Feb 222013

Anne Lamott, bless her heart, offers single best piece of writing advice: “Writ a really, really sh***y first draft.” Her point, more or less, is that the first draft is going to be dreadful no matter what. You aren’t going to make it better by enabling a bunch of nagging and critical voices inside your head.

That’s particularly true of the first paragraph. Something has to go in the first paragraph of the first draft—it’s the whole space/time continuum thing. But it’s hardly ever what should ultimately be there. Writing is a process of discovery, and you won’t really know what you want to say until you’ve said it.

Most of the time, the first paragraph can simply be cut away. The real beginning is one or two or three paragraphs in. If you listen carefully, you can hear the place where the writing shifts from neutral into forward gear.

But you can’t listen carefully when you’re writing, anymore than you can listen carefully while you’re talking. We all know people for whom our end of the conversation is just mental prep time for their next monologue. It doesn’t make for satisfying communication.

In writing, you can’t be a writer and an editor at the same time. One activity is spontaneous and messy. The other is analytical and precise. Most halfway successful grownups really do have both skills, but it’s a rare person who can practice them both at the same time.

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