“Write drunk; edit sober”

A quote often (and probably inaccurately) attributed to Ernest Hemingway. And if you take the quote too literally, you’ll miss the power of what it teaches.

We have at least two sides when it comes to creating something.

On one, we see endless possibility. We can create anything our minds conjure. The muses are everywhere.

On the other, our brains are great at tearing down all the bullshit, and finding the kernels of what’s efficient. What’s practical. What’s actually good. And that side often doesn’t like what it sees of the other.

When I create, I try to take “Hemingway’s” advice.

To begin something I want to create, a blog post, a software feature, a YouTube episode, I’ll start from a thread of optimism. A motivating book. A TED talk that has me inspired to teach. A workout where I was able to push just a little further than last time.

I hype myself up to get closer to that feeling where anything is possible.

From there, I throw tons of stuff onto my canvas. I’ll write pages of run on sentences. I’ll code just to get the idea working. It’s not the best stuff. It’s not even good. But the goal is to get something, anything on the page.

Eventually, I’ll take a break. I’ll get a solid night’s rest. A walk. Lunch. Something to mark the change because it’s time to switch modes.

I start to edit.

I take all these things I created and pare them down.

What you see as 500 words today, started with 1200. The code you see tomorrow is the result of two dozen versions.

One thing I’ve noticed about editing is that I know I’m getting closer to something decent when the editing starts to hurt. When it feels like I’m starting to cut bone.

I start to throw away the things that I had previously considered good, in order to make room for what’s sitting on the canvas now. I remove that anecdote I was originally convinced HAD to be there. Or I realize no one is going to need this feature after all, even if it was the thing that had me most excited to start.

My best work comes when I balance my two selves — the one who can do anything and the one who’s my strongest critic.

When I find a way to invite both of my selves to a project, but make them work separately, that’s when things get really good.

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“Write drunk; edit sober” was originally published in Signal v. Noise on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.


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