The ONE Law of Writing
Kurt Vonnegut divided writers into two camps, which he called “swoopers” and “bashers.” His distinction is so well known that it’s almost a cliché, but it still offers a good launch pad for a conversation about writing styles—meaning the ways we actually write as opposed to the ways we use words.
In case you haven’t read the introduction to Timequake, or to refresh your memory, Vonnegut’s “swoopers” write rapidly, completing a first draft as quickly as they can. His “bashers” work very slowly, grinding out each sentence and perfecting it before moving on to the next sentence. Here’s what he actually said about the methods:
Swoopers write a story quickly, higgledy-piggledy, crinkum-crankum, any which way. Then they go over it again painstakingly, fixing everything that is just plain awful or doesn’t work. Bashers go one sentence at a time, getting it exactly right before they go on to the next one. When they’re done they’re done.
Supposedly, Vonnegut himself worked on a single page until it was finished, and then moved on to the next page.
His division of writing camps has been discussed at length in essays and blogs, particularly since he added a generalization about gender—that male writers tend to be bashers while female writers tend to be swoopers and then went on to suggest, in some readers’ interpretations, anyway, something of a higher value in the subject matter chosen by bashers as opposed to swoopers. I don’t feel he was actually drawing a value-oriented comparison, but as a male writer who combines both procedural techniques, I can be duly offended if there’s money in it.
But if I have to express a preference, particularly in today’s interesting era for writers, I suppose bashers gain an edge. My reason is simple: too many swoopers these days don’t live up to Vonnegut’s notion about painstakingly fixing everything that’s awful or not working. I know a woman who proudly declares that she never edits her work. She puts it out on the web as the spirit of creation moved her to produce it. Consequently, most of her material is just plain crap, a pure misery to read if you’ve got the constitution to read all the way through anything she writes.
This violates my only rule about writing: Never show anyone the first draft. This may by my only rule about writing, but it is so rigid and ironclad that I’ll bow to grandiosity and call it the ONE Law of Writing. No one sees the first draft.
Because their very process demands that they constantly edit, revise, and rewrite each of their sentences, bashers automatically present only a revised draft to the world. Only swoopers can violate the ONE Law. That doesn’t mean bashers are universally producing better prose than swoopers, even in the first draft. But whenever the ONE Law of Writing is broken, it’s a swooper who’s breaking it.
Why does it matter? It doesn’t, really, unless it’s my misfortune to read your rough draft, in which case it matters a lot to me—I’ll never get back the time I spend reading your typing, and that’s a fairly serious crime. But if I don’t have to read it, then it makes no difference to me at all. But it should make a difference to you, because you’re the one who’s going to wake up with your spine stiff with mortification when you’ve revised your writing at last and know just how bad that first draft really was, the draft that you proudly handed over to your friends or family members.
In short, never violate the ONE Law of Writing. Revise your copy! Edit it. Rewrite it to be sure it’s presentable before you invite anyone to read it. You’ll sleep easier in the end.
John K. Manos was a magazine editor in Chicago for 20 years. Since 2001 he has earned his living as a writer, editor, and occasional musician. He is a graduate of Knox College. Dialogues of a Crime is his first novel.