The Writing Class You Never Had

Let’s say you’ve never had a writing class in your life, but you really want to write. Let’s say you don’t know the first thing about grammar or the English language. All you know is that you want to write. Good. That’s all you need.

Photo credit: Christopher Sessums (Creative Commons)

Call this your first introduction to the true craft of writing. Not talking about writing or theorizing about words. Just writing. Let’s get started.

There are three parts to writing anything:

  • The beginning
  • The middle
  • The end

That’s it. It doesn’t get any more complicated. If you can write those three parts, you can write anything: a novel, a play, a book, a blog post. So let’s break it down a little further, step by step:

Beginning: Show up

  1. Sit down. Firmly plant your butt in the chair and keep it there for a set time. Whether it’s five minutes or five hours, STAY PUT.
  2. Stay put until you write something. I don’t care if you squander forty-five minutes and then rush to write 500 words in those last five minutes. Just don’t leave until you have words on the screen or paper.
  3. Keep showing up. Do this again and again and again until it becomes a habit. It doesn’t matter for how long; just keep doing it. Frequency trumps length.

Middle: Make it ugly

  1. Don’t wait for inspiration. Write something terrible and ugly first, so that you can make it better later.
  2. Just write. Don’t edit, don’t think about it, don’t go back and correct. Just write. It really is that simple.
  3. Start writing nonsense. If nothing comes to you and you aren’t sure where to begin, just start writing. I don’t care if it’s asdjkl vbnm. If you write gobbledy-gook long enough, the real words will come.

At first it will be ugly and that’s okay. Natural even. This is not the stage for perfection. It’s time to make something; tweak later.

End: Murder all nonessentials

  1. It’s editing time. Pull out your red pen and be brutal. When you were writing, you put the perfectionist away. Now, bring out the anal retentive jerk who’s never satisfied with anything. This is where your work begins to sing, where it truly gets good.
  2. Kill your darlings. Cross out everything that doesn’t work, even those beautiful, irrelevant phrases that you just can’t bear to live without. Those are your “darlings;” aim and fire. They deserve to die.
  3. Cut weak words. Any word that doesn’t absolutely need to be there needs to go. Especially lazy words like adverbs (don’t tell me he said something intelligently; show me his intelligence by what he says).

Class dismissed.

Any questions? Share in the comments.

102 thoughts on “The Writing Class You Never Had

  1. Good morning Jeff!  Excellent post to start the morning. Writing without editing is the toughest part of the process.  We hate our inner critic yet we can’t help but listen to it more often than not.  I still struggle with it from time to time.  This post is an excellent outline for those intimidated by the mere act of putting the pen to paper.

    You’re dead on.  It doesn’t matter how pretty the words are in the Middle.  Get it written down.  Then come back and edit.  Exactly what I did with this comment! :)Keep producing great content Jeff!

  2. Just a question as someone who might sign up to your writing class.  I am a English lang/lit degree student . . . as part of that I have taken the Creative writing module, just finished the Advanced Creative Writing module and nearly finished the English Grammar module . . . would I or others who have already taken writing classes gain anything from your classes? I am looking at it that learning never ends and even re-doing things I have done before certainly won’t harm and may help, but just interested in your thoughts (since you know more about the course than me)

  3. Yes! Yes! Yes! It’s that simple. And that difficult complicated challenging soul destroying and worthwhile. I’m with you Jeff. Keep spreading the good stuff.

  4. Jeff…..Great writers talk about using this method. The problem with most of us is that we are such critics of ourselves that we can’t let go…which is crazy when you think about it. I just finished reading The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle….one of the best 5 books I’ve read this year. Writing is a bit different from mastering music and sports but some of the major themes Coyle writes about are: 1: You must do ‘deep practice’ consistently 2: You have to make a lot of mistakes to improve at your craft….as a matter of fact, the more the better  3. Your teacher/coach, etc. is critical in order to learn how to improve and excell at your craft.

    I bought your book a few weeks ago on Amazon. Read most of it in one sitting. Besides the quality of your writing, your voice and message come through loud and clear. I love the fact that you had the courage to stand firm in your beliefs, Jeff. Wrecked is one of a kind book. Kudos to you. Fran

  5. Yes… you are so correct. Almost always, my first draft is crap…  with the hope that it will become something that will engage my listener. The hard part is sitting the butt in the chair, every day.
    What I find quite miraculous are the days I sit, staring with a blank slate and some time later see words that have come together as one.  That makes me smile.
    Now to make that happen everyday would be sweet.
    I love your tenacity in this endeavor. You inspire me.

  6. So so true. The last week or so I have been putting off sitting down and actually writing, because I keep waiting for ‘inspiration’. I should sit and start, not procrastinate!! Something will come to me…


  7. So so true. The last week or so I have been putting off sitting down and actually writing, because I keep waiting for ‘inspiration’. I should sit and start, not procrastinate!! Something will come to me…

  8. I bought a desk, set up a creative workspace and promptly abandoned it. My wife took it over with her art. I reclaimed my territory and set out time to write ONLY at my desk. When I sit down at my creative workspace, I may start slow but my work there is better than anything I’ve written on the couch.

