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Do You Have Sloppy Writing Habits? (And 4 Things to Do About It)

4 dos and donts of sloppy writing habitsThe question I want to ask today is whether sloppy writing habits are a deterrent to success, a natural and unavoidable part of the creative process, both, or neither.

I’ve never met the writer (myself included) who didn’t suffer from sloppy writing habits. These habits fall into a number of categories—everything from sloppy handwriting to sloppy writing processes to sloppy writing techniques.

“Sloppy” is an inherently negative word that reeks of frustrated parents cajoling unwashed teenagers to impose order on their personal batcaves. And yet—sloppiness also seems kind of inherent to all things creative. Indeed, some researchers have gone so far as to famously insist “a messy desk is a sign of genius.”

Naturally, as a neat freak, I take exception to this. I like order and schedules. I hate chaos and spontaneity.

I’ve been that way since childhood. My sister, with whom I shared a bedroom (aka battle zone) for most of our childhood, recently dug up a “Sisters’ Constitution” I created for her to sign when I was around twelve and she was around eight. This highly legal and formal document gravely promised we would both “close my drawers, put my stuff away, respect my sister’s stuff, keep my stuff on my side of the room.” (She pointed out recently that it seemed a little unfair I hadn’t balanced it with clauses promising to “be nice to my little sister, leave the door open at night when my sister is scared, and let my sister play with me.”)

As a writer, my entire journey toward improving myself and my stories has been largely geared around ideas of organization. Over the years, I have created a streamlined writing process that allows me to be as effective as I can be at any given moment. Naturally, much of what I teach on this blog reflects that. I’m a proponent of outlining, story structure, schedules, logic, and linearity.

But during one of my morning walks recently, I started pondering a comment a fellow writer had made to me that expressed his acceptance of his own sloppy writing habits. He said something along the lines of “that’s just how it is.”

That got me thinking about my preconceptions about the place of sloppiness in the life of a writer, its almost stereotypical omnipresence in the lives of writers in general, and both its relationship to and influence upon art itself.

Why Writers Can Get Away With Sloppy Writing Habits

So. Sloppy writing habits. Is that really “just how it is”?

I think, upon reflection, the obvious answer is: “Yeah, totally.”

Almost any perusal of any writer anywhere—his or her lifestyle, writing habits, creative process, even writing techniques themselves—show us that writers are, in general, almost unavoidably sloppy.

We could argue that creativity is itself a sloppy and ungovernable process. Although I ultimately disagree with this, it is true up to a certain extent. There’s a reason Legos come out of the box as a bazillion seemingly chaotic pieces and only slowly end up as the recognizable Death Star. Even more than Legos, writing is a tremendously complex and complicated art form that requires the confluence of dozens of unique skill sets.

More than that, any organization within the writing life itself—the mindset of being a writer, the overarching process of creating a novel, or the daily routine of putting words on paper—requires an organization of ourselves on a personal level much deeper than anything to do with the writing itself. And that, of course, is the vocation of a lifetime.

In short, sloppiness of one degree or another (and usually a lot of others) is inevitable.

More than that, I’m going to posit the art of storytelling on paper is possibly more forgiving of sloppiness than just about any other creative discipline.

Think about it.

Something I say over and over is, “There’s no such thing as a perfect story.” That’s not actually true, since perfection always exists, as least theoretically. When I say that, what I actually mean when I say that “nobody ever has or ever will write a perfect story.” Phew. Pressure’s off.

However, what that means by extension is that every story you’ve ever loved, you’ve loved in spite of some inevitable sloppiness on the author’s part. Maybe the plot structure was a little off; maybe it was even a lot off. Maybe the characters didn’t ring quite true. Maybe there were plot holes requiring massive suspension of disbelief on your part. Maybe it was dumb as all get out and you’re actually embarrassed to admit you liked it—but you did because it connected with you on an emotional level and made you feel something you cherish.

