That Discipline Thing Again

Posted by Jean Matthew Hall

On Cecil Murphey’s blog post for March 26, 2010, he said, “Write the first draft and allow no distractions. Afterward you can make improvements.”

I find that extremely difficult to do. To let the story pour out of my fingertips without stopping to correct grammar, punctuation and mechanics is a challenge for me. Virtually every piece of advice I read from every published author agrees with Cecil.

Just sit there and type the story. Let all the words come out as they will. Ignore everything except the story itself until you’ve drained your imagination’s artesian well completely dry. That’s what they say.

Will I ever learn how to do that? Will I ever have the discipline needed to ignore misplaced commas and apostrophes? Will I ever have the gutsy determination to let adjectives and adverbs fly loosely around the page and land where they will until I get to the finale? Will I ever be able to throw those plot points down on paper and forget about the logical order they should follow?

Once again I find that the craft of writing for publication goes totally against my natural tendencies. I hate to admit this–but I’m dangerously close to being a perfectionist! I find solace in calling myself a semi-perfectionist. (As if there were such an animal!) But we all know the naked truth:

If it walks like a perfectionist and talks like a perfectionist–more than likely it IS a perfectionist.

So, tell me, writing friends who are not plagued with this dreaded tendency, what kind of writing exercises can help a self-confessed perfectionist like me? How am I going to retrain my brain to forge past those inevitable mistakes as I vomit (as Cecil says) the story out onto my computer screen?

Seriously. I could use some advice here. Leave a comment. Share some words of wisdom with me, please.

 Maybe I need some silly writing prompts and a stop watch to force me to write 1000 words or so without correcting a thing. Ack! The thought makes my skin crawl.

But, then, the prompt itself can’t force me to type non-stop until the story ends.

No, I’m back to that discipline thing.

Maybe an accountability partner would do the trick.

“Hi, Jean, this is Madame X, your friendly accountability partner. How many words did you type today without stopping once to correct some minor grammatical error?”


 “Come now, you can do better than that! I’ll be ringing your cell phone again tomorrow and that number had better jump to something in the three or four digit category!”

 “Yes, ma’am. I’ll try.”

 “You’d better do more than try, Missy. I expect you to type at least 2700 words tomorrow without coming up for air!”

 Would such an arrangement actually motivate me to dump the first draft onto paper? Or would it tempt me instead to lie–I mean, fib?

 I think we’re back to that discipline thing again.

Discipline. Make my bottom rest on the chair. Easy.

Make my fingers click the keys non-stop. Almost easy.

Make my mind keep on keeping on with the story and the characters and the setting and the plot with no thought of syntax or spelling. Agony.

So, I keep starting each writing day with the best of intentions. I intend to get 2000 words slammed into a computer file. I remind myself that I can do this. Really, I can. I can make myself slide right past participles and gerunds. I can ignore two spaces after a period. I know I can. I KNOW I CAN!

Oooh! Chills just ran up and down my spine.[exhale slowly]

Maybe I should be dreaming of becoming a copy editor instead of an author. I could be like Lucille Ball in a chocolate factory and satisfy my lust for literary errors with guiltless abandon.

 Or, like Lucy, get sick, actually vomit vomit instead of words, and never want to lay eyes on an adverb again.

No. God called me to be a writer and a writer I shall be. Even if it means giving that discipline thing one more “one-more-try”.

But I could still use a few good tips in your comments here.

BTW if you ARE loooking for some terrific writing exercises and prompts try these two books: Plot & Structure: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting a Plot That grips Readers From Start to Finish by James Scott Bell, and Creating Characters Kids Will Love by Elaine Marie Alphin.


3 thoughts on “That Discipline Thing Again

  1. Ah, Jean, would that I could offer you some sage words of wisdom. Alas, I suffer from the same scourge of perfectionism and lingering urge to be a copy-editor. And I am blessed/cursed with an eye that sees all those errors begging to be corrected. Good when it’s time to revise/edit, bad when I’m trying to finish the &*–er, annoying manuscript.

    I tell myself that I need to go back and reread what I’ve written so I don’t lose the thread of the story, but invariably I spend way more time re-reading (and “fixing” things) than actually generating new text. My inner critic says, “Why not fix things when you see them?” But it seems to be his job to prevent me from finishing something. And the critic dragon on my other shoulder–the one who’s job it is to crunch the critic, or at least scare him off with some well-placed flames–is sleeping on the job.

    I’m wondering if this might be a sort-of solution for both of us. I write at my computer. What if I give that annoying critic permission to catch glaring errors ONLY in the window of text visible as I write. NO SCROLLING BACK! I won’t LOOK for them, but I won’t ignore them if I see them–just like I noticed I’d left a letter out of a word in the line above. I clicked it in and moved on. Now it’s not catching my eye every time I glance up at the screen. And it occurs to me that I can turn OFF the spelling and grammar editor so I don’t have little green and red lines pulling my eyes to those places. If I find I need to answer a question (like, what should this character’s name be? or, what do I call this thingummy he’s wearing?) I will type the question right there with a bunch of question marks and move on instead of spending 30 minutes doing an internet search. Periodically I can do a “find” of those bunched ??? and allow myself a day of research.

    I think I can do that. Maybe. The toughest part will be to not reread chapters in a longer work. Perhaps I should keep each chapter in its own file. Maybe print it out and stick it in a notebook (perish the thought the computer crashes!). Maybe put the last paragraph (cliffhanger) at the beginning of the new chapter/file to help with continuity but delete it once I’ve gotten into the next part of the story. If I have my extended outline, I won’t even need that.

    I think I’ll DO–No, I WILL DO that next time I sit down to write at my novel. (As Yoda says, “Do or do not. There is no try.”) I’ll keep you posted on how successful I am.


    (Okay. Now that this is finished, I can go back and check for errors–right?)

  2. Well… I am not so sure that the first draft rule applies to everyone or to every story.
    When I am writing a poem or a picture book, I usually do a full first draft before I go back and edit or revise.

    BUT… If I am writing something that is longer than a magazine story, I tend to revise as the story evolves. If I am writing a chapter book about two brothers and their dog – yet on page 25 I realize it’s not really about a boy and a girl and a dog, it’s about a boy and his father and her their neighbor’s dog – then I’m going to go back and change what needs to be changed before I continue the story.

    Then again,I suppose what I am talking about is more revision than editing. I can plow through when I know there are editing mistakes because I am usually unaware of the mistakes until I run the spelling/grammar check at the end of the story, poem or article. I’m a horrible copy editor. It’s a blessing and a curse. 🙂

  3. I suffer with perfectionism’s cousin: self -doubt.

    I have tried to brainwash myself into accepting that it’s OKAY to write a crappy novel the first time around–almost a requirement, in fact. Alas, my brain isn’t buying it. I think it’s afraid that once I have a couple hundred pages of mess on the page, ready to be revised into something poignant and publishable, I just won’t have what it takes to get the job done.


    When you find what works, let me know.

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