  9. This lesson was great. Please do keep them coming. I love the way that you boiled it down to it’s most basic form. Awesome.


  10. Jeff,
    This is good wisdom, exactly what I teach in my classes and something that we, as writers, often overlook and want to overlook because writing IS so much harder in our minds than the simplicity of this formula points out.

    Gotham Writers’ Workshop puts it this way: “The model is certainly a tried-and-true one, having existed for more than twenty-three hundred years, coming from Aristotle’s Poetics, a discourse on how drama works. . . . The accepted model of plot offered by Poetics is more complex that it at first seems. It says that fictional works have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Well, maybe that’s a duh – but more importantly it tells us that those sections have distinct roles in the successful telling of a story.”

    Your post today reminded me of this idea.  Thanks for the reminder.

  11. Great post for all of us who—at however old we are—wonder why we haven’t actually written more. The second-best time to start is today!

  12. Jeff, 
    Agree with Andrea.  Tried and true wisdom passed down through centuries. Currently  taking course form Jack Canfield (Chicken Soup for the Soul) and he echoes your thoughts as well.  Never hurts to hear it several times!

    Also purchased your book when it first came out — great read — appreciated the rhythm and simplicity in the ideas.  Congratulations!

  13. what a lesson i have just learned when you say you just need three things in writting .

  14. When I want to kill my darlings, I send my work to my sister. She’s brutal! But I don’t want to be the literary equivalent to “no mirror, no friends” in fashion! So I listen to her wise counsel (and she picks apart every word! ugh!). Here’s to editing!! woo hoo!

  15. Awesome! I’m writing my internship report and your words have helped me immensely. :’) 
    Have a nice day, Jeff! 

  16. I love this post Jeff.  Having spent the past week entertaining my sister-in-law, who’s a 4th grade teacher and degree snob extraordinaire, this truly spoke to me.  She never misses an opportunity to ‘compliment’ my blog without saying, “Your writing is amazing considering you never went to college.” 

    When my children’s book was published (and it was geared to 4th graders) she almost had a stroke. 

    I believe art in any form is a gift. We only have to honor it and make it happen.
    Thanks, and I will look into your class.

    1.  I. LOVE. this! Good for you for persevering. I had a relative do that to me too only more openly. I was infuriated but the fury pushed me all the more to write.

  17. Jeff —

    Quite a good piece, and your take on the “End” phase really resonated, particularly making the simple point of (as I learned so many years ago as an actor) SHOW, don’t TELL with ‘don’t *tell* me he said something intelligently, *show* his intelligence!’

    Thanks, as always!

  18. Great tips Jeff 🙂  …I’m having a hard time ‘killing my darlings’ right now as I’m editing;( But I know it’s necessary so the story sings…needed the reminder today, thanks!

  19. My “nonsense” writing reads more like frustration than play. 
    I need to remind myself to include more play, “asdjkl” in my writing, even if I’m the only one who knows it’s there!

  20. Showing up every day has been the best advice I got about learning to write and blogging is a huge help with that. Although I still have a lot of trouble keeping the editor at bay (because editing is more fun than the initial writing to me, go figure!) it’s getting easier. Occasionally I will have  a blog post that really hangs me up and I will craft it for a couple of days before posting (that happened when I recently launched a new blog, – I had the worst time writing the welcoming message!) but usually it’s pretty easy. Routine is so important; once I set up my morning routine, the words started flowing! Now I just have to find time to read again! 🙂

  21. Awesome.  Sometimes it physically hurts to kill my darlings and I’m so resistant, that I have to start praying while I do it, “God, you know how much I loved that one…”  

    It really does help.

  22. Hi Jeff,

    Thanks for sharing this very inspiring post!

    I recently posted about ways to overcome writer’s block and my first tip was to just start writing because that’s what I found to be the most effective in writing the first draft of my novel. 

    Many times I sat down to write and didn’t have a clue where to start (usually when I started the day at the beginning of a new scene). I found that if I just started writing something it was enough to get my creative juices flowing. I figured that even if what I wrote ended up incredibly lame I could always delete it. Rarely did that happen.

    Soon I’ll have to kill some of those darlings when I start my first edit.


  23. Perfect companion, could call it the Athletics of writing. Like putting Fun in the Fundamentals. Editing is key. Movie makers shoot lots of footage so they have coverage and something to edit down to. I love your strategy. One to print out and stick on the wall.

  24. I was bound by perfection that it stifled my writing to the point I didn’t write. Your lesson makes me think it’s doable. Freedom has knocked on my door and I answered it.

    Thank for being plain and simple.

  25. So great–especially “kill the little darlings.”  It reminds me of when I took a class to learn how to throw pots, a difficult art to master.  The teacher told us that if a pot isn’t absolutely perfect, you have to destroy it, because you can’t fall in love with a pot.  You have to fall in love with the process of creation, not the result.