On the other end of the spectrum, even if the story’s end product is relatively flawless, chances are the author’s process of getting to that end product wasn’t so flawless. He spent nights pacing the floor, pulling his hair out with frustration and self-doubt. She rewrote the entire thing twelve times. He wrote only sporadically—six hours one day, not a thing for months, only fifteen minutes another day. She neglected to research important details until deep into the revision phase—and had to ditch a whole subplot when it proved unrealistic.

But readers don’t really care. The writer finally got to an end product that was good enough despite its inevitable flaws. It’s not like a dance where one wrong move throws off the entire routine. Or a painting where a smush of paint in the wrong place ruins the whole thing. As long as a story is “good enough,” readers are primed to forgive a story (and, by extension, its writer) for not being perfect.

So, yay! Long live sloppiness! Right?

4 Do’s and Don’ts of Sloppy Writing Habits

Can you be a sloppy writer—and still be a good writer? A successful writer?

Unconditionally, yes.

But does that mean you should be a sloppy writer?

There’s a balance here, as with almost all aspects of the creative life, but I still believe the optimum leans more heavily away from sloppy writing habits and toward methods and mindsets that promote effectiveness, efficiency, clarity, and even simplicity.

We seek the balance between creativity and logic, spontaneity and discipline, instinct and knowledge because we wish to optimize all aspects of the craft (and life itself, which is ever a balance between subconscious and conscious). I have no desire to discipline all the creativity out of my art. But I also have no desire to let the unpredictable wildness, and, yes, sloppiness, of raw creativity govern my life and my career.

This is a personal balance. We’re all different people. I crave order; others feel stifled by it. Naturally, my personal approach to writing, on every level, has focused on optimizing my strengths and minimizing my weaknesses. This is what we all must do in figuring out which sloppy writing habits unleash our creativity and which inhibit us by unnecessarily complicating the process.

To that end, here are several do’s and don’ts to consider in refining your own balance.

1. Don’t Make Excuses for Your Sloppy Writing Habits

The first step is calling a spade a spade. Saying “oh I’m just a pantser” or “oh I’m just a plotter” like they’re psychological conditions is not specific or helpful. Dig a little deeper and identify the habits you’re clinging to that are perhaps causing excesses on one side or the other of the writing balance.

Correcting sloppy habits—of any stripe—is difficult. Sometimes it’s easier to keep doing what we’re doing rather than trying to figure out what the problem is and how to fix it. But muddy thinking is never helpful to a writer, of all people.

If your desk is a mess, own it (after all, maybe it means you’re a genius). Don’t make excuses. Dig down and figure out why you have a hard time keeping it clean. Maybe it’s a good reason; maybe it’s not. But it’s important to know which it is, in order to optimize your response.

2. Do Identify the Parts of Writing That Are Most Difficult for You—And Do Something About It

Most sloppy writing habits—even ones we aren’t consciously aware of as sloppy—are the result of aspects of the writing life that are difficult for us.

One sloppy habit I’m currently working on conquering is my inherent laziness with certain aspects of causality within my plots. Oh, that character motivation doesn’t totally make sense? Or that battle choreography isn’t realistic? Or that plot hole got deeper because the fantasy physics didn’t quite work? Oh, well.

As a writer, I get almost claustrophobically bored with this stuff. I just want to race on to the good bits—character relationships, epic imagery, thematic grist. But, of course, as a reader, I’m much less likely to appreciate these ragged loose ends in someone else’s story. I recognize that, and I’m gritting my teeth and working to improve these difficult parts of my writing.

For you, the difficult bits might be understanding story structure, creating coherent POVs, maintaining a consistent writing schedule, avoiding procrastination temptations, or organizing research notes.

Whatever the case, dig around to identify what aspects of your writing you’ve currently got chained down in your mental dungeons where you don’t have to look them in the eye. Maybe it’s time to let them into the sunlight and start doing some rehabilitation.

3. Do View Writing as a Discipline—With Its Own Guidelines

Here’s a truth: A writer can remain in total ignorance of all higher concepts of theory and technique. This writer can ignore every good writing habit every known, throw onto the page a story that is strictly speaking a sloppy mess, and still connect with writers. (I’m sure you can think of a few popular authors today who might very well fit this description.)

