The After-Shave Effect of Writing

After-shave lotion can make any man’s face smell not only nice but inviting. That’s how all of us want our writing to be. But damn! That stuff stings!

by Hyphenman on Jun 24, 2012

home aloneIf you saw the original Home Alone, you can never forget the scene where Macaulay Culkin slaps after-shave lotion on his young and tender face. The result is just short of self-inflicted torture.

When we start out, our writing is just as fresh and vulnerable as the face of any boy who has not yet reached maturity. We want it to smell good and to look professional, but in the process what we often experience is sheer agony.

I think there’s a puberty, adolescence, and maturity stage to writing.

But regardless of how high we ascend, the after-shave is always going to burn.

Application of after-shave is often preparatory to going out on the town and having fun. So the end result is pleasure, even if the preliminary step is pain.

That’s how it is with writing, too. But it doesn’t have to be.

I think there is a balancing act between the pain and pleasure of writing.

Many writing experts would have you forgo the pain. Just have fun, they advise. If you get too bogged down in rules and in analyzing and editing, you will curtail and shortchange your creative impulses. Just let the words fly, they will tell you. Worry about all that other stuff later.

This is a common theme I will return to again and again. It’s far too important to discuss it once and let it go at that.

Writing to have fun is just about the No. 1 Worst Mistake you can make. But it’s not as simple as that.

I know from fixing literally thousands of stories ready to go into print just how bad not only a first draft but a final draft can be. If you let your words fly helter-skelter, you will have to rewrite most if not all of them when you’ve completed your first draft. In other words, you will basically have to start all over again.

Far better to pay as you go, rather than let fly now and pay later.

If you do, you obviously will go much slower, but you also will go much better.

I’m talking about, as I frequently do, struggling over each and every paragraph, each and every sentence, each and every word. Nail down that first sentence before you write the second one. Keep clarity uppermost in your mind.

To do what I’m recommending takes training, patience, practice, and determination. It also takes a certain mindset. You’ve got to get used to a snail’s pace of progress and ever so gradually work on your speed.

Every sentence should be painful, agonizing and downright torturous. Your work is too important to treat it in a helter-skelter fashion.

But here’s the upside of my advice. As you struggle through the pangs of puberty and adolescence as a writer, the pain I’m talking about will ease. The words will flow more naturally. You often will knock that first sentence out of the park your first time at bat. Maybe even the next several sentences.

When you reach that level – which will take a while – you’re on your way to turning pain into pleasure. There is a joy in knowing that you were hard on yourself, that you stayed focused and disciplined, and that you actually produced words that can stand on their own. You will still need to edit yourself at the end, but it will be in the form of minor tweaks and revisions, not wholesale rewriting.

This is not a half-baked theory of mine. I learned it firsthand by writing for many different newspapers, working with many different editors, facing sometimes-impossible deadlines. I wrote, in other words, under fire.

Benjamin Bradlee, the longtime executive editor of the Washington Post who was immortalized by Jason Robards Jr. in All the President’s Men, called this kind of writing “creative tension.” In its most benign form – and it’s not very benign at all – it forces a reporter to turn the sheer terror and adrenaline-driven anxiety inside him into high-pitched concentration, often producing better work than he thought himself capable of.

Do enough of those kinds of stories and you’ll soon be carted off to the loony bin. But you can impose discipline on yourself without too much psychological fallout.

What I’m saying is: Force yourself, drive yourself, work through the pain.

The ultimate goal is to apply that after-shave without screaming or wincing. You want to be able to look in the mirror and smile back at yourself.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Taylor Mason June 9, 2012 at 4:01 pm

Point well taken. I’m struggling with some of this right now, so “After-Shave” has hit home with some sincerity this morning. Thank you for your insight, and thank you for taking the time to share some professional (and literal) experience. I look forward to your next piece, Hyphenman!


2 Michael Sallah June 9, 2012 at 10:03 pm


This blog is right on the mark: the pleasure and pain of writing, though I believe the jabs are more common than the hugs. I think all good writing requires tears, sweat and blood. That’s just the way it is. But I think the more often we sit down at the keyboard, the better and more efficient we become. Like the bodybuilder, we exercise our muscles so that we become tauter and sharper. But there’s always pain.

I must tell you that as an author and journalist, it’s reassuring to read these kinds of blogs, especially from someone who knows what they’re talking about. I think we all need to be reminded about the challenges we face each day — and that we’re not alone.


3 Robert Hicks June 15, 2012 at 3:15 pm

David, Congratulations are in order. I feel this is going to prove both useful and helpful to a lot of us. Whether just beginning the trail toward authorship or an old hand in it all, it really never gets easy. Or, if it does, it doesn’t stay easy very long. As my publisher once said to me, “It’s our dirty little secret – good work comes at a price.”

Like I said, this blog has great potential of helping all of us make it down that trail. My Best to you and the blog.


4 Hyphenman June 15, 2012 at 3:19 pm

Thank you, Robert. Many of us might think that once you reach the pinnacle of a bestseller, writing does get easier. But even after two back-to-back New York Times bestsellers as you’ve had (The Widow of the South in 2005 and A Separate Country in 2009), you reaffirm that it still ain’t easy.

Inspiring words to remember. Thank you for sharing them.


5 buddy April 10, 2013 at 1:50 am

You insights and time have really helped me with my book!
Thanks, DAVID!

QUALITY advice is hard to find…


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