  26. I JUST wrote about all this in my blog this morning.  I stopped doing my morning pages to do my blog writing and my writing came to a complete stop.  Block City.  Once I began them again, life changed! 🙂

  27. A friend of mine used to sing “kill your darlings” to the tune of “Oh My Darling”.  Ah, good memories.  So true, too.   Trying to write and edit at the same time never works.

  28. Thanks Jeff for this timely post. This is as simple as it gets. Time to kill my complacency, fear, and perfectionism. 🙂

  29. CRAP!!!!

    That’s what I intended to write today.


    Then end it beautifully (err, sorry for using adverb :))

    Thanks to you Jeff! You’re such a help! 🙂

  30. I have a question. If we don’t have know the first thing about grammar, how can we do the edit part (end: murder all nonessentials #1) ourselves ?

  31. Simple and powerful points. I have been writing for several years and have learned the importance of just starting. I found even if I don’t feel like writing, once I start the motivation often comes.

  32. alamlaeoolak. Alarm in a lake. Alamo look alike. You’re right. Gobbledy-gook  does start to turn into words. Now let’s see if they can turn into something more.

    Good, simple, true. Your advice, that is. Thanks.

  33. Love how you say this, Jeff! Gets to the point in a unique way and is more effective for it. Writers shouldn’t be afraid. Words are characters waiting for a story to tell, yet they scare the Hell out of their “mouth piece” before they even get the chance to draw breath. 
    I have found getting ideas out, however sketchy or threadbare, makes those ideas take flight. It’s throwing the fledglings out and watching them take off. Yeah, they could have flopped to the ground but even then, there’s a chance they’ll take off even from there. 

    Maybe a push is required. If so, I talk my ideas into a digital recorder, just letting the words flow. That generates more words and more ideas. 

    I have also found writing out the first chapter of my favourite novel helps too. Makes writer’s block disintegrate and within a couple of lines, my own skeletons fall out into my story. As for my darlings? Some times I need good skeletons.

  34. Hello Jeff,
    Did I read all this in other similar classes? A short while ago?
    Yes I did. Still, the lesson comes through clear and lound, fresh and useful as ever!
    Thanks for remindimg me. 🙂

    Bought WRECKED…began reading it. When you say “kill the little darlings” you mean it!
    I love your book, but I am also jelous of you, of all you accomplished in such a young age! Makes me want to be young again to have the energy and the time to do some of the things you do. At my age, I am staying close to home, giving my self to those around me that need me, like my 92-year old mom, my 81-year old husband and our 6 young grandchildren. Between their needs, I …clean my manuscript for publishing.

    These past couple of months, you have helped me see my writing from a different perspective. Because of you and the tools you gave me, it is cleaner and richer at the same time.

    Thank you, for everything!
    God bless you and your family!

  35. Right now, it’s step #3 in Beginning and Steps #1 and #2 that I am focused on: just sit down, just get there, just make it happen, just glue butt to chair, and keep typing, typing, typing… No matter how ugly it looks. 
    Sometimes I go back, read what I’ve written, and think, Yep, that’s about as ugly as I thought it would be.
    But sometimes I find some gems hidden in there. 
    Thanks for a great post. 

  36. I’ve been writing professionally for over 30 years and you always offer information I can use. This is a great reminder of the basics that should guide our writing always. And I’m taking the course. Reading Wrecked and loving it.

  37. Excellent post. Just found your stuff. I couldn’t agree more. Sometimes it’s about grinding it out, and not necessarily finesse. You can always go back and edit.

  38. Jeff,
    Good advice and breakup, it is probably the best way as stated by you – think,write -don’t stop ,let it flow – and then edit -re-edit until satisfied.I am trying to learn from all great advice on your blog – and hopefully i will write much  better in near future.
    Thanks a lot – your blog teaches me a lot.

  39. This is a great post. You give aspiring writers not only the confidence but the tools to become great writers. Thanks for sharing your passion with the world.

  40. But it does get more complicated!  On the one hand I think you’re talking about just the actual task of writing, but put up against your phrase the “true craft of writing”, I can’t help but disagree.  Yes, one has to write and the only way you can do that is to sit and write, even when you don’t feel like it.  And yes, sometimes more of it will be junk than treasure, but there is something that comes between the beginning, middle, and end and that is the knowledge of how to put it all together in the editing phase and that’s where the complicated comes into play.  You make it sound like anyone can produce a novel, a play, and so forth, but really, as a writer working to produce a novel, there is more to it than just that.  I don’t know, perhaps you were trying to make the idea of crafting a piece of writing less frightening in order to encourage, but from my end, it just comes off as too simple.  What’s wrong with me?

  41. Nice and concise, and it inspired me. Same with the “ugly” link. I sent it to the soon to be writing partners, we’re following the write faster challenge, kinda.

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