Write Garbage – Edit Brilliantly

As Ferenc Molnár, Hungarian/American playwright, director, novelist, short-story writer and journalist said,

It is perfectly okay to write garbage–as long as you edit brilliantly.

Ferenc Molnár with Ingrid Bergman and Burgess Meredith at a 1940 rehearsal of “Liliom” in New York.

It’s a great quote – Ferenc knew what he was talking about. If you allow yourself the freedom to write garbage in your first draft, you’ve got the base steel down in words to sharpen and polish to perfection.

Easier said than done, of course. Maybe you’re a bit of a control freak (like me – or maybe that’s my Leo streak) who has to ‘work at’ releasing the flow of creativity – my silver-winged bird. But once that bird’s flying, writing is the best feeling in the world.

Equally important is the second part – editing brilliantly!

I’ll let you into a little secret. I used to send out manuscripts before they were ready – add impatience to my list of ‘bad habits to improve’!

But I bet I’m not on my Pat Malone here … go on, put your hand up, who’s ever sent off a half-baked manuscript? One that is rejected with a very nice letter talking about all the things the publisher likes about the story, but it’s just not ….mmm, right for them.

Not that I’m saying one does this knowingly – we’re not that silly are we?

More than likely you’re too close to your work – to those many thousands of words, to that brilliant character you love so much, to a plot that races around your brain while you’re meant to be listening to your partner explain how to burn a CD. (Him: But I already showed you what to do. Five times!)

That’s a normal part of the process of creating. Not a lot you can do about that, except get your good and honest writing buddies to check your story every now and then. They’ll see what you’re missing.

There’s also something else I’ve learnt, finally after twelve years of writing. It’s not complex, but not so simple to do. Practice makes it easier. It was author and editor, Penni Russon who opened my eyes. She said it to me (amongst other helpful hints in a similar vein of … Slash and burn, baby! Slash and burn!) after editing some of my latest manuscript. Her advice has been one of the most useful tips I’ve learned as a writer. Get rid of the stage directions! Yes, that’s it… GET RID OF THE STAGE DIRECTIONS.

'Singing the Wires' backdrop

Simple, eh? Stage directions in this case means describing every movement so that the reader is taken out of the moment – NOT GOOD! Why? Because you’re too busy trying to picture the action.

This is what happens when you’re writing the writer’s copy, when you need to aim for the reader’s copy.

Here’s what I mean… this is part of a chapter that underwent Penni’s knife.

And later, after my heavy edit…

Briny trotted along the pebbled track through the rainforest settlement. Down beside the creek, the clan’s houses of bark and mud bricks sheltered between the roots of large trees. Soft, melodic voices and cooking smells wafted through open windows, reminding her she’d missed lunch.

     As Briny neared Clawfoot Betelnut’s shelter, she became more watchful. Clawfoot’s naming vine entangled a Milkwood tree beside the house, screening most the windows, except for one at the front. From this window drifted a thin, green cloud of smoke and the sound of the healer’s chanting.

     What could the Clawfoot be brewing to produce that colour? Its stink was like the bitter tang of Betelnut with something sweet added to the mix. Briny shivered in mock horror and pulled a face. Thank the Five Stars, Blue Plum and Red Leaf’s house smelled of sandalwood and honey-tree blossoms.

Everything in this portion has a purpose, introducing significant information for later in the story and adding something about other characters. It’s the reader’s copy. (Won’t tempt fate by saying it’s ‘edited brilliantly’ – wait while I touch wood … my little bit of Celtic superstition).

This story has been a pleasure and a pain to edit, like them all. Now to tackle the opposite problem to submitting stories before they’re ready – not sending them at all!

If you have some great advice about how you decide if your manuscript is ready, share it with us. 🙂


16 thoughts on “Write Garbage – Edit Brilliantly

  1. That has to be the most helpful bit of writing advice in a blog I’ve read. Thanks for sharing Penni’s feedback with us – it’s invaluable. How do I know when a manuscript is ready?… I think I’m systematic, looking at one area at a time, for example characters; focussing on individualising and strengthening their speech patterns, habits etc. Then I go back to the start and focus on the next area, eg. verbs. I keep doing this until there seems to be nothing left to ‘fix’ and then I read through for consistency and ‘smoothness’ before passing it on to my beta readers.


  2. Lexie, so lovely to hear from you. 🙂 Yes, some say discipline is the difference between finishing a manuscript and not. I’d add perseverance and a tough hide (to cope with rejection letters). 🙂 A wise person said once, ‘Regard your rejection letters as proof you are a writer.’


  3. Thank you for your post. I always find them interesting and inspiring. That rings so true about writing the first things that jump into our head after getting an idea for a story. Those first ideas have the greatest passion. Knocking them into the proper shape is the discipline. the dscipline is the hardest part for me.


