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.

Fastest Way to Stop Using Business Jargon? Stop Using Adjectives and Adverbs

You can always spot the new/bad writer — they’re the ones who fervently believe if they use dramatic, purple prose, with lots of flowery adjectives and fancy-schmancy words that end in -ly, the enthralled reader will be captivated by their breath-taking abilities.

No, it just makes me want to puke.

Similarly, you can tell the new/bad marketer, because they’re the ones who spew business jargon like a baby eating a cracker.

They also make me want to puke.

I found a slide deck on 15 marketing buzzwords (see below) we need to quit using now. I’m happy to say I don’t use 14 of them. (I still like to say “content marketing,” but now I feel guilty about it.)

But I also know that a lot of people create a lot of bullshit terms (check out the Dack.com bullshit generator here), and I realized what the problem was.

It’s adverbs and adjectives.

No, seriously!

Think about it. Ernest Hemingway is considered one of the greatest writers of our time, and it was a rare adjective that made its way into his prose. Same goes for adverbs. Why describe a verb, when you can just use a better verb?

And yet we do that with a lot of our marketing jargon as well.

  • Best-of-breed
  • Cutting edge
  • Value-added
  • Revolutionary
  • Scalable
  • Epic

And so on.

Sadly, this won’t eliminate all of the business jargon, but I’m hoping that just by limiting yourself to nouns and verbs — “I love this coffee” instead of “This is epic coffee!” — it may jar your brain enough to start speaking like a normal person again.

If you could even do this with your writing, you’ll find it’s much easier to read and understand.

(And yes, I realize “easier” is an adverb. But then again, I’m not Ernest Hemingway.)

How Bloggers Can Use Ernest Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory of Writing

No one ever thinks about how big an iceberg really is. When you see an iceberg, you only see 20% of it. The other 80% is below the surface of the water. But without that 80%, you wouldn’t have the 20%. The visible 20% is built on the foundation of the 80%, even though you’ll never see it, or in some cases, even realize that it’s there.

That’s the philosophy of Ernest Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory of writing.

Iceberg by NOAA's National Ocean ServiceHe also called it the Theory of Omission, because it was the things he omitted that made his writing more authentic.

He wrote about real people he knew, rather than making up characters. He wrote about subjects he was passionate about, fishing, bull fighting, hunting, and even writing. But it was what he didn’t talk about, the foundations, that gave the stories their strong underpinnings. He believed those things were understood and felt by the reader, and would come through in the story. In his essay, “The Art of the Short Story,” Hemingway said:

A few things I have found to be true. If you leave out important things or events that you know about, the story is strengthened. If you leave or skip something because you do not know it, the story will be worthless. The test of any story is how very good the stuff that you, not your editors, omit. . .You could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.

It means that writers need to have an in-depth understanding of what and who they’re writing about, rather than only a surface knowledge. The knowledgeable writer has better depth to a story, while the less knowledgeable one does not. And Hemingway believed you could tell the difference between the writer who omitted something they knew from the writer who omitted something they didn’t know.

Although Hemingway was a fiction writer, he based characters in his stories on people he knew. They would act and react the same way their real-life counterparts would. He even strongly admonished F. Scott Fitzgerald for not writing about real people.

Bloggers Need the Iceberg Theory

This works for bloggers and nonfiction writers too. In the ideas we express and the language we use, we should build our stories and blog posts on the 80% of the iceberg no one else will see.

For ghost bloggers, it means we have to know more than just the story we’re writing. We have to know how the product or service works. We have to know the industries the client is targeting. We even have to know the allied industries that affect, and are affected by, the client’s work.

Because all that knowledge informs and flavors each blog post, and shows up in the tiny details that are present or are missing.

And believe me, the client and their readers know what’s missing, and they can tell when the writer knows what they’re talking about. They can tell when the omissions are intentional, and when they’re because of a lack of knowledge.

To build that iceberg yourself, it means spending time having conversations with the client. Learning the things that interest them. The things they think are cool about their job, and even their own hobbies. It means listening to them talk to other colleagues about the company, so you can find their voice.

