Wisdom from “The Simpsons”

The following gem comes from John Swartzwelder, “the sage of The Simpsons,” courtesy of my friend Charlie Daly who turned me on to the May 2, 2021 New Yorker interview by Mike Sacks from which this comes:

No, this is not John Swartzwelder

But I do have a trick that makes things easier for me. Since writing is very hard and rewriting is comparatively easy and rather fun, I always write my scripts all the way through as fast as I can, the first day, if possible, putting in crap jokes and pattern dialogue—“Homer, I don’t want you to do that.” “Then I won’t do it.” Then the next day, when I get up, the script’s been written. It’s lousy, but it’s a script. The hard part is done. It’s like a crappy little elf has snuck into my office and badly done all my work for me, and then left with a tip of his crappy hat. All I have to do from that point on is fix it. So I’ve taken a very hard job, writing, and turned it into an easy one, rewriting, overnight. I advise all writers to do their scripts and other writing this way. And be sure to send me a small royalty every time you do it.

I work exactly the same way. My version of John S’s principle is “Cover the Canvas.” By which I mean, “Get paint on every inch of the blank surface, north to south and east to west, in one head-down burst of stop-for-nothing momentum. We can always fix it later. That’s how to write a first draft.”

Of course the first draft of a novel may take not a single day but months. The principle remains the same, however. It’s easier to rewrite than to write. So get the writing part out of the way first. Get through the pain. 

Get SOMETHING on paper (or canvas), however deficient or incomplete. THEN go back and fix it. Then go back and make it great.

(Remember, you’ve got an infinite number of drafts in which to accomplish this.)

Thank you, John Swartzwelder. Thank you, Mike Sacks. And thanks, Charlie Daly!

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33 Comments

  1. Joe Jansen on July 14, 2021 at 4:12 am

    Raising my metaphorical Bic lighter at a metaphorical rock concert.

    Chapter 3 in Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird,” titled: “Shitty First Drafts.” Second sentence: “All good writers write them.”

    Natalie Goldberg in “Writing Down the Bones” talks about working the compost heap, turning over the decomposing “thrown-out eggshells, spinach leaves, coffee grinds, and old steak bones of our minds,” from which comes “nitrogen, heat, and very fertile soil. Out of this fertile soil… a bright red tulip” shoots up. Not exactly about shitty first drafts, but there’s a shit motif working in there.

    And of course James Michener: “I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter.”

    • Sam Luna on July 14, 2021 at 6:57 am

      Chapter 3 of “Bird by Bird” — first thing to pop into my head, Joe. Life changer! (lights Bic.)

      • Joe on July 14, 2021 at 7:53 am

        Like minds!

    • Joe on July 14, 2021 at 4:03 pm

      Jeez… here we go again with the synchronicities. I fired up my podcast app, and scrolled for something to listen to while cutting the grass. After leading this morning’s comment with some thoughts about Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird, and “shitty first drafts,” I find that Tim Ferriss’s podcast that dropped today (#522) features his conversation with Anne Lamott. I started listening and the first thing she talks about is…

      shitty first drafts.

      https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/522-anne-lamott-on-spiritual-fitness-creative-process/id863897795?i=1000528870692

      Go figure.

      • Chuck DeBettignies on July 16, 2021 at 5:13 pm

        Joe – Thanks for posting the link to the podcast with Anne Lamott.
        I wouldn’t have known about it otherwise and am interested to hear what she has to say. I love her Bird by Bird book and have read it several times.

        • Joe on July 18, 2021 at 8:06 pm

          She’s great, isn’t she, Chuck?

    • Xose French Dieguez on July 28, 2021 at 9:08 am

      It’s great…Thanks for theses examples!!!!

  2. Yvonne on July 14, 2021 at 4:57 am

    I laughed so hard at ” left with a tip of his crappy hat”! First drafts are easier for me than rewrites, I think because of the specific reason that I know I am free to just create without judgment. I think I get very caught up in perfection during rewrites and it often stalls my progress. As usual, a great and helpful post (maybe this can help the way I look at rewrites!), and I am grateful. Thank you, Steve!

