Do you enjoy the taste of wine?
The best tasting vintages are left to ferment for weeks, months, or even years in a cool, dark place before being decanted into bottles.
Winemakers and drinkers know the product becomes better with age.
Writing is a little like making fine wine.
There’s the gathering of the ingredients, equipment, and materials.
There’s the artistry, hard-work, craft, and inevitable wait for something good.
When you’ve worked on a difficult writing project at length, it’s hard to know what to remove and what to keep.
When you’re writing with flavour, should you cut a chapter or expand a key point?
Should you insert more research or write a personal story?
These creative problems can become so exhausting you just want your writing project to end.
These types of creative problems are also natural. The more you write, the easier it’ll become to accept this.
Your Cool Dark Place
Don’t publish a piece of writing immediately after it’s done.
It’ll be too raw and bitter for public consumption. Every writer needs a dark place for their work to ferment.
Leave your early drafts in a drawer and take this time to rest, to write something else, and to forget about what’s fermenting in your drawer.
Later, you can take this writing out into daylight and taste it. You can approach it with an editing pen and a set of fresh eyes.
Thanks to this time away from your work, you will discover flaws and gaps you overlooked. You’ll be able to address your problems with a renewed vigour. You’ll be able to write with flavour.
Unlike before, this rewrite will feel more natural.
The solutions you searched for last time round will be within your reach.
When you finally publish your writing, your readers will enjoy the taste more, because you gave the flavour time to develop.
How Long Should You Let Your Writing Ferment?
The time a piece of writing belongs in a drawer depends on how long it is, who it’s for, and your other professional commitments .
Here’s what I do:
I let blog posts rest a day or two before publishing them. This is because it’s easy and fast to edit or change a blog post.
If it’s a longer article, I wait a week or more before sending it to an editor.
This is because I’ve professional relationships with editors, who expect a certain standard of work.
I’ve also put my short stories and book chapters in a drawer for several months, until I’ve almost forgotten what they’re about.
This gives me time to cast a fresh eye over my work, remove clichés (there’s one), ttypos (there’s another), and fix other structural problems.
These different fermentation periods give me the distance I need to improve my writing.
I embrace this time away, because when I finally take my writing from the drawer, I’m fresh enough to expand, clarify, or condense my points and sentences.
I have the energy to back up my arguments with some additional or much-needed research.
Thanks to the drawer, I can face that much needed, and often dreaded, rewrite with a thirst to fix what’s broken.
The drawer is a good place to let your writing ferment, but as a professional writer, you won’t always be able to rely on this luxury.
What Professional Writers Do
Professional writers can’t always put a piece of writing into a drawer and let it sit for weeks at a time. This is because they have to work to deadlines imposed by editors, contracts, publications, and even their readers.
This is why professional writers don’t work alone.
They invariably have the support of editors, who can (hopefully) catch these errors and mistakes and help them fix them.
If the editor is supportive, they will show the writer how to avoid making these types of errors again.
Becoming a professional writer means enlisting an editor, who serves as your ally in the war against perfectionism.
Behold the Myth of Perfectionism
Writing with flavour doesn’t mean waiting for the day when it’s finally perfect. Even wine becomes undrinkable if it’s left to ferment too long.
Remember: The perfect creative work doesn’t exist.
There will always be a vast chasm between your ideas and how your words gather on the page. This chasm makes many writers and creative people feel squeamish.
It was the philosopher, Nietzsche, who said, “And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.”
When I see my words arranged on the page, I remember everything has already been said and in more ways than I can ever imagine.
The gaze of all those more talented and creative writers from times past gazes back at me. And I want to jump.
So I turn away.
And I press publish.
What Happens When You Say Not Today?
If you insist on endlessly polishing and rewriting your work, you will delay your writing projects indefinitely.
This procrastination will frustrate colleagues, clients, and readers (yes, your readers!), who are waiting on you to finish your work.
Perfectionism is a dangerous myth for which productive writers should be watchful.
I hate to break it to you, but perfectionism is an excuse for putting off publishing your work. These types of excuses are indulgent.
Eventually, they turn the productive writer into a miserable and procrastinating one.
The good news is, you can overcome perfectionism today.
Overcoming Perfectionism and Procrastination
In a 1996 interview with WYNC, the American essayist and author David Foster Wallace explained the dangers of perfectionism:
“You know, the whole thing about perfectionism. The perfectionism is very dangerous, because of course if your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything.
“Because doing anything results in– It’s actually kind of tragic because it means you sacrifice how gorgeous and perfect it is in your head for what it really is.”
I try to remember Wallace’s advice when I approach the end of a writing project.
I also set publication dates for my writing and do my best to stick to them.
I also try not to take the writing so seriously.
All I can do is keep practicing, keep falling forwards, and keep using these painful writing lessons to improve my work.
If you’re struggling to expose the myth of perfectionism in your writing, don’t endlessly work and rework your writing alone.
It’s more effective to ask someone you trust to critically evaluate your writing and offer feedback than it is to work alone.
So, who can you ask for help?
This could be an editor, a trusted friend, a member of your writing group, or an honest family member.
The only caveat is this person must be able to offer you candid feedback you will act on.
Don’t wait years to publish your writing.
Accept doubt as part of the process and understand you must share your writing with the world.
Put it in the drawer and let your writing develop. Then take it out and expose your writing to the world.
Let them love it or hate it and all its ugly imperfections.
Images of David Foster Wallace remixed via Steve Rhodes
This is an edited extract from my recently rewritten and revised A Handbook for the Productive Writer: 33 Ways To Finish What You Started