The hardest thing I had to write in 2017, and how Pixar helped me.

How I learnt to write in six different drafts.


Ian 2017 I submitted the hardest piece of writing I have ever done. Not ‘hard’ in the sense of intellectually demanding or complex, but emotionally ‘hard.’  Personally difficult.  It was an honour to be asked to do it, but a heavy honour.  I’m not going to say what it was: if you know me, you know already, and if you don’t, it isn’t relevant to what follows. But, it was hard.

What helped me, surprisingly, was Hollywood. A while back I read, and admired, ‘Creativity Inc.’ by Ed Catmull, the co-founder and president of Pixar Studios (the Finding Nemo people).  I learnt a ton from the book, and from the interview at the Global leadership Summit too, but the one lesson I’ve just drawn on was this:  early on the process of making an animated movie, at the stage when it’s getting out of the writer’s head and onto the screen, they show a version to a group at the studios.  This is very rough draft, so the director might have to say, “I’m not sure how we get from this part of the story to the next; that’s work in progress.”  And someone else might say, “You need to make that rat cuter.” Or ‘You’re right that you need a joke there, but that joke isn’t it.”  In other words, at this emerging stage, they trust each other enough to show very rough work. Why?  Because they know that at this point, almost everything doesn’t work properly, some things need to be cut completely, and occasionally the whole thing needs to start again.

And that’s OK.

Then Catmull contrasted that with what they experienced when the moved to Disney.  Everyone was so fearful of the studio’s reputation, that they only ever showed each other ‘perfect’ work.  By which point so much money and time had gone into the project, with launch dates announced and soft toys already in manufacturing, that no-one dared to say, ‘Just, take out the cute dinosaur.’  Or whatever.

The good screenwriters always know this.  William Goldman, one of the best in the business, wrote in ‘Adventures in the Screen Trade’ about having ten or so drafts to go through before a script is remotely acceptable.  Stephen King, in ‘On Writing’, says the same.  So does Stephen Pressfield in ‘The War of Art.’ Multiple, identifiable drafts.

And, here’s the even better news, they give each of those recognisable drafts a name, or character.  So they give themselves permission to say, “I know I need to clean up that scene, but that’s OK for a second draft.  It’s only the second draft.  There are eight more to go.”

Eight more drafts!  All too often in my world, first draft of the sermon is first draft, second draft is good to go.  Occasionally first draft has to do.  Or, is made to do.

So, what might the different drafts look like?  Let’s reduce it to six.

Draft one: chuck it all down.  This is the stream of consciousness draft, and it is really, really important that you keep writing.  Don’t let the flow go, you need to dump everything down in one, big blob.

Here’s my pro tip:  I have found that the one thing that stops me doing this, is the need to check something.  A name, a verse, a date.  But boy, does it ruin the fluidity if what I’m doing.  So here’s what the grown-ups do.  In place of that name of date you put two letters, ‘TK’.  In a later draft you will search your document for TK, and on each occasion you will open up your browser, or bible and find that little fact.  But for now, just carry on with the sentence.  For instance, in the first paragraph of this piece, I put TK for Ed Catmull’s job title, And then again for William Goldman’s book. ‘TK’ by the way stands for ‘to come’, and if you are wondering why it isn’t ‘TC’, it’s because many English words contain ‘TC’ but very few ‘TK’, so your search of a long document won’t be too frustrating.

Draft two: structure.  Stand back and look at the whole thing.  Does it move well, as an argument, or explanation.  If it’s a sermon, does it marry intense looking at the text with a chance for people come up for air?  This is a chunk-by-chunk reading of the material.  Last week I stared at my screen with a friend reading my ‘hard’ piece, and he said something was wrong in the second quarter.  So I swapped a couple of paragraphs round and he decided that fixed it.  I didn’t rewrite a single sentence.

Draft three: checking.  Get the monkey off your back, and check those titles and references, sort out the spelling, and know that you have all the pieces you need to play with.

Draft four: listen to it.  This is where you go through checking that each sentence, and each paragraph, works.  Not just that it says what it should say, but that in each sentence the centre of gravity falls where it should, and that the punctuation directs the reader’s attention where it should.

If this is for a sermon, it’s a slightly different exercise, but you still want to make sure your sentences sound right, even if you go up to speak with a skinny set of notes.

Now, put it aside. Think about something else for a while.

Draft five: roll you sleeves up.  Ok, you have a pretty decent piece of work here, but there’s a way to go.  Is every word, exactly the word you need?  Go through and see where you’ve put in a verb+adjective; would a stronger word do instead?  Have you put in a Latin-based fancy word, where a blunter Anglo Saxon would do?  Or do you need both? Or do you need to cut something altogether?  I’ve just cut a brilliant example from Macbeth, which would have distracted you from what I’m saying.

Draft six: final polish, stand back and give it the final check.  You should, then, be good to go.  You have probably revisited a number of stages along the way, but at this stage you have a final version ready to show the world. Just do a final tweak if you need it.  That sentence, by the way, was a final tweak.

So why, why, why, do we do our sermon prep on Saturday night?

OK, I couldn’t bear to lose it, and I can hear some of you whining at the door, so here’s the example from Macbeth.  He is terrified at his bloody hands, and the guilt from the murder of the king.  What could wash away his sin?

Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood

Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather

The multitudinous seas incarnadine, (two long Latin words)

Making the green one red. (five short Anglo Saxon ones, saying the same thing, starkly).

And, yes, you may finish the song.

7 comments on “The hardest thing I had to write in 2017, and how Pixar helped me.”

  1. Thanks for this Chris. I default to editing as I write, and am trying to make the ‘just keep writing’ thing a habit. I’ve struggled with how to handle facts/figures so that TK advice is gold!

    Also, for what it’s worth, ‘On Writing’ is the best thing I’ve ever read on writing and I think would be worth making required reading for any preaching courses you might be running.

  2. Very helpful, Chris. As much for my business as ministry prep. I find I am having to re-learn the art of email marketing.

  3. So true that we need to make more drafts of sermons and other writing. Thanks for giving a clear example of how to do that.
    Now a blog post on how to plan your schedule so that all the drafts are given adequate time and we’re not making a first draft do on a Saturday night… pretty please?

    1. ps. would you recommend this many drafts for a blog post, for example?
      Or for a comment on a blog post? What level of writing requires this much reworking?

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