Ultimately, this lets us build the base of our iceberg in such a way that the 20% we can see will be fully supported, and not tip over into the sea with a single nudge.


Photo credit: NOAA’s National Ocean Service (Flickr, Creative Commons)

Co-Citation Will Replace Anchor Text, Make My Life Harder

SEO professionals are about to lose another search signal in their optimization work, only to have it replaced by something that requires more work by content marketers, but will ultimately make Google better.

According to Rand Fishkin in a recent Whiteboard Friday, we’re about to lose anchor text.

Anchor text is a string of text that links a word or phrase to another page. In the previous paragraph, Whiteboard Friday is the anchor text.

Hungarian football match between Videoton FC and FC Basel

I never thought I’d write about how Hungarian football relates to blogging.

It’s long been an SEO practice to backlink to a website by linking a keyword or phrase. For example, Pro Blog Service’s president, Paul Lorinczi, runs a Hungarian football (soccer) website. If he wants to promote the site with anchor text inside a backlink, the html code would look like this:

<a href=”http://www.hungarianfootball.com/”>Hungarian football</a>

This tells Google “this link, HungarianFootball.com, is about ‘Hungarian football.'”

Problem is, all that is dying. Stupid spammers.

Spammers Ruined It For The Rest Of Us

For all good things that SEO did and was, the spammers screwed it up for the rest of us. They’re the ones who created the link farms that had thousands of backlinks on hundreds of pages. Pages completely unrelated to whatever the links pointed to. A link to a site about jewelry from a page about construction equipment.

Fishkin says anchor text will nearly die — it won’t die completely — and instead be replaced by co-citation.

Co-citation is a new method where Google looks at important words on a page, not just official keywords, and draws a relationship between them. Then it determines what the page is talking about — e.g., does it refer to another page or brand? — and makes the association that “these words and these words go together. And they’re referring to the topic of this website over here. So we’re going to assume that the two go together, and we’ll give the website a little boost.”

In other words, instead of backlinking to a page about Hungarian football with Paul’s name, Google now has an entry in its giant massive database where the two have been linked just by being mentioned on the same page.

Another Co-Citation Example

Ernest HemingwayI write a lot about Ernest Hemingway and blogging, including one post about whether he would be a good blogger or not. I’ve written about the two topics so much that when I do a Google search on “Ernest Hemingway blogging,” my tag page on Ernest Hemingway shows up (a compilation page of all posts I’ve tagged with Hemingway’s name).

(In fact, it’s ranked 6th on Google, which would be cool if anyone actually ever did a search for that term.)

Next, let’s say I had another website called ErnestHemingwayBloggingTips.com. Google would be able to make the association between my blog posts on “Hemingway and blogging” and this new website. Google would essentially say, “Here’s a blog post about Ernest Hemingway and blogging, and — ooh! — here’s a whole website devoted to that topic! SCORE!

What would further cement the relationship is if my name appeared on both pages, like, say, in an author bio. Then, Google has another link in that chain, and whenever someone did a search for “Ernest Hemingway blogging,” my new website has a better chance of ranking very high because of the co-citation between Ernest and blogs.

Google search results for Ernest Hemingway blogging

This tells us some important things about co-citation:

  • I don’t use Hemingway’s name in every headline, just the one post, but Google still picks up on the keyword “Ernest Hemingway” in all of the posts. It understands, because of the tag and the body copy itself, that Papa is integral to the text. That means while headlines may be useful, your posts aren’t going to be ranked only on headline keywords.
  • The tag page is a dynamic page created by WordPress. If I add another post with “Ernest Hemingway” as the tag, like this one, the page will change. That means tags are important to Google, so use your tags properly. Don’t abuse them. Otherwise, Google’s going to take those away too.
  • Google is indexing synonyms. It’s not only looking for the word “blogging,” it’s also keying in on the word “blogger.” How long will it be before exact keywords are no longer important, because Google will understand what we mean, and not just what we said.
  • Freaking out about keywords and trying to find the exactly-perfect-bestest one is (almost) unnecessary. It used to be you had to limit your headline and topic to a single keyword, and you scoured Google AdWords and WebCEO to find just the right one. Now you’re going to get some Google juice for different keywords and their synonyms, not just the one in your headline.