You don’t have to view writing as a discipline in order to be a writer, or even to be a good(-ish) writer. But if you want to write to your potential—if you want to conquer your demons—if you want to get consistently and predictably better as both the art of writing and the process of writing—then viewing and treating writing as a discipline is your surest bet.

As a discipline, writing provides certain evident principles for slowly straightening up your mental desk and finding your best balance between the sloppiness of creativity and the structure of discipline. Somewhere in there, I guarantee there’s a sweet spot where everything sings together.

4. Don’t Ban Sloppiness Entirely

If we equate sloppiness, to a certain degree, with creativity, then we surely don’t want to entirely ban sloppiness from our lives. However much we may be able to learn to a harness a predictable flow of creativity, creativity itself will never be linear, logical, or even neat.

Diminishing the negative effects of sloppy writing habits is about clearing away unnecessary clutter so we can tap in as directly and powerfully as possible to the raw creativity itself. But we never want to block or even structure that initial creativity.

Most people view the concept of outlining as one of the most structured of writing techniques. So it may seem ironic to suggest that a free-form outlining style (aka stream-of-conscious brainstorming) is actually incredibly adept at channeling raw creativity. It does this by separating and protecting baby creativity from the most technical and precise of all writing techniques—the creation of the word-by-word narrative of the story itself. This is why I do all my story creation in an in-depth outlining phase, which then leaves the structured and disciplined aspects to stand on their own feet during the first draft.

Whatever your arrangement of the foundational aspects of creating, organizing, and getting your story down on paper, always check your balance. Discipline should optimize creativity. It should never inhibit it.

***

As always, conquering sloppy writing habits is really just the discipline of knowing ourselves—recognizing what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, how we work best, and how to create life choices that find and optimize our best balance.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What are some sloppy writing habits you’re currently struggling with? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. An excellent piece. I think that this was doomed to succeed, to create value if all it did was bring up the concept into consciousness.

    My thought is that the writer should be sloppy because that is the nature of the beast. Recently I heard a diatribe against creationism because life appears to be made not by intelligent, but idiotic, design. So maybe that is the nature of the beast.

    And the balance is that we accept the process as inherently chaotic, then we begin to put in place order. And we look at this order that we have imposed against the default, and keep that which is better.

    Should we be sloppy writers? Yes. Should we impose order? Yes, if it serves us!

  2. My worst writing habit right now is telling instead of showing, and I think it’s going to be a long struggle. For every scene I notice has a problem and expand with better descriptions, there are at least three more I don’t spot or dig into. It kind of scares me, when I realize how far I still have to go.

  3. Casandra Merritt says

    My worst writing habit right now is just not setting a certain time each day to write. I write every day, but not at a certain time. Hopefully that will change soon. But as far as everything else, I tend to like a more organized approach. And as for life, it can seem disastrous sometimes, but there is a reason, and there is a purpose. Animals, (and humans) are symmetrical, if you divide them in half, you get two identical sides. Certainly not something that could happen randomly, but the evidence of an intelligent design

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      A long time ago, I read somewhere that if we get into the habit of of being creative at a certain time of the day, our brains follow suit and it becomes easier to *be* creative at that time. I’ve been writing consistently at certain times of the day for years now, and I have to say I think there’s some truth to it.

    • But people are not symmetrical. Your heart is not in the middle of your chest, I hope.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

        I know this is totally not the point you’re trying to make, but, actually, some people’s hearts *are* in the middle of their chests. My mom’s is. Weird, but true.

  4. I have been told I am a fantastic descriptive writer. I also know I am weak in dialogue to the point of sometimes hating to write it. I wonder why I tend to gravitate towards telling stories that are heavy on description but do not require that much dialogue?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I don’t know. It’s an interesting question. 🙂 I’m sure it says something interesting about you! I’m actually exactly the opposite. I could write dialogue all day long, but the descriptive stuff brings me down to a screeching crawl.

  5. Three makes the most sense to me. I’m lazy about stuff like that. But I’m not sure what the goal should be. Robert Frost said, “We enjoy the straight crookedness of a good walking stick. Modern instruments of precision are being used to make things crooked as if by eye and hand in the old days.” He wrote this well before the current trent of pre-distressed clothing, pre-distressed furniture, and the like. We don’t want perfect things. They look fake. Perfect writing sounds fake.