  3. Francesca on July 14, 2021 at 7:23 am

    Interesting! But I’d rather have a draft elf. I love the first draft and following the story. Fixing it? Help!

    • Michael Esser on July 14, 2021 at 8:14 am

      Thanks, Francesca, I totally agree.

      I write a first draft and then sit there in front of 500 pages asking myself: “Fix it? What does that even mean?”

      Am I supposed to eliminate all the parts I do not like now? And what if I don’t like them just because of my actual mood? Then they are gone forever and I won’t have them when I realize there should be something here but there isn’t.”

      This method my work for 30 p comedy scripts which, with a little effort you can contain in their entirety in your brain, but for a novel there is no way this is a viable method.

      • Xose French Dieguez on July 28, 2021 at 9:10 am

        I don’t have the patience to wait to finish 500 pages. I have to go back every day to look at what I have written. Maybe it’s wrong. And I’m slow for that.

  4. Kate Stanton on July 14, 2021 at 7:28 am

    Thank you, Steven!! My lighter is also up in the air.

  5. Susan on July 14, 2021 at 7:32 am

    Love it! Thank you!

  6. Mike on July 14, 2021 at 7:41 am

    Yesterday I took action, and I got a result… a good result. How utterly maddening.

    Today, I do it again.

  7. Patrick Gillam on July 14, 2021 at 9:29 am

    Great timing! I just today parted ways with a client who didn’t want to go through the process of editing the website copy I submitted. I thought I had explained the process before we started, but oh well. I’ll bookmark this blog post and have new clients read it before we embark on a project!

  8. Catherine on July 14, 2021 at 9:41 am

    This was helpful.
    I’ve also heard the term ‘the bad version’.
    Write the bad version, which I’ve tried but perfectionism gets in my way.
    Somehow, ‘cover the canvas’ feel easier.
    Thanks!

  9. Maureen Anderson on July 14, 2021 at 9:48 am

    This reminds me of writing my second book, cranking out a couple of thousand words a day for many weeks. If I missed a day I’d obviously need four thousand the next one. It was quite the marathon. One night I was so tired that when I met my word count, I stopped in the middle of a sentence!

    Later I heard (probably here!) that’s another good strategy, to stop before you’re finished (with, for example, a sentence) — so it’s easier to pick right back up.

    My version of the Bic lighter was last night, answering someone’s question about the writer who’s influenced me the most. You can guess!

    • Xose French Dieguez on July 28, 2021 at 9:12 am

      I read once that your first book always goes wrong. So I started writing the second book, before writing the first one I had in mind. I hope it goes well for me !!!

  10. Kathryn on July 14, 2021 at 9:49 am

    With all due respect and appreciation, a very wise writer once said that there are no shitty first drafts. What you have there is a living embryo that develops into a fetus with your nurturing.

    Would anyone look at an ultrasound and call that image shitty?

    I love that perspective!

  11. Derek A. Whelan on July 14, 2021 at 10:25 am

    I often complain to my friend that I wish I could just get a big bag of words and throw them on the page, then sculpt what I need.

    I don’t have an elf, but leprechauns who finish my work for me, tremendously well.

    thank you

    • Joe on July 14, 2021 at 1:56 pm

      Careful, man. Those leprechauns can be MEAN.

      😉

  12. Daniel Mattos on July 14, 2021 at 10:35 am

    This works perfectly for short writing but I find it more tricky when writing longer works (feature screenplays, TV series or a novel). It takes me to a point where I find myself in the crossroads between the need for minimum planning (the checkpoints, plot twists or the linked reasoning when non-fiction) and the intuitive flow of ideas. It’s easy to get quite lost on a long work when you keep writing blindly. At some point, you feel the urge to know what is ahead.