Like all things Google is doing, co-citation is going to make life both harder and easier for content marketers. It’s going to drastically change our strategy, and make us have to work harder. Because, as you can see in Fishkin’s video below, co-citation doesn’t always help your page, unless it’s on someone else’s page. That’s what anchor text and backlinks did for us; we linked back to our sites using the right anchor text.

And since Google is focusing on quality content — because crappy content farms were decimated by Google Panda, and Penguin foreclosed on the link farms — that means we need people to talk about us and our keywords on their sites.

That leaves us with two strategies, both of which will take a lot of work, but will have a huge SEO payoff.

  1. Blogger outreach. This has been a public relations function. Now PR has to work with SEO in order to boost rankings. This means PR flaks who have already been doing blogger outreach will be at an advantage. They’ll be ahead of the game once co-citation becomes a real thing.
  2. Create extra content in offsite blogs. Can’t get other people to talk about you? Start another blog on another site. But you can’t put up crappy content that’s been run through an article spinner. You have to write real, effective, valuable content that real people are going to read. Google Panda killed the low-value schlock that some black hat SEOs were using, so your offsite blogging has to be just as good as your onsite blogging. And since a lot of people are already struggling with their actual blogging, this extra work is going to be a killer. Advantage: good bloggers and guest bloggers.

I can’t decide if I’m happy or annoyed by co-citation. We were already doing some of this at Pro Blog Service, which means we’re in a position to take advantage of it. But now that it’s going to become a real thing, it means we have to do more of it.


Erik Deckers’ 8 Rules of Writing

I’ve been so inspired by the Brain Pickings weekly installments of Rules of Writing (that link goes to Neil Gaiman’s 8 rules), that I decided to come up with my own rules of writing that I’ve learned over the last 25 years (sweet Jebus! that’s a lot).

1. Write like real people speak. Your 7th grade English teacher didn’t know shit about real writing. If you have to contort your sentences to fit what she taught, drop it. Say your thoughts out loud, and write them down.

2. Short words, short sentences, short paragraphs. Write like a journalist, not a college professor. Smart people sound smarter when they can make difficult things easy to understand.

3. There is no such thing as inspiration, just like there’s no such thing as writer’s block. Real writers sit down and do it every day. It’s a job. You start, you do the work, you stop (sort of). Accountants don’t get accountant’s block. Plumber’s don’t wait for inspiration. They do their job because they have to. So it goes with writers.A Moleskine notebook and Pilot G-2 .05 mm blue pen

4. Write with a pen, never a pencil. Pencils don’t require you to commit to your ideas. You can erase a pencil, you have to scribble out a pen. At least then you can see evidence of your thought process.

5. Never write for other people. Write for you. Write the stuff you want to read. If you write for other people, you’ll never make anyone happy, including yourself. If you write for you, at least someone will be happy.

6. Read poetry. Listen to music by poets and songwriters. Start thinking in metaphors. Even the most boring non-fiction can liven up with a few metaphors. And if you don’t like poetry, listen to some Tom Waits albums. I’m particular to Nighthawks At The Diner and the song “Putnam County.” Now that’s some poetry.

7. Don’t assume you don’t need marketing. “My work should stand on its own merit” is the mating call of the coward. If they don’t promote their work, people won’t find it, and they can protect their fragile ego. Promote your work and get people’s opinions. It will make you a better writer.

8. “Write drunk, edit sober” (Peter DeVries originally said a version of this, not Ernest Hemingway.). This doesn’t extol the virtues of drinking and writing. Rather, it means alcohol lowers our inhibitions. That’s when our real essence comes out, and we write (and act) like we don’t have those voices and filters that keep the “real” us from coming out. Write like you’ve been drinking a little bit, and then edit like it’s the next morning. Don’t smooth everything back to “normal.” Knock off the rough edges, and keep the best stuff.

Fewer Words, Greater Impact: How to Write Like a Minimalist

My family and I have gone through some major downsizing over the last 10 years, as much by choice as by circumstance. We realized we had reached the point of super-saturation of stuff when our big house in a small town was crammed with needless stuff.

