Carving Out Your Words

It’s a well-accepted tenet of fiction writing that you should get through your first draft quickly, not stopping to edit yourself, before you go back and start on the revisions. Otherwise, the reasoning goes, you’ll become mired in the details and lose track of the overall story.

Well, I guess I must be a rebel, because that’s just not the way I fly.

After coming up with a fairly detailed outline, I’ll write for a while—perhaps two or three scenes—and stop for the day. Then, before continuing on the next morning, I’ll go back over what I wrote the day before, honing and polishing it before I continue on with the story. Not only does this sentence massaging give me great pleasure, but it also serves to remind me of where I left off, and it inspires me to keep moving forward.

And it’s also a bit like carving stone.


Many years ago—back when I was still in high school—I read Irving Stone’s torrid novel about Michelangelo Buonarroti, The Agony and the Ecstasy. One of the things that stuck with me about the book was Stone’s descriptions of the technique Michelangelo used when carving his magnificent statues. Unlike most sculptors, who would mark up all sides of their block of marble and then carve a rough model of their piece, Michelangelo started at the the front, perfecting as he went, before continuing on toward the back.


This technique is best seen in his “Captive Slaves,” or “Prisoners,” at the Accademia Gallery in Florence, Italy. It’s unknown whether Michelangelo deliberately left them unfinished or not, but the pieces provide a glimpse of the artist’s style of carving, through which his figures emerge from the marble “as though surfacing from a pool of water,” as described in Vasari’s Lives of the Artists.


Now, I’m not going to claim that my writing technique is anywhere close to that of the great Michelangelo’s prowess with carving marble. But I do sometimes think of the sculptor when I write—how he’d work his way through the stone from front to back, perfecting each section before pushing on.

Unlike Michelangelo, of course, I can—and do—return to the work after the first draft is complete, to revise and edit like every other serious writer out there. But, hey, I figure, if the honing-before-you-continue-on technique worked for him, why can’t it work for me?

Readers: Is there something you do in your life that goes against all the accepted advice?

21 thoughts on “Carving Out Your Words

  1. Very interesting technique! Loved the sculpture pictures and metaphor. Keep writing your great books 🙂

    I workout during lunchtime. Things get too hectic in the morning (or even the evening) when one “should” work out. Gives me a second wind for the afternoon.

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  2. I’m so glad to hear someone else writes this way, too! I usually skip the outline, though, and just do bullet points for the next chapter with my coffee after I’ve read my previous day’s work. Wow. Michelangelo, Dean Wesley Smith, and Leslie Karst. It must be okay. Thanks, Leslie!

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  3. I am in awe of Michelangelo. How do you turn a piece of stone into something so incredibly perfect? This is a great analogy, Leslie. I think any process that works for a writer is the right process for them. I hate when people get all judgy in the pantser v. plotter debate. I do a fairly detailed outline, too. I call it a fluid outline because I always discover and adapt as I go. Sometimes I’ll reread the previous chapter as I’m writing a draft, just to bring myself up to speed. But I do keep plowing ahead in general.

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    1. In some ways, I guess modeling a clay sculpture would be a better analogy actually, since stone sculptors take away from a whole to make their finished piece, whereas clay workers add to nothing–as do writers–to make their art. But I’m sticking with it anyway, lol. And I so agree–there is no “right” or “wrong” way to do any art, as long as you keep on doing it till you finish!

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      1. I’m polishing up my 8 WEEKS TO A COMPLETE NOVEL book to send to my beta readers and literally just wrote the sentence, “If you get 100 writers in a room, they’ll tell you 105 different ways to write a book.”

        Oh, and too funny … both Ellen and Leslie are quoted in it!

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  4. You aren’t the only author I know who does this. And I can see how editing what you’ve done before gives you a running leap into what you are going to write today.

    But I wonder if your outline doesn’t act like a bit of a first draft in this case.

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  5. Great post, Leslie! I’ve both edited as I wrote and waited until the end of the first draft to pick up the red pen, and have loved each for different reasons. I’ve found that honing what I’ve written the day before helps me regain my voice more quickly. (My day job necessitates writing in different brand voices, so I often forget who I am!) On the other hand, turning off my internal editor lets me move forward without getting mired in self-doubt. I guess I’m a smorgasbord writer!

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  6. As far as your question, though, I’m going to stick my neck out and say “all accepted advice” probably says NOT to give your dog a treat every. single. time she asks for one. *hangs head in shame*

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  7. This is fascinating! Love it.

    I remember hearing about one sculptor that they had a gift of being able to see the thing inside the stone, and it was a matter of setting it free. Always thought that was beautiful. Don’t know if it was a real sculptor or one from a movie or something, but it stuck with me.

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