  13. L.R. Gardner on July 14, 2021 at 11:21 am

    Love it. Who said “You must find the courage to write badly,” years ago?
    I say this to myself regularly. I don’t feel like writing today. I don’ think I ever will. But I might be able to write something awful.
    Once the butt is in the chair things tend to improve.

    • Xose French Dieguez on July 28, 2021 at 9:16 am

      I have written that phrase years ago. Putting your ass on the chair is no great feat. But if you don’t, you will achieve nothing. Anyway, if your ribs hurt from sitting, you can always do as Hemingway did, write standing up!

  14. Jackie on July 14, 2021 at 1:26 pm

    I liked the cover the canvas reference as I am also a painter. I tend to rid my canvas of white space before I get down to details. My writing version is called puking on paper. I can clean the mess later. Gross, but it works for me. Over all, an artist must find what works for them. Know it will not be the same for someone else. That’s okay. The signature in the corner of a canvas or the words, “The End” are what matters.

  15. Danielle on July 14, 2021 at 3:44 pm

    All so true. I got over my tendency to edit on the run instead of writing everything first (excellent procrastination device), by doing 5 minute then 10 minute “writing sprints”, as suggested by author Chris Fox in his book ‘5000 Words Per Hour: Write Faster Write Smarter’. Very good habit to get into!

  16. Tim Shepherd on July 14, 2021 at 4:18 pm

    Thank you , everyone, for giving me the confidence I desperately need to finish.

  17. Ivan on July 14, 2021 at 4:41 pm

    Yesterday I started working on the second draft and I came to same conclusion – Man this is shit, but at least I’ve got something to fix.

    Thanks, Steve

  18. Jayne on July 15, 2021 at 11:10 pm

    For me, it depends on the percentage of shit to gold. If it’s too shitty, the next draft is onervous. I have tried it a few times and noticed I descend into a lower level of consciousness. I like to do short. bursts of intense concentrated writing as good as I can make it. Perhaps it’s about individual style, skill and talent.

  19. Jurgen Strack on July 19, 2021 at 1:48 pm

    Heard Ricky Gervais say this to an interviewer who asked him about the effect covid lockdowns have had on his work…he said he found it beneficial…that if you give something more time, it gets better.

    I found that reassuring.

    In my own case, I’m in the process of rewriting my debut novel manuscript. Man, it’s taking a lot longer than I thought. Plus reading and reviewing other author’s books around the subject matter is time consuming.
    But then again, I want something I can be proud of, don’t I?

  20. Tolis Alexopoulos on July 25, 2021 at 5:32 am

    Thank you again dear Steve,

    this concept of a fast-done first writing haunts me for some time now.

    I started my book writing a chapter every about 11 days. The flow was so easy! Everything was already in place it seems, and the investigation I had to do seemed to be fast-paced and concrete. My instinct agreed with my pace and so I went on.

    But after many chapters, my instinct completely changed its own direction. Isn’t that interesting? Now I make every step paying for it with blood, like you said in the war of art. Every corner is an untamed territory that is extremely difficult to conquer. All seems wrong and I have to fight really hard to get it done. It does get tamed however, but with your idea of hardness: endless hours and months for even one medium chapter.

    So why did my instinct change direction? I believe I must trust it. It seems to be an evolution of my flow, so what I started was perfect to start with then, and today I would consider it very very good if I read it again and I wouldn’t like something so worked-out like I do now, but if I followed that fast pace today I feel it would betray me, betraying my instinctive momentum’s alternations.

    So unfortunately I can’t follow the shitty first draft approach now, but I really feel I’m on my way, on my soul’s call, in that difficult way like you mentioned in the war of art.

    I already wonder what will my instinct tell me after the completion of the book. Should it be successful, should I use the same formula or just listen to my guts again? I know which road you would advice me to take.

  21. Paulo Yvonny on August 27, 2021 at 12:13 am

    It’s fantastic… Thank you for providing these examples!!!!

  22. concrete Bundaberg on September 6, 2021 at 10:42 pm

    Great inspiration.

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