In preparation for a move to Indianapolis, we filled a 4 cubic yard dumpster three times with unusable stuff. I donated more than 600 books to my local library. And we gave away toys and children’s clothes by the carload. It was all stuff we had been hanging on to, but never really needed. As we moved to Indianapolis, we used more than 60 feet of moving truck, taking several different trips, and still had too much stuff. After four more years of paring and weeding, we could get almost everything into a single 24 foot truck.

It’s a wonderful feeling of freedom, but we could get rid of a whole lot more.

As we de-crapified our lives, we started thinking like minimalists, trying to get by with the least amount of stuff we could.Crammed bookshelves

One myth people have about minimalism is that it means going without. A minimalist washes dishes by hand instead of using a dishwasher. A minimalist owns four dishes, instead of 12 full place settings, plus a set of china. A minimalist has very little furniture, and their rooms are nearly empty.

That’s not minimalism. That’s spartan living. There’s a difference.

A minimalist doesn’t have very much stuff, but they make sure that what they have does the most and is the best they get.

For example, a minimalist will have gotten rid of their 600 books, but kept their very favorite ones in all the world. A minimalist will have 12 place settings, but they’ll skip the china, and they’ll have something that can stand up to a lot of abuse, but still looks nice. A minimalist will own a dishwasher, but it will be the best one they can afford so they don’t have to buy a new one every three years. A minimalist will have give up VHS tapes for DVDs, and then give up DVDs for Netflix and their local library, or burn their favorite DVDs to a 2 TB hard drive.

What Does That Have to Do With Writing?

Just like a minimalist chooses the things that mean the most to him or her, minimalist writers choose the best words laden with the deepest, richest meaning they can find.

For example, a minimalist will have a small bookshelf to hold 100 books of his favorite books. And it will be made from a sturdy oak or cherry wood. It will not be made out of pressed sawdust that sags when you put more than 30 books on it.

The minimalist writer will also use the best words to describe that bookshelf.

He stared at his collection of well-thumbed books lining the heavy oak bookcase, now in its third generation of owner. The man ran his hands along the sides, feeling the tool marks from where his grandfather had hand sawn and planed the boards as a young man, building it from the farm’s oak trees. The heavy case was over 80 years old, and still showed no signs of sagging, unlike her pressed sawdust shelves that tilted precariously against the apartment wall.

If you read closely, you can see a few important facts that we were able to convey with just one or two words.

  • His grandfather lived in a time before power tools and owned a farm. The fact that he built it when he was younger means that he was pretty handy.
  • The fact that the bookcase hasn’t sagged despite being 80 years old also speaks to the strength of the wood, as well as the grandfather’s skills with tools.
  • The current owner of the bookcase, “he,” reads a lot of the same books over and over. “Well-thumbed” was your clue. He also doesn’t own that many of them, since he can fit them all on one bookcase.
  • Chances are, the man is very selective about his books. We can surmise that he reads high0quality books. Why? He appreciates the quality of the shelves, and he fills them with books he reads over and over. So you know it’s not filled with paperback versions of “Twilight” and “Fifty Shades of Grey.” What’s in it, we don’t know. We could add a further clue if we used a phrase like “leather-bound” or “old,” but we also don’t want to cram too much into the description.
  • He is also in a relationship. You see this in the mention of “her shelves.” He’s either married or living with her, since her shelves are in his apartment.
  • The two are either fairly young, they live in a big city, or they can’t afford a house. Presumably we’ll find out later.

We could have written that passage with nearly five times as many words — describing the condition of the books in a few sentences, talking about the quality of construction, or describing how his girlfriend’s crappy bookshelf should be considered a hazardous area.

But we can convey the same feelings, finding even deeper ones, by writing like a minimalist and picking the words that mean the most.

Photo credit: jonathanpberger (Flickr, Creative Commons

Brevity vs. Poetry: A Writer’s Dilemma

Writer E.B. White “was troubled by the absolutism of such rules” as set out in Strunk & White’s Elements of Style, says BrainPickings.org*.

White would respond to letter writers who had questions, comments, complaints, and compliments about the different rules and dictums set forth in the book that every college freshman buys, skims, and then never reads again.

