocal. Among other things, I write about film, theatre, mental health, and... well, Vocal:

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About the author

Chris Donovan

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Film, theatre, mental health, sport, politics, music, travel, and the occasional short story... it's a varied mix!

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Comments (16)

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  • Alan Gabout a month ago

    This brought me back to my twenties, you describe the drunk writing situation quite well. All 3.5 in. floppy discs that held the evidence of my drunken writing have been torched and scattered to the winds a long, long time ago. Thank you for the Captain Beefheart reference, and I'm not ashamed to admit the Muppets make me cry all the time.

  • Angie Seminaraabout a month ago

    I needed to hear this because I was considering doing it for my English paper due tomorrow night. Thank you for saving me having to do it hungover

  • Em E. Lee2 months ago

    You have no idea how hard it was to read this without crying with laughter - something tells me some of your insights like "the first draft of anything is s**t but this was redefining the limits of excretion" and "It was the literary equivalent of a Captain Beefheart LP" came from a deep, dark place, and I found it so hilariously relateable that it hurt at some points. I'm so glad you decided to share these insights about writing while drunk - admittedly, sometimes I will booze a little while writing just to tamp down my creative's-anxiety and actually get the damn words on the page without inhibitions, but the keyword there is "a little". When you drink so much that you forget your own name while writing, like you've described, the resulting draft will most likely make as much sense as crossing Sesame Street with Game of Thrones, however it won't be nearly as fun either; instead, it will just be a waste of un-editable time. Your style of writing here alone has convinced me to read more of your Vocal work. Fantastic job!

  • Daniella Cressman2 months ago

    LOL. This reminds me of the time I wrote around 10 pages when I was high: I had been quite prolific but it was all complete nonsense! 😂 Great read!

  • Lamar Wiggins2 months ago

    "The Muppets had more emotional depth." Classic! I really enjoyed this tirade of honest realizations as a result from the experiment. I learned a thing or two myself from this article. Thanks for taking time to share and thanks for the laugh, I needed it. Pressing the heart icon right now!

  • Donna MC Taggart2 months ago

    Thank you for making me laugh. Loved this piece. Cleverly done too. I have never written while under the influence, but now I am tempted to see what happens! 🤣🤣

  • Ellen Cassidy2 months ago

    although I still disagree, this made me laugh. Something every writer can relate to!

  • Call Me Les2 months ago

    Loved this! But nah, I don't write drunk either. I write bipolar/ADHD hypomanic then edit on Adderall ;P LOL

  • Shelby Larsen2 months ago

    This was a fun read. Personally, I like to write as the 🍃💨 hits - That perfect spot between sober and high as a kite.

  • Jimmy Goodman2 months ago

    Haha very insightful. I can't even string two sentences together drunk. I'd rather play Mario Kart.

  • Joy DeSomber2 months ago

    Hilarious! I can't wait to read your novel!

  • Ali Howarth2 months ago

    Haha loved this. Laughed out loud at the out of control Tardis reference.

  • Stephanie Hoogstad2 months ago

    I completely agree with you that taking Hemingway’s advice literally on this matter can turn out horribly (and often hilariously so), and kudos to you for going the extra mile of actually trying it out for yourself, even if it set you back an entire week in productivity and brought you some misery. When I talked about this on my blog a few years back, I took a different, less literal angle on Hemingway’s advice. I personally don’t drink, so I approach this particular advice with the interpretation of “write when your inhibitions are most lowered, edit when your inhibitions are raised”. So, for me, that means write when I’m semiconscious and edit when I’m fully awake. It still results in some interesting spelling and grammatical issues at points and takes my writing places where I wouldn’t have imagined it, but with the latter, I think that’s kind of the point. When you write while your inhibitions are fully raised, you don’t let yourself explore the full range of possibilities, instead sticking to rigid expectations, including your own outlines and other forms of planning without considering how your writing might be evolving. If you write while your inhibitions are down, you can let your writing develop more naturally, and then editing while your inhibitions are up will allow you to catch any mistakes that you made during those less-inhibited times. Of course, not everyone can work that way, as you pointed out, but for those who can, they don’t necessarily have to be drunk to do so, just in a state in which they don’t feel restricted by their natural inhibitions.

  • DragonFly2 months ago

    you are very good with your words.

  • Laura Gray2 months ago

    Bwahaha! Great advice! Thanks for the chuckle.

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