Be Precious With Words But Not Too Precious

I was talking with a journalist friend of mine recently, someone whose writing I really admire and whom I used to work with, sort of — we once shared a cubicle when we were both editors at two separate magazines owned by the same publishing company, neither of which are still in business.

Nevertheless, he said it takes a long time to write these days, that he labors over words for hours, going sentence by sentence, piecing together each paragraph as if it were a puzzle. This was difficult work, he said, and I told him I knew what he meant, for I had once written like that too.

Now, I said, I just write the first thing that pops into my head. I get grip on the story, a few key facts, and begin dashing off words, not concerned with consistency or even if the writing makes sense. The point, I said, was to get the story down, as if I were at a bar just riffing about something.

From this raw document, I could plug the holes up, find facts that would build out the story; more specifically it’d feel good because it’d feel like… writing. The other way, where you labor over the facts and trying piecing them together, that felt more like lifting heavy weights. Something you could do if only for a few brief moments, before you had to take a break. It was, to my mind, fucking miserable. It could make you hate writing.

He asked how I began doing it this way, and I said that I learned by writing on the internet. Blogging, I said, removed the chains from writing. Needing to write five, ten, sometimes fifteen articles a day, you became much less precious about what you were writing, and more concerned with simply getting it done. That was the luxury of magazines, I said, that you could sit and labor over what you were doing, and by laboring over it, you felt as if you were doing something grand. But in truth, the story is often wholly unimportant, and you need to let go of it, let it be what it is, just a bunch of words on a page that someone else needs to read. The more you think, the harder it gets.

So, be precious, of course, for words are words and words are important. But, don’t be too precious. Just do it, get it done and let it be what it is. You’ll save yourself a lot of trouble.

Wrote for the New York Times, New York Magazine, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Vice, Fader, Vibe, XXL, MTV News, many other places.

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