A New Take on Terrible Advice: ‘Write Drunk, Edit Sober’

Photo by Edan Cohen on Unsplash

“Write Drunk, Edit Sober.”

~ Source Up For Debate

Everyone is given this advice at least once when they start on the authorial path.

It’s become a cliched right-of-passage, usually passed along by some dude-bro at one social function or another. You know the type: one chapter short of finishing his novel for the fourth year in a row.

As far as advice goes, ‘write drunk, edit sober’ is complete rubbish.

I’ve tried it on multiple occasions and it’s never ended in anything but tears. While alcohol does grease the wheels of creativity, the fact of the matter is that words produced while drunk are hardly worth the time it takes to delete them all.

I believe that after three years and several ‘aha!’ moments later, I have stumbled upon an appropriate interpretation of the phrase ‘write drunk, edit sober’ which is as follows:

Write new content without inhibition, then edit with all the talents you can beg, borrow, or steal.

Part Number The First — Write Drunk

The largest impediment to my writing career to date is me.

I’m not convinced my issues are universal but what I am sure of is that more times than I can count, it is my anxieties, expectations, desires, dreams, fears, and above all the sense of profaning a sacred space with my efforts which has prevented me from starting a new project.

‘Write drunk’ is the panacea to all the above ills. Don’t take this advice as a license to get crunk and churn out content. Please see above for how well that doesn’t go. However, you can write like you’re drunk without all the headache and expense.

When you sit at the keys, take a moment to remove all of your expectations. Get out from under the crushing burden of all your hopes and dreams. Divorce yourself from any long-term readability goals and just write.

Write about anything. Write about everything. Write the silliest nonsense that has ever occurred to you wrapped in the dark chocolate embrace of a serious diatribe on the human condition and tie it neatly with a bow of the most insane dialog ever conceived.

Go. Nuts.

At the end of the day, your only goal is to fill the cavernous maw of the blank page before you. A blank page does not a first draft make. In order to edit, there has to be something for you to edit.

It doesn’t matter if the first draft of your serious reflection upon the ills of modern society is a cowboy riding a stegosaurus as they charge into battle against the soulless automatons of Mecha-Hitler. It only matters that you filled in the parts between “In the beginning” and “The End”.

Whenever a roadblock looms, or you feel that you and the Dinosaur Cowboy are about to lose the war, double down on the crazy! Lose yourself in the gritty details of the stegosaurus as it slowly becomes coated in the black blood of the enemy. Get into the head of the Cowboy as he empties his revolver into the ranks of the Wehrmachine.

Writing drunk means chasing every rabbit you find.

Hold nothing back when you’re in the thick of things. Violate every single guideline you’ve ever read or heard about good writing when you’re writing drunk. Have a flashback inside of your flashback. Let the Inception horns blare as you go one dream deeper. Dig deep into the tragic backstory of your Cowboy while he digs deep into the blackened cogs of his enemies!

Do not, in any way, stand between you and your ideas as they flow onto the page. That’s what it truly means to ‘write drunk’: Create without inhibition.

Part Number The Second — Edit Sober

You’ve had your fun, and just like the hazy college parties of yore, now it’s time to clean up all the solo cups and paper plates and whatever the heck has become semi-glued to your bathroom floor.

You have to roll up your sleeves and begin the real adult work of writing: Editing.

It’s absolutely fantastic that you’ve produced five hundred pages chronicling the awful Mecha-Hitler War, but it’s time to make your Stegosaurus Cowboy into the proper hero and massage in some deeper commentary about the horrors of war and the nature of the cyborg condition.

Theme, narrative, structure, plant and payoff, the list goes on and on. This is the section where all your training and study and the endless lectures and workshops come into play. It is here, in the editing trenches, where you separate yourself from the coffee-shop dreamers and prove to everyone (including yourself) that you’re the real deal.

Maybe, in hindsight, you didn’t need that third dream tangent where your Cowboy protagonist relives a high-school experience about their best friend in the middle of a ferocious melee. Perhaps the over-the-top gruesome demise of Mecha-Hitler isn’t quite as cathartic as you were hoping and you need to restructure the payoff for the scene.

However, you’re required to leave in the part where Amelia Earhart is freed from the clutches of the Bermuda Triangle and swoops in for the killing blow. I’m pretty sure it’s in the Geneva Convention.

All jokes aside, editing sober means pulling back from the fanciful and the fantastic to make sure that the story you’re creating is told in the fashion you want the world to know you for.

Part Number The Summation

While it sucks that writing without inhibitions pushes more of the work onto the sober realities of editing there will be many times in your career where there isn’t any other way to get the words onto paper.

Writing is a crushing burden at times, as all of us deal with weight of throwing our hat into the ring with some of the smartest and cleverest members of humanity. It becomes so overwhelming at times that you feel each keystroke is a act of betrayal towards all the wonderful works you’ve enjoyed during your life.

When such thoughts plague you, I entreat you to do as I do and take a shot of worry-about-it-later, and let your fingers lead you where they may.


The Unsheathed Quill

The Quill is the brain-child of Justin Wallace, an author, producer of podcasts, DM to an unruly crew, and nerd with a family of more other different nerds.

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