    The more we plan something, the more we are able to plan something, the more we are repeating something that has been done before. People have formulas for everything. The perfect pop song is X number of seconds long, X number of hooks, a bridge, such and such language, and so on. But anyone who might teach you that formula, especially if they insist it is the only way and anything less is lazy, must necessarily ignore musicians who take wildly different approaches, long off-the-wall improvisations so forth, and are successful. The formula itself comes from previous works. It must. It is not necessarily a discovery of truth. The formula has elements of historical artifact, like our QWERTY keyboards, which are not necessarily the best way of doing things, but exist from mechanical necessity since the days of manual typewriters, and once established are a norm.

    And that’s really the issue. Who are the gatekeepers? They name themselves. They know stuff. That’s why they have to be in charge. If they didn’t take responsibility, the rest of us might get off track. Phew. I was worried. Obviously, I’m poking fun. But it’s something like that too. People are concerned the stuff they learned at somebody else’s knee might not be just so. And that’s worrisome, I’ll admit. Best.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Story theory and other principles of writing exist as an observation of patterns: things that work because they evoke certain desired reactions from readers. As such, these principles are endlessly useful in helping us understand how to accomplish our storytelling goals.

      For example, I’m currently re-reading a historical novel I spent years writing and editing but ultimately decided not to publish because something about it *just wasn’t working.* Looking back now, having learned much about plot-character-theme in the interim, I can see *why* this story wasn’t working. Were I to write it again, today, with a better understanding of how story works, I have confidence the book would have turned out really well. (I think I’m going to post on this experience and what I learned about it, in a couple months, after I’ve thought about it some more.)

      That said, however, art is ultimately and always a pursuit of personal truth. Truth may be absolute and objective. But the process of getting there, for each of us, is highly individualistic and subjective. We can learn from what others are discovering on their own journeys, but that doesn’t remove from us the responsibility or necessity of making and claiming discoveries for ourselves. I wrote a little about that in this post: Don’t Let Anybody Tell You How to Write (or 8 Tips for Learning Responsibly).

      • Your advice is good. I have a lot to learn. We all do. Thing is, you’ll never know how people might have responded to your book as it was. I suppose it doesn’t matter. You made the story turn out the way you wanted. That’s what’s important.

        Hunter Thompson wrote about developing his frenetic style. He had a late deadline, wrote in a frenzy, and handed it in. It turned out to be great. I don’t remember his exact quote, but it was something like he thought he was falling down a well, never to be seen again, and woke up surrounded by mermaids. Of course, he was a skilled writer in a traditional sense. His style wasn’t all new.

        I’m not saying abandon form. But today, it seems you get straight-jacketed, especially on the Internet, if you stray at all from conventional wisdom. To be fair, you don’t seem to be guilty of that. But it’s out there. Other people say it.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Oh, I know. :p Enough beta readers read that book that I know. And actually, my point about that book was that it *didn’t* turn out how I wanted. I instinctively knew it didn’t work. I was never happy with it. At the time, I didn’t have the understanding or the vocabulary to articulate why. The only difference is that now I do.

          I believe in the power of the artist’s gut instinct. I think we almost always *know* when a story works or when it doesn’t. It’s just that, when it doesn’t work, we don’t know always know *why*–and until we do, fixing it is totally an exercise in trial and error.

          It’s my belief that those authors who are able to turn out amazing copy immediately (sometimes without even much conscious understanding of the principles of the craft) are the authors who are naturally most in touch with that gut instinct.

          In other words, I equate that instinct with talent. The more naturally talented an artist, the less they require conscious understanding (although, as a result, their process will still often feel as frenetic and unstable as what Thompson describes). For the rest of us, understanding story principles offers the opportunity to help us *grow* our ability to get in tune with and stay in tune with our story instincts.