“Avoid needless words,” was S&W’s admonishment to the blatherers in English Comp classes.

“Write down to the bones,” said every college journalism professor. “Scrape off all the fat.”

Problem is, this approach oftentimes results in the very life of the language being sucked right out of the piece. It’s the rhythm of the language that makes it enjoyable to read.

Ernest Hemingway

“I think that I shall never see/a lion as lovely as one shot by me.”

Would Ernest Hemingway Make a Good Poet?

I decided a long time ago that my writing style would be concise and simple. Hemingway-esque. Avoid adverbs, that sort of thing. (Although I’m still a sucker for a well-placed adjective.)

This contradicts the writing style students are being taught in colleges and universities: utilizing multi-syllabic, complex words that very few people, including the professor truly understood, but make you sound erudite; long, meandering sentences that endeavor to explain and clarify one’s thoughts with as many extraneous words as possible, which make you sound educated; and, whackingly long Faulkner-esque paragraphs that, when printed out on standard paper, can wipe out an entire rain forest, with bonus points being granted if you can use one sentence for a multi-line paragraph, like this sentence here.

This isn’t writing, it’s vocabulary vomiting. Students are being told that in order to communicate “effectively,” they have to use big words. As a result, when I meet a new graduate who wants to be a writer, this is the first habit I break them of, and teach them to use simpler, more vivid picturesque language. There’s a place for simplicity, but also a place for the beauty of the language.

This usually brings us to a different problem, where writers — especially nonfiction writers — are taught to avoid all adverbs and adjectives, even metaphors and similes, for the sake of simple, scientific, logical writing. (They are all then put into boxes and delivered by the truckload to the Creative Writing department, but that’s a different blog post.)

Use Language’s Natural Rhythm

The problem with this oversimple, journalistic-style writing is the language tends to be dry. Describe the facts, without hyperbole or exaggeration. Present them in the fewest words as possible to save on column inches and to keep readers involved as long as possible.

But, what about the poetry of language? Language has a natural rhythm that makes some words a better fit than others. Some writers are masters at this, and Hemingway was one of the few who could find the rhythm in his sparse style. Other people who do it well are speechwriters. Ted Sorensen, John F. Kennedy’s speechwriter, excelled at it, as did Reagan and Clinton’s speechwriters.

As White said in a letter in his book, The Letters of E.B. White:

It comes down to the meaning of ‘needless.’ Often a word can be removed without destroying the structure of a sentence, but that does not necessarily mean that the word is needless or that the sentence has gained by its removal.

If you were to put a narrow construction on the word ‘needless,’ you would have to remove tens of thousands of words from Shakespeare, who seldom said anything in six words that could be said in twenty. Writing is not an exercise in excision, it’s a journey into sound. How about ‘tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’*? One tomorrow would suffice, but it’s the other two that have made the thing immortal.

Writing is a “journey into sound.” That’s the natural rhythm of language. Tap into it, and people will read your work, long after they swore they would quit. Many times I’ve found myself promising to only read 10 pages before I go to sleep, only to look at the clock and see that two hours have passed.

Roger Angell, the baseball writer for The New Yorker, is a master at finding rhythm, but doing it in long sentences. He uses 80 words to weave an Appalachian Trail of a sentence to make you feel like you’re sitting at the ballpark with him. He still needs every word to do it though. There are very few “needless words” in a Roger Angell article.

Simple Writing is Not Stripped Down Writing

Simple writing is not just striking out everything but nouns and verbs. It means choosing the very best words.

It’s like how a minimalist decorates their house: they don’t have just a TV and a couch in the living room. They’ll also have books on a bookshelf, but only 50 of their most favorite books in all the world.

Simple writers may use only a few words, but they use the right words that convey exactly what they want to say. They don’t explain the words they use, they use the richest words that hold the most meaning.

The secret to writing poetically and with brevity is to find the most vivid words with the deepest meaning to properly convey the message, and tap into the their rhythm to carry your thoughts.

* If you’re a writer, or you care about words, read BrainPickings.org every day, and subscribe to the newsletter. Also, follow @BrainPicker on the Twitter.