What “Write Drunk, Edit Sober” Means

I have to correct a long-running bit of misinformation I’ve passed on for the last several years:

Ernest Hemingway did NOT say “write drunk, edit sober.”

This is something I’ve said in my talks on writing, and it’s one of my most popular tweets of the day. My Klout score will jump two points after a good “write drunk, edit sober” slide.

Except, it does not appear that Ernest actually said it.

Peter De Vries

Peter De Vries

It may have been said by noted American novelist Peter De Vries, the author of The Blood Of The Lamb and Reuben, Reuben — which, as it turns out, is not about a fat guy at a deli.

Sometimes I write drunk and revise sober, and sometimes I write sober and revise drunk. But you have to have both elements in creation — the Apollonian and the Dionysian, or spontaneity and restraint, emotion and discipline.

Writing coach Jeff Goins recently wrote that he had some issues with the phrase, which I disagree with. Goins didn’t like it because 1) it propagates the myth of creativity as a whimsical activity, something that isn’t taken seriously, and 2) it encourages and possibly even glamorizes substance abuse.

Regardless of who said it, I still hold with the advice, but with a couple of caveats.

One thing to understand about “write drunk, edit sober”

While Ernest may have been quite the boozer, the one thing he never did was write while he had been drinking. In fact, he never started drinking until the afternoon. Regardless of his schedule, he was usually at his typewriter by 6 or 7 am, and would work straight until lunchtime, often standing up. He wouldn’t let anything interfere with his writing, including a hangover.

As he told George Plimpton in the Paris Review:

Ernest Hemingway

When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that.

After lunch, he would write letters, edit some past work, and then hit the sauce around 3:00. He may have ended up drinking all night, but he was right back at the typewriter the next morning.

The other thing. . .

I don’t actually believe the phrase “write drunk” encourages substance abuse any more than “eat fresh” will make me a vegetarian.

Rather than ranting about trigger warnings (which I absolutely hate), I’ll say this instead.

When I mention this in my talks, I always point out that “write drunk” only refers to a state of mind, not an actual altered conscious. Alcohol is a depressant. It depresses our inhibitions, which makes us act silly, do inappropriate things, and say and do things we might not otherwise do.

We all have (or know someone who has) made bad life choices while drunk. If we can’t even make good choices about things that have a long-standing impact on our lives, how can we expect to make good word choices?

So, don’t drink and write.

Instead, writing drunk means to imagine the kinds of things you would say if you’d knocked back a few to depress your inhibitions. What words would you use? What ideas would you express? Would you speak more poetically? Use more dramatic and lofty language?

Instead of “speaking loudly,” would you “shout your barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world?”

Similarly, “edit sober” means to copyedit with a critical eye. It doesn’t mean to eliminate and undo all the great work you did while “drunk;” it means clean up your work, remove errors, and fix typos.

It means that you need to nudge your no-fun inner editor and put him or her to work. She doesn’t have permission to tone down your work, just make sure everything is spelled right.

You don’t have to be a tortured soul prone to fits of rampant alcoholism and multiple marriages to be a successful novelist. You have to sit down and do the work. You need to stretch yourself, say things you normally wouldn’t say, and go a little nuts.

Don’t undo the good work you’ve put down. Just make sure it’s error-free, and send it out into the world.

Instead, drink in moderation, and write to excess. It’s cheaper, easier, and you don’t feel like hell in the morning.

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    About Erik Deckers

    Erik Deckers is the President of Pro Blog Service, a content marketing and social media marketing agency in Indianapolis, IN. He co-authored three social media books, including No Bullshit Social Media with Jason Falls (2011, Que Biz-Tech), and Branding Yourself with Kyle Lacy (2nd ed., 2012; Que Biz-Tech), and The Owned Media Doctrine (2013, Archway Publishing). Erik has written a weekly newspaper humor column for 10 papers around Indiana since 1995. He was also the Spring 2016 writer-in-residence at the Jack Kerouac House in Orlando, FL.