Neil Gaiman on How Writers Learn and Why First Drafts Don’t Matter

Neil Gaiman is one of those authors whom I adore reading and cherish studying. I’ve been hooked ever since Neverwhere.

Heralded by many as one of the great writers in modern culture, Gaiman has much to teach us about the attitudes and actions that fuel good writing. It just so happens I recently discovered some of his finest wisdom on the subject, albeit via an unconventional source: The Nerdist Podcast.

The Nerdist Podcast isn’t likely your go-to source for phenomenal writing advice. More like, you listen to The Nerdist Podcast if you enjoy highly witty, often random conversations with talented creatives that near always include crude humor and language (it is a comedy show after all).

Humor aside, the podcasts are gems for usable creative inspiration and intelligence, as the episode featuring Gaiman showcases.

“Do you write everyday? Or do you write just when you’re inspired?”

These questions from co-host Chris Hardwick target the perpetual debate about the source of good writing. Gaiman’s response may surprise you:

If you only write when you’re inspired you may be a fairly decent poet, but you’ll never be a novelist because you’re going to have to make your word count today and those words aren’t going to wait for you whether you’re inspired or not.

You have to write when you’re not inspired. And you have to write the scenes that don’t inspire you. And the weird thing is that six months later, a year later, you’ll look back at them and you can’t remember which scenes you wrote when you were inspired and which scenes you just wrote because they had to be written next.

The process of writing can be magical. … Mostly it’s a process of putting one word after another.

As I wrote in this month’s Winning Edits Dispatch, novelists certainly should heed this wisdom. But I think it’s portable to all forms of writing today, including serialized fiction, longform journalism, and blog articles.

Odds are good that you’re a writer in pursuit of a great body of work. Whether that manifests as a singular novel or not, the rhythm of “one word after another” is universal and paramount.

The nature of this advice speaks irrevocably of process, which is where Hardwick probed next…

“How do you break through the wall? You know, like THE wall?”

In response, Gaiman revealed a powerful writing frame of mind:

For me, it’s always been a process of trying to convince myself that what I’m doing in a first draft isn’t important.

One way you get through the wall is by convincing yourself that it doesn’t matter. No one is ever going to see your first draft. Nobody cares about your first draft. And that’s the thing that you may be agonizing over, but honestly, whatever you’re doing can be fixed. …

For now, just get the words out. Get the story down however you can get it down, then fix it.

Easy to say; hard to do. But quite profound nonetheless for the attitudes it underscores: patience with the process, persistence with the concept, and faith in the outcome. Lacking these virtues, writers risk breaking upon the wall, never to return to their incomplete manuscript. In all, these behaviors amplify continuous learning, a responsibility that Gaiman encourages of all writers:

When people come to me and say, ‘I want to be a writer. What should I do?’, I say, ‘You have to write.’ And sometimes they say, ‘I’m already doing that. What else should I do?’ I say, ‘You have to finish things.’ Because that’s where you learn from; you learn by finishing things.

Gaiman’s advice throughout is music to the ears of editors, producers and publishers because it supports the merits of all serious professionals of language. From agents to editors, from writers to reporters, patient persistence remains a most honorable trait and – in our age of impatience – a most palpable advantage.

Programming note: skip to the final eight-ish minutes of Gaiman’s Nerdist Podcast if you dislike copious nerdery and wish simply to get to the heart of the matter.

Shout-out: kudos to the fabulous Mindy Holahan, Winning Edits’ nerd almighty and social geekologist, for introducing me to The Nerdist Podcast.