  6. This is just what I needed! I’ve been working on sticking to a writing schedule, so thank you for the slap on the back pushing me forward! I agree that sloppiness is conducive to creativity in that it allows for the uninhibited freedom to explore. We learn this when we are young; coloring outside the lines is a precursor to thinking outside the box. But I also love order; it’s the blank page of fresh starts and endless possibilities. You are right on target with seeking balance for optimum potential. Great article!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’m (re-)reading Madeleine L’Engle’s wonderful writing guide/memoir Walking on Water. In it, she talks about how, as children, our creativity is boundless. We don’t care one whit if our stick-figure drawings are more bizarre than realistic. It’s only as we grow older and try to understand the logical patterns of the world–and art–that we start imposing strictures on our naturally wonderful sloppiness.

      Obviously, there’s value in this imposition of order. Most of us, as adults, don’t get as much out of the child’s drawing as the child does. But it’s worth remembering the raw power and beauty of our uninhibited child creativity. The goal for us now should be figuring out how to discipline that sloppiness into order without disciplining *out* all the rawness.

  7. Casandra Merritt says

    That’s interesting! It seems like it’s easiest for me to write late at night, but my it best ideas usually hit me about five minutes after I wake up in the morning. Do you think that your Myers Briggs type can tell you if you are more logical or creative?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I think we’re *all* both logical and creative. But I definitely thing the order of our cognitive functions in our personality stacks influences how we approach both. Understanding your type can help you gain insights into both your strengths and your weakness and how you can best balance them.

    • Same here, Casandra. I find it easier to write at night because everything is so much quieter. My thinking is disrupted by noise. And I am so refreshed after sleeping, that the ideas come faster and I feel more inspired to write. I’ve done some of my best creative writing after taking a nap late in the evening and waking up at about 9 or 10 PM after everything has quieted down. Effective, but not very practical in the long run (lol).

  8. I’m caught somewhere between sloppy and organized. Sloppy writing isn’t bad but it can certainly make things take longer. If I had to put my finger on the one sloppy habit that has the most potential for negative impact it’s when I “order” myself to write every day and some of the content I write in those forced sessions sounds like a drone wrote it. If that happens here and there, no problem. But if it continues, it leaves you even more editing work. And I find this can happen no matter how much I love a story. I need to find a balance–write regularly, but not to the point of becoming a drone. Some days it’s better to switch gears than write the obligatory word count.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      This is a great point, on a couple of levels.

      1. It’s a good example of why common bits of generally good advice (such as “write everyday even when you don’t feel like it”) aren’t universally true. We each have to take responsibility for recognizing what’s really working or not working for us, regardless of what popular wisdom says about it.

      2. It’s also a good example of each writer needing to find an individual balance that creates the least amount of work for him or her. We’re all different. For example, for me outlines are absolutely worth the time upfront thanks to the amount of editing they eliminate in the long run. But that wont hold true for all authors.

      Ultimately, it’s about personal responsibility, each of us for ourselves.

  9. I seem to have trouble writing proper ghosts or wounds for my characters. Whenever I try something on for size, it inevitably ends up feeling forced, so much so that I feel the life is getting sucked out of the story.

    I’ve come to fall for the temptation to not specify the wound at all for my characters, and instead let their behavior speak for itself so the reader can read into them and imagine the possible causes with no clear answers being served.

    In some stories I feel more confident about doing this, while in others I feel it might be sloppiness. I adnit I have done my best to try and sketch out a multitude of possible wounds that make sense on paper, yet somehow sap the nuance and power out of the character.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Not all stories need an articulated Ghost. I tend to believe this is something the author should at least be aware of for themselves, even if they’re not going to share it with readers. But this isn’t, of course, a hard and fast rule. It might help to think of the Ghost more simply in terms of being whatever motivates your character’s Want and Lie.

  10. I don’t keep a schedule for writing. I MAKE schedules, I just don’t keep them, which is ironic, because as a newspaper editor/publisher I for years lived by one. That represents sloppiness for me. As for the rest, creativity is its own kind of beast and I think every writer tames that beast in the way best suited to him or her. In her book, “Writing Down the Bones,” Natalie Goldberg suggests writing without thinking about every word, simply write (paraphrasing like crazy here). The point is to free your inner writer. Now that’s sloppy. Or is it? I’ve written a number of poems, essays and articles starting at zero using this method. Granted the final draft rarely looks like the first draft, but it started by connecting with the process rather than trying to control it.

