Why You Should Write Sloppy and Clean up Later


Flickr photo by Steven Depolo

“Oh man!” my four-year-old shouts from the kitchen followed by a loud “CRASH!”

A mess has been made.

I run to the kitchen and see: the contents of a bottle of ketchup on the floor, a little boy sitting in the middle of it and an overturned chair, also covered in ketchup. He starts to cry.

My first instinct is to yell, “What did you do THAT for?”

But I know he didn’t do it for any good reason.

He’s four. Four-year-olds just do things to do them. Four-year-olds think it’s a great idea to balance on a chair while gleefully emptying the ketchup onto the floor to make a “painting” for Daddy. Four-year-olds make messes with joyful abandon and alarming frequency.

After picking him up out of the ketchup and checking for broken bones, bruises and boo-boos, I send him to the bathroom to clean up. That’s all you can do really. Clean up your messes and learn from them. Yelling about them just gives everyone a headache.

That’s what I have to keep telling myself about FIRST DRAFTS.

I have to remind myself to be a four-year-old gleefully squirting ketchup everywhere. By letting myself “write messy” I’m accepting the inevitable anyway. Finding a story is a messy venture. The writing process isn’t neat and orderly, it’s filled with wrong turns, purple prose, confusing details, bad, messy writing. That’s a good thing.

Mistakes and messes can lead to new discoveries, new combinations, new possibilities.

Think of all the great things that were invented in error. The Sticky Note. Ink Jet Printers. Potato Chips! (sometimes ketchup flavored)


If you let yourself be messy, you lower your expectations of a what a first draft should be and you’ll give yourself the space for more of those accidental discoveries to happen.

Just like the ketchup painting my four-year-old made, your first drafts can be wild and wrong and free. The CRAFT comes along during the re-write when you can turn on your editor, clean up your mess and tell us a story that has the shape of your most meaningful experiences. If you never get those meaningful experiences down, though, because you’re too afraid to “squirt the ketchup”, you’ll never have the joy of shaping those experiences into something wonderful for us to read.

Here are a few tips:

1.  Care Less, Write Better

By not having high expectations you’ll get more done with less tension and more relaxation. Your writing will be better because you’ll be more free. Breathe. Write. Breathe. Keep writing. Care less. Write better.

2.  Let Everything Happen

No matter what occurs, a mess, a perfect writing day, a four-year-old squeezing ketchup all over your kitchen floor, it’s all part of the process. There’s a great saying, “That which we resist, persists.” (kind of a tongue twister)

This means that if you are resisting the bad stuff happening, you aren’t focusing on the good stuff happening. If all your attention is on avoiding the bad writing, your focus isn’t really on telling your story. Know that no matter what problem you might be coming up against, you aren’t the first writer to experience that problem and that those problems have been dealt with successfully in the past. Instead of resisting the problem and blaming yourself, acknowledge the problem and move on to the next thing. You can come back and clean up the ketchup later.

3.  The Road to Progress is Never Smooth

There’s a road in Pennsylvania that you have to drive slalom on just to avoid the potholes. Progress is like that sometimes. You’re moving along smoothly when suddenly WHAMMO! a road full of writing potholes shows up in front of you.

What do you do? Just like that road in Pennsylvania, you drive carefully around them when you can. However, you’ll eventually not see one. When you hit it, and hit it hard, stop, examine the damage and get back in the car and drive until you reach smooth roads again. You’ll still be making progress. If you stop and give up just because the road is a little rough, you’ll never get to where you’re going.

4.  Keep Writing through the Mess

Some days, you’ll feel like stopping. But don’t. Do your daily writing. Make messes. Lots and lots of messes. Then pull out the mop and bucket and scrub brushes and polish that mess of a story until it shines. Send it out into the world all scrubbed and shiny and new. No one will ever know that it started as a ketchup painting on the floor of your kitchen – except you.


3 thoughts on “Why You Should Write Sloppy and Clean up Later

  1. Pingback: Anne Lamott – Writing Quote Wednesday | Stories are the Wildest Things

  2. If you are right handed, write with your left hand…try it. it is amazing what it will do to loosen you up. Just make sure you write big enough so you can make out what your scribbles mean! (Writers can be so anal-retentive, they refuse to be messy, so writing, that is, handwriting with the non-dominant hand is a good exercise just to “let go and let the gods have a go..”). Nice post!


    • Great advice, Pamela. Thanks for sharing. It’s interesting, right now my four-year-old uses both hands. I wonder when we lose our ambi-dexterity? If anyone else gives this a try let me know!


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