  4. Yes, editing the spontaneity out of a piece of writing is a peril. 🙂 Re the ‘tintookies’, sadly they have departed, now they’re forest guardians (same thing), but I had to think of certain cultural issues. Maybe I’ll write an article about them instead – their history is so interesting. 🙂


  5. Great post, Sheryl.

    I think one of the reasons we tend to send out half-baked sub’s, when we begin writing, is not only impatience but a failure to recognise a mss is not “singing” yet. The more we write and edit and learn the craft the better the piece becomes, but sometimes it is still a long way from publishable. I cringe to think of some of the early writing I sent out to publishers thinking it ready. Waiting is key, also the feedback of crit buddies. I know the mss is ready when in my final stages with a mss I do a hardcopy edit and find that when I go to execute the red pen changes on the computer I’m scribbling out more than I change. I know then I’m just changing for the sake of it and most were right and ready to go. When finishing my recent novel, I tried to make sure I finished before I edited the spontaneity out of it too.

    Best wishes for your writing and the Tintookies.



  6. Sheryl, I’m back again, as I remembered another much repeated quote by Norah Roberts that many, many authors hold dear. I hope you don’t mind me barging in again – but I’ve really enjoyed this post. Thank you.

    This quote really supports Ferenc’s quote and philosophy.

    It’s simply that: “You can’t edit a Blank Page.”

    Basically the theory is the same: Get something down – anything. Don’t worry if it’s not great. The ‘great’ bit comes later with editing. But if you don’t ever write anything down because you fear it won’t be good enough, then you never will.

    I’ll be back later to check on every one else’s responses. Very interesting topic – and till then Happy Writing!


  7. Thanks for sharing your edit with us, sheryl. Have to agree about letting work sit for a month or two before returning to it to edit.That’s something I always recommended in writing clases. But some aspiring authors are impatient and often objected to that. Passive writing, weak verbs and not enough variety in sentence structure as well as adverb clutter are other aeas that need pruning befere a ms is ready to go out into the world.


  8. Kaz, such valuable advice! I’m sure others will benefit from your words of wisdom.

    I agree with you about the value of water … it’s amazing how many brainwaves I’ve had under the shower. I’ve even had to resort to writing on the foggy shower screen so I wouldn’t forget by the time I got out (a distinct possibility!).

    I hope your words are flying free today as well! 🙂 S


  9. Great post!
    Sheryl, I think time is a great revealer, and as such, yes, impatience is certainly our greatest enemy.

    When I first started writing, I took the sage advice of a very dear, trusted friend- and multi, multi published author. With advances in six figures and hitting bext seller lists everywhere, she still lets a book ‘sit.’ No book goes out till it has stood the test of time. She tries to work six months ahead of herself (it helped that she had a store cupboard of novels already written when she was first pubbed). Ergo, the work she’s submitting to her publisher today is the book she began a year ago and has sat for six months, and been thoroughly analysed by her team of beta readers.

    Not all of us can work this way – but it is a good idea if we can leave our works for even a month – six weeks is better. All the cracks will be revealed when we read it again with fresh eyes – especially if we’re deep into another project. And sometimes we even get fantastic surprises! With the cracks also comes the brilliance dancing before us in flashing neon lights! So, we don’t just see what’s bad, we see what’s great – and that’s a great motivator to get back and polish the rest till it ALL sparkles , not just ‘some’ bits.

    Good luck with your silver-winged birds flying free. if I had magic to bestow I woud wish that yours always remain free. What gets me into the zone is water. Sitting by it, walking by it, watching it, showering in it, swimming in it.

    Enjoy your day and your free flying! And happy happy slashing!


  10. Yes, it is a tricky thing, Peter. That’s why I think what really matters in the end is to be happy with your story, and to keep true to your own voice and to your vision of that particular story.


  11. This is a very interestin g post and discussion, Sheryl.

    We all try to produce the best version of our story, edited to perfection after several drafts, because we are professional. We show work to others and value their opinions and consider them carefully. But the chances are, if you gave the work to different editors in publishing houses, apart from major flaws, each would suggest something different. So I wonder if we get too paranoid, at times. We fear rejection through lack of attention to detail, but do editors really reject for that reason? Of course, some may do that, but their major objective, I think, is to discover excellent and gripping stories. If the story is strong enough, they want it, and will work with the author to bring it to what satisfies their taste.

    After a two minute pitch of a story concept, an editor said to me, “Make sure you send that story to me first when it is written. Don’t get opinions from others. I’ll tell you what it needs.” Except I probably will ask for opinions of others, just to make sure I’m not too far off the mark, and I will worry about the details, leaving a word or two out, putting them back…

    Hope the changes you make satisfy you and an editor.



  12. Sandy, I know what you mean! Perfectionist comes to mind.
    I love how a good editor gets to work and comes up with brilliant solutions or things from left of field that set your mind bouncing into new possibilities. I wish I had a permanent editor!! 🙂


  13. I’m a bit of a wimp. I know no manuscript will ever be self-edited to my satisfaction. When I get down to constantly changing single words, I throw in the white flag. I am fortunate to have an excellent editor who has rescued me a few times!


  14. Great post, Sheryl,

    But unfortunately, as you say we’re too close to our work and i don’t think it’s that straight forward or easy to identify that our work isn’t ready. I think we often need someone else to tell us. So I guess my tip is wait at least a month after you’ve finished a draft, edit it again, then show it to a trusted colleague. If you still love it then maybe it’s ready:)

    I also have found it helpful to make a list of my writing weaknesses -eg word repetition, telling not showing – and focus on these during the edit.

    Good luck with your silver winged bird. I’m sure it will soar:)

    Dee x


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