    Great post and a thoughtful look at the whole ball of wax that is the creative process. Yes, I’m prone to cliches, another sloppy habit I need to strangle.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Out of desperation in certain difficult periods, I’ve taken Goldberg’s advice and just written like a wild thing, focusing on nothing more than getting words on paper. Interestingly, I find that when I do this my writing is almost always better, rather than sloppier. I think it speaks to the inherent order of oun imaginations, if only we’ll just get out of our own way.

  11. Research notes are my sloppy habit. Stickies, toilet paper, napkins, back of receipts, phone photos, journal entries, notes at the end of first draft, separate Word file with notes a mile long, notes scribbled on hard copy, notes scribbled on my plot board. Trying to figure how to wrangle this without losing my mind and without making a 100 revision passes. I even have a small, waterproof notebook and pen I shove down my swimsuit when a light bulb snaps on while I’m swimming laps (figured out a messy subplot this way) Feels so disorganized and scattered, I’ve tried picking just ONE process and going with it, but then I’m in the car, or at a restaurant or in the shower and grab whatever is handy. WELP!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It may be sloppy, but I’ve always LOVED Post-It Notes all over the place. It just *feels* creative. :p

  12. We all have sloppy writing habits. The ones who succeed are those who acknowledge them and work on improving them.
    Great post, K.M.

  13. Sherry Rector says

    Thanks for the useful and inspiring post K.M., and thanks to everyone else for your helpful comments.

    I think it all depends on the individual. For me, it comes down to a matter of extremes. I have had to learn to allow myself to be messy when it comes to creativity. I habitually strive for the impossibly perfect perfection and tend to become so detail oriented that I don’t finish projects. It’s still difficult not to worry obsessively about cleaning up my sentences, even for something as simple as making a comment on this post.

    As to sloppy writing habits, I am still struggling to set up a specific time to write. I have tried multiple methods for creating and sticking to a writing schedule without much success. The annoying thing is that I can be very disciplined in a work environment where somebody else is telling me what to do and when to do it. I have had no problems creating instruction manuals and procedural documents for my employers and completing them on schedule. But, for some reason, I just won’t listen to myself. Any ideas or suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

  14. I like this post.

    In just about everything I do, I start out lost in the wilderness, confused, and groping for the solution to solve the problem and accomplish my goal… sloppiness prevails! I’m thinking and scanning my brain looking for answers and a path to organization.

    My one certain Business professor would tell me that I’m wrestling and brainstorming with heuristics and problem solving. That I’m trying to get a grip on my roadmap (hmm… STORY STRUCTURE!), and a way (an OUTLINE!) to the solution to the problem.

    But then, there is another sloppiness of a pile of towels that needs to go in the wash, the carpet that needs swept up of dog hair, and the infernal house dusting. Elbow grease solves that kind of sloppiness. As soon as I get around to it. 😉

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Cleaning up after physical sloppiness and cleaning up after mental sloppiness really isn’t that different. We just need a plan about *how* to do it. The doing is often the easiest part.

  15. I am generally an orderly person, but I find I have a limited bandwidth to organize, after which standards begin to slide. Maybe it’s motivation. I find that my standards did not slip when I was in the military, because they couldn’t. My greatest sloppiness is with time, keeping on deadline and on task as life spins on continuously around me. I could certainly tighten that up a bit. 😀

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I hear you. I’m naturally a very organized person, but I find myself slipping a little more here and a little more there as time goes on.

  16. I like order but only on my own terms, if that makes sense. My writing process is very individualistic based on my personality and schedule and whatnot, and I think there’s nothing wrong with that.

    I COULD probably sharpen up a couple things – for instance, I’ve been trying different methods of outlining to see what works for me as well as a couple different things to refine my revisions method … the structure is the hard part for me (e.g. revisions, editing) while writing and outlining are my favorite parts. 😛 So my process is as much a work-in-progress as my books!

