How to Distill a Drinkable Piece of Writing
I'm a fan of a good bourbon. In fact, at the right moment, I'm a fan of merely adequate bourbon. So, knowing that my neighbor has a fully capable, if modest still in his yard, I was encouraged to do some research on making bourbon at home. I worked from what sounded like a sensible, logical recipe for the initial mash (cooking & fermentation) stages. You can see the result in the photo above. No matter if Hercules strained that bready glop through stainless-steel cheesecloth, he couldn't derive enough liquid from there to even get the distilling started. Fail!
We're still working out what the issue was (there are many factors: too much/wrong grain, irregular sustaining of the heat, poor cooling, dead yeast), but it did occur to me that working on a writing project has several stages before it reaches the proper proof. Let's look at a few:
Prep Work (Recipe/Outline)
From writing a short story to writing a white paper, the outcome will be all the better for the work you've done beforehand. Need to know for your novel what a typical Midwest town's main street looked like in the 1940s? Writing a long piece on the payment structures for cloud-based storage services? Get your facts (or your fancies) down first, using the scouring power of the net—and be sure to employ the old reporter's method of being skeptical of all sources possibly lacking good vetting.
Even if you're a pantser, meaning you're not one to work from an outline (that is, "by the seat of your pants," as some novelists write), you could at least define a story or article's arc with a few key sentences: Romeo and Juliet's families hate each other. Romeo and Juliet love each other. Juliet kills herself because of a terrible misunderstanding. That provides direction.
Oh, one thing—some people steep themselves in so much research, they never stop. The "I just need one more gigabyte of info" can be a path to the project dying under its research weight. Gather, but let go of the gathering when your arms are too heavy to move all the gathered.
Oh, and don't discount some simple things like a good, ergonomically adjustable chair. That aside, I've got a Bluetooth keyboard that I use in the Airstream, and when my back is balky from sitting in the chair for hours, I move to the nearby trailer's couch, which faces the giant monitor I've got, and work from there. (By the way, you can download my Writing Ergonomics ebook here for free; the stuff about Mac/Windows OS stuff is mite old now, but the rest is golden.)
You can't make good (or even bad) whiskey without some tools, like a sugar hygrometer and a proofing hygrometer, a fermentation carboy/bucket and more. Besides your word processor of choice, you might need some online info-storing application like Evernote for all those research notes. Scrivener is a great piece of software for writing because of its excellent snippet/image/website storage shelf. And if you are one of those types (guilty here!) who regularly breaks your focus by jumping from your writing to your email to cat videos, there are a few products out there that will do things like cut off your Internet connection for a prescribed period, not let you check your email, bring up a single text-block screen to the exclusion of other (Scrivener does this), and other tricks. Check out a few of them at this link: 10 Online Tools for Better Attention & Focus
The whiskey distillation required cooking the grains at a certain temperature, holding that temperature for a specific time, and cooling the mash to a set temperature before adding the yeast. Writing projects also go in stages. For me, when I'm writing an article, at first I will write a number of phrases or full sentences that were prompted by the research. Your mind is an amazing oven: it heats up when the raw materials of ideas are added. You just have to capture the ideas, and keep stirring the pot. (Speaking of stirring, unholy heavens, for our mash we had to get the temperature just right, and when it wouldn't quite get there, we had to keep stirring the pot with the heat up so that the grains didn't scald. However, if you've ever tried to stir a filled, four-gallon pot of glutinous goo for twenty minutes straight, you know you don't need to work out that day.)
Deadlines are one way of turning up the flame on a writing project. Even if you are writing for yourself, it's best to set some kind of writing deadline: it's amazing (and heartening) to see what you can produce from ensuring that you write for just a half-hour a day, five days a week. And some days the dang stove just won't light, so it might be time for a walk to let the yeast in your brain dough rise.
Speaking of yeast, when you are writing something of substance—a 10-page whitepaper, a 20-page short story—you might have the notion that it's finished when it's still just quietly bubbling. Let the yeast do its work: big projects, unless deadlines are ringing loud alarms, often are best served by setting them aside for a bit. You'll be amazed how many more felicitous turns of phrase can be steered by re-reading (and editing) something you thought was just fine two days prior. Words have their fermentation periods too.
Put it all together: you've got your fermented mash, and it's time to work the full magic: heat your words until they vaporize, and condense back into their richest essence. Set your standards high even on the simplest writing projects. Toss out the writing poison, the ill-formed phrases, as you do with the "heads"—the first liquid results of the magic process by which mash is rendered by the still as alcohol. You want writing that is high proof.
Now a good bourbon mash might go through a couple of distillations to get the alcohol content just right (or write). And you'll end up cutting the product with some water to open up something that might come out of the still at 140 proof. Working closely and attentively with words lets you know when it's time to dilute them, and when they are best swallowed at full strength.
Cleaning Out the Bucket for Next Time
I guess you could call our first efforts to make a bourbon something that couldn't be salvaged even with good editing. Sometimes a project just doesn't go anywhere. Our mash literally didn't flow, and sometimes your words won't either. The contents of our bucket went into the compost, where they will be fodder for finer garden growth later. You might find some way to use the materials for later projects; regardless, all writing work helps to refine your writing skills. As Anne Lamott suggests, a "shitty first draft" is the beginning of something bigger.
Don't forget to reward yourself after you've finished a nice piece of writing. Even if it's just a nap or a good walk (or a nip of bourbon, though I usually wait until after 5.) We're going to go back to producing some "sugar shines" for a bit with a tabletop distiller and research a better bourbon recipe to use in the neighbor's still. Keep researching, keep writing, and keep distilling. Cheers!
Here are a couple of my latest blog posts: When the Writing Mentor Becomes the Mentee is a look at my relationship with a budding writer at a local literacy center.
Editing: It Ain't for Sissies is a one-minute video on some unusual editing tools of mine.