Speech 2: Organize Your Speech. The second speech of the Toastmasters Competent Communicator program introduces the basic concepts of organizing a speech around a speech outline.
Getting back into writing has made it clear to me why most authors are alcoholics, manic depressives, or lunatics.
I am not a talented writer by nature. I had to write a lot of really, really bad Sailor Moon fanfiction to build up the meagre set of skills I had going into college. Now, with college barely visible in my rearview mirror, it’s up to me to keep my writing muscles strong. This year I set myself some creative writing goals, and am proud to say I’m doing well.
For those who may be interested in spending their spare time fretting over how to describe a character’s cloak as it billows around her, or how to adjust their writing so fewer of their sentences start with a pronoun and action, I have a five-step writing process that’s helped me write over 8200 words this year.
Step 1: Word vomit
Nothing is more intimidating than a blank page. Especially a digital one, with that cursor blinking at you. Start typing. Start typing. Start typing.
The best way to get over this fear is to just, for the love of God, write something. It doesn’t have to be good, it doesn’t even have to make sense or be spelled correctly. Just get your idea out of your head and onto the page.
You’ll be tempted to edit as you write. Stop that. Just spit out the words as fast as you can.
Forcing yourself to write without editing keeps you from self-censoring. You don’t have time to waffle about the words you use and how you phrase things.
Step 2: Kill your darlings
Once you’ve got your idea on paper, it’s time to edit. Ruthlessly.
In a 1914 lecture Arthur Quiller-Couch wrote, “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it — whole-heartedly — and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”
In layman’s terms this means you must get rid of your favorite sentences if they don’t add value to your writing. You may love a phrase you use, but if it doesn’t contribute to the point you’re trying to make, you’ve got to give it the axe.
This step usually takes the longest because you’re filling out your original word vomit, as well as killing your darlings, rephrasing awkward sentences, pumping up your descriptions, etc. I’ve got a few other things to keep in mind as you edit:
First, consider cutting your first two paragraphs. Chances are they’re unnecessary, and it drops your reader into the meat of your story right away.
Second, nix passive voice. If you can add “by zombies” to the end of a sentence and it still makes sense, you’ve got passive voice. For example, “The papers were piled in a heap by zombies.” Make passive phrases active by switching them around. For example, “Someone had piled the papers in a heap.”
Third, cull adverbs and replace them with better verbs. Rather than saying a character “quickly ran” down the hall, say they “dashed” or “hurtled.”
Once you have a finished draft of your writing — no matter how rough it may be — it’s time for the scariest step: letting someone else read it.
Step 3: Share with strangers
With strangers. Do not foist your writing on your spouse or parent. Your mother will tell you it’s great and you’re the best writer in the whole world; a stranger will tell you if it’s garbage. The latter is more helpful.
My favorite place to get feedback on my writing is Scribophile. I post my content and other members review it for plot, pacing, spelling, grammar, etc.
While step two takes the longest, step three is undoubtedly the hardest. Depending on how rough your draft is, you might get some truly brutal feedback. I know I have.
Seeing this feedback triggers what I call step three-a: unrelenting self-loathing. It really sucks when something you’ve worked so hard on gets eviscerated by someone reviewing it. It’s doubly awful because it can basically bump you all the way back to step one, and you’re having to re-write essentially from scratch.
This self-loathing is normal (I’m assured). You’ll feel overwhelmed and awful, and that’s okay. But to borrow a line from Elizabeth Bennet, you must let your courage rise with every attempt to intimidate you.
Chances are that the feedback you get is good, and editing based on that feedback will make your writing stronger. I have always found that to be the case.
It can be scary and hard to let strangers critique your writing. But if you put yourself out there, I promise it will make your writing better.
Step 4: Get it together
Alright, you’ve had your moment of self-loathing. Pick your ego up off the floor, dust off your dignity, and get to editing.
This is where that feedback is critical. Assuming you’ve gotten good comments, you’ll probably do some editing, re-writing, or add in something completely new.
If you’re thinking this sounds familiar, you’re right. After step four comes, you guessed it, step one again. Just wash, rinse, and repeat until you’ve got a piece of writing you’re happy with.
Well, relatively happy with. Like everything else, your writing will never truly be finished. There will always be someone to suggest another edit, or that little voice in your head saying it’s just not good enough yet.
This brings us to the last step.
Step 5: Consider it done
One of my favorite sayings is, “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.” If you keep editing and re-writing and tweaking, it will drive you insane. That short story or novel will sit in a Word document until the end of days.
At some point you will have to show that writing to a publisher, if that’s your goal. Or you’ll have to set it aside so you can work on other ideas.
Accept this right now: your writing will never be perfect.
And it doesn’t have to be. You’re writing for the sheer joy of writing, or because you want to write better. Never attaining perfection means you’ll never stop, which means you’ll never stop improving.
So when the story has reached its end, when it’s been edited and adjusted and improved, let it go. Thank the Muses for their inspiration and ask for more.
And be proud of yourself! Writing is hard, and takes a lifetime of practice. Keep trying, and watch those writing muscles grow.