    I recently had someone tell me it was kinda pointless to print up my novel before it was refined and by the time it was refined enough to print up, why not just order a proof? (I’m Indie) Well … because it works for me! Printing my novel out when it’s still in need of major edits helps me make those major edits even though it may seem impractical to some – and a waste of printer ink, lol. But hey, it works, and why not?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “My writing process is very individualistic based on my personality and schedule and whatnot.”

      That’s the way it should be for all of us. We’re all different. What is most “orderly” for one of us may actually just cause chaos for another. It’s vital we’re in touch with what really works best for our own situations.

    • Judith A McFerren says

      Kellyn Roth, you must be my sister. I can only edit from a paper copy. I guess all those years of writing and editing before word processors have cemented the need for a paper copy into my brain. I do use a computer but I print out before I edit.

  17. Casandra Merritt says

    Thanks for the information. And by the way, about people being symmetrical, I was totally not trying to creep anybody out (lol). But as for my heart, it actually is pretty close to the center of my chest! I think that most people’s hearts are pretty close anyway. Move it just a touch, and it would be dead center. That’s not the point I was trying to make, though. The point is this: I would rather believe that life life is not an accident, and that we’re here for a reason, not for no reason. How about you?

  18. Alec Decker says

    Great post. There were a couple of points when you asked the reader to understand ‘why’ their habits were one way or another. I would propose that perhaps, instead, the right question would be to ask ‘what is the product, or output’ of the sloppiness. If a person is sloppy and comes up with brilliant dialogue, concepts, or characters in that fugue state, then terrific… always knowing that they will need to go back and insert those into a rational plotline. That, then, would be how to shore up the weakness of the sloppy habit.

    As you well state, habits don’t make for great writing, even with great writers. James A. Michener typed with two fingers all morning, researched in the afternoon, and tidied his desk just prior to 11pm, ready for the next day. He wrote terrible first drafts. He called himself a great re-writer (anyone with insecurities should note Michener though he was a bad writer, anyone who doubted that, he stated, “should read one of his first drafts”).

    Shelby Foote, writer of the 3,000 page epic narrative of the Civil War had very similar habits. He wrote by hand in the morning. After lunch he would garden for a while. Then he typed what he had written by hand, and piled the typed pages in the ‘done’ bin. He shipped it off to the editor when the stack got too big. He rarely changed more than little items.

    It’s not about the sloppiness or neatness (Sue Grafton writes in a suit, Victor Hugo wrote in the nude), it’s about what it helps you produce. And if the first draft, in whatever state of sloppiness, isn’t pulitzer prize winning, then… figure out how to fill in the gaps. Great post – thought provoking.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I totally did not need to know that about Victor Hugo. :p

      But, yes, I agree with this. Writing will never be “easy.” Although the goal of organization may be to simplify some things, in itself, orderliness is never going to eliminate the grit and grist of the writing life. Really, all we’re trying to do is find the sweet spot where we’ve gotten rid of any obstacles preventing the the work from being the best it can be.

  19. Katie, you may be too structured yourself to own this topic fully. 🙂

    The meat of the article is here: “2. Do Identify the Parts of Writing That Are Most Difficult for You—And Do Something About It” which is akin to procrastination or writer’s block.

    I’d like to add that certain times arise when the writer MUST move on if the pieces of the puzzle don’t quite fit. Rather than continue for months to hash out the elusive clues of a detective mystery ad nauseum when nothing seems to work, it may be better to move on and finish the outline then return later to those pesky snags. Perhaps then, with the hindsight of a complete finale, the writer might gain a wider perspective as to what NEEDS to happen in those early clues.

    I can testify from experience: after years of hashing this stuff out, almost everything I thought I knew about my clues — covert and overt — I am rewriting as of this morning!

    Bottom line: keep moving forward!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Hah. That may well be true. My particular challenges lie more on the other side of the spectrum with perfectionism.

      However, I 100% agree with this: “I’d like to add that certain times arise when the writer MUST move on if the pieces of the puzzle don’t quite fit.”

      Actually, not to harp on a theme, but this is one reason I like scheduling book production. I publish a novel every three years, The book *has* to be ready to go by then. And… if it’s not, then it’s time for me to move on.

  20. Thanks for another outstanding post — esp. #2. Part of getting stronger, I believe, is learning to make the “hard parts” your friend. And then sometimes, without warning, they become your favorite part of the journey.

  21. I am writing Lina’s series total of three books. Slopping writing cannot be read. Lina and her sisters will be married. Do you put your personality into your writing? Example: Lina was stubborn and headstrong but loving. Do you know anything about Kindle publishing?

  22. Thanks for the advice! I’ve had to experiment a lot with how much sloppiness vs. organization to tolerate. I used to beat myself up for being a complete slob about planning because I couldn’t do outlines. I’d get so bored and frustrated with them and I’d never feel satisfied. I always felt like I already knew what I wanted to write, so why was I outlining it? Which led me to realize that I do outline and that it works well for me; it’s just that I do it almost entirely in my head, and it needs to stay that way. Now I write down a few phrases per chapter to trigger my memory of what I have planned, and that’s it. Is it sloppier than using a fully written outline? Yes. Is it organized enough to keep me on track and reveal any substantial structural imbalances? Also yes.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’ve come to believe that all authors are both plotters and pantsers. You simply cannot write a book without using both skills at some juncture in the process. The variation comes in due to the fact that we all have a slightly different approach to and balance of both. I essentially “pants” my outlines. They’re in-depth to the point of being just really big, sloppy first drafts. Then I revise and rewrite and in the “official” first draft.

  23. Casandra Merritt says

    I just read your post about the difference between your story’s theme and its message, and I have a question about Creating Character Arcs workbook. In the Flat-Arc section, there’s a blank requiring the truth your character believes. But is that truth (in his own words) the same thing as the story’s message, or its theme?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The Truth is a broad, universal principle: e.g., selflessness is important. The message is more specific to the story’s premise: e.g., to be selfless, you must do volunteer work.

  24. Sloppiness is absolutely a valid part of the writing process. If you sit down to write ‘The Perfect Story’, chances are you’ll never get past the first few words. Anne Lamott advocates sh***y first drafts, and I think that’s a sensible approach. Get something down on paper and sort out the problems later. Don’t aim for perfect, just ‘good enough’. Perhaps with experience we can get closer to the ‘good enough’ final draft more quickly, but don’t expect more than that and you won’t be disappointed.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I agree. This goes back to the whole idea that “there is no such thing as a perfect story.” Accepting that provides a huge amount of grace for ourselves and our work.

  25. Casandra Merritt says

    Thanks for the answer. And by the way, I have the Structuring Your Novel and Creating Character Arcs workbooks, and just love them! Haven’t been able to use them yet though, because I am still in the outlining stage.

  26. I don’t know if my writing is sloppy vs my editing before I hit the publish button. Is it sloppy or lazy? I don’t know but I enjoyed your article because it is true we have to work our writer’s muscles be organized and disciplined!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I think there’s definitely a distinction between sloppy and lazy. Sloppy just kinda happens. Lazy is when it keeps on happening.

  27. Great post! One with a ton of info I need as I get back to writing after almost three years of pain and recovery. Thanks for the tips and especially the reference to Madeleine L’Engle’s memoir about her writing. Just ordered from Abe Books and can’t wait to read.

  28. Over the past few years, I’ve struggled with my writing. I had to step back and reevaluate. Recognize , change them, realize what does work and improve on it, and put it all into practice. I’ve always liked organization and order, but for some reason I didn’t apply it to my writing. Now that I’ve

  29. Spent the last two years unable to be productive. Couldn’t finish a book. Spent my time wallowing in self-pity. Finally I took a step back. Started paying attention to things that worked for me, admitted things that were a hindrance, and looked for solutions. Being more organized keeps me from being frustrated and gives me direction.

  30. Sophia Ellen says

    Very interesting post! My sloppy writing habits… Probably just doing things like not keeping up with characters and not being organized with my story as a whole. ( Like having the character have blue eyes in chapter one, blue eyes in chapter three, and hazel eyes in chapter six) 🙂

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