Thursday, April 21, 2016

Lessons Learned During 10 Months of Writing, Editing, and Working Extraordinarily Hard by Stephen Bramucci

Steve Underwater
On June 15th of 2015, I started a job as the managing editor of the brand new travel, food, and adventure section at Two days later, I received the edit letter for my first middle grade book, Ronald Zupan and the Pirates of Borneo, from my publisher, Bloomsbury.

From the outset, Uproxx proved to be an insanely demanding job.  As a longtime freelancer, I was used to breaks in my day – meetings, calls, errands – and suddenly those things fell out of my routine. I was always on. I don’t think I’d have been fired if I’d taken some breaks, I don’t even think I would’ve been accused of slacking. I just think that I was new and wanted to excel and responded by becoming so mega-focused that I started eating lunch standing up and worked until my eyes ached.

Meanwhile, Ronald Zupan required some major edits. I had a series of substantive changes to wrap my head around and Uproxx swallowed up all of my mental energy. I was drawing water out of a well and at the end of every day the well was bone dry. Around this time, I remember talking to other writers about my friend Varian Johnson, who writes, works a full-time job, and has kids, and I’d say, “It’s insane to me how he does it all and still manages to be the nicest guy on the planet. I just don’t have that level of capacity. Also, I really need eight hours of sleep per night.”

For the first three months, the entire summer of 2015, I floundered. I struggled to toggle between Uproxx and novel writing. I wasn’t getting quality work done on Ronald Zupan on weekdays and the work I did on weekends was fragmented and shaky. Then an important thing happened: My book editor sent me a letter, asking when she could see my edits. To which I responded like any mature, thoughtful, well-balanced adult would: I freaked out and I dove headlong into a pit of despair. Writing a novel has been a dream that I’ve worked very, very hard for. Was I going to screw it up by missing my deadline? Moreover, I loved everything about my editor and publisher, the last thing I wanted to do was frustrate them.

After particularly hard-on-myself day, I was visited by my dad, in a dream. It was the first dream I’ve had of him since his death in 2014. In the dream, I laid all my angst bare and asked him, “What do I do?” He simply smiled and said, “You’re doing it.”

Upon waking up, I took a look at things and realized that my dad was right. I was doing my best and learning and improving and “doing it.” I hadn’t even realized that, but when I looked at it I could see that I was indeed making progress. Somewhere along the way, I’d gradually learned the secret of Varian and artists-with-day-jobs everywhere: What do you do when your well is bone dry at the end of the day (before you’ve gotten to give an ounce of energy to your creative work)? It’s simple, really: You dig a deeper well. You expand your available level of output…somehow. Over the next few months, I learned to sleep less and still function, I learned to toggle between Steve Bramucci novelist and Steve Bramucci managing editor more quickly, and I taught myself – through what can either by viewed as “admirable force of will” or “almost-decimating fear of failure” – to increase my max capacity.

You dig a deeper well. You’re doing it.

Those are good mantras.

Since September, when I really started in on the edits on Ronald Zupan, I’ve worked harder than any other seven-month swing in my life. In the process, I’ve learned a few things about this craft of ours, both through my own work and through editing a team of writers who I absolutely adore. Here are five realizations about the writing life from the past 10 months:

  1. Short sentences are objectively better. David Foster Wallace was able to write incredibly long sentences that unfolded methodically and therefore felt like short sentences. Maybe you can too. But just in case you can’t, don’t trot out your long sentence in the first paragraph unless you know, down to your very bones, that it works. Having edited more that 2500 short, medium, and long form articles in the past 10 months, I’ll tell you this: Cutting sentences length in the first two paragraphs of a piece of writing is my #1 most common action. The fact is that 9/10 times short sentences are clearer and I’ve just never heard a reader say, “The writing was too clear.”
  2. Reading work aloud in front of an audience is the best way to self-edit. When a writer is working on a long form piece, I’ll ask them to read it to a spouse, friend, or family member. The piece always, always, comes back shorter and I never miss what was cut. I was recently asked to cut a few thousand words from Ronald Zupan and, since the scenes are all pretty locked, I had to do it on a line-by-line basis. I read the book start to finish to my girlfriend and she helped me slice every single superfluous word. I’m sure that no one will miss them. 
  3. You will get lucky. I hope some of my writers feel lucky to have found me. I know I feel lucky to have found my editor at Bloomsbury. Working with her has been a true joy – from day one. And this, to me, seems like a simple proof of the law of averages: There are a lot of variables in writing. Statistically speaking, some will work out your way and others won’t. This might feel obvious but it’s also very important: It’s a relief to know that you’ll catch a break or the ball will bounce your way at some point (particularly because you will also, statistically speaking, get unlucky at some point). Another important note here: The harder you work, the less you’ll need luck, which perhaps makes it easier for luck to arrive.
  4. You can do it. Over the past few months in particular, I’ve been digging the well from which I draw the energy to write deeper and deeper by the day. It hasn’t been without sacrifices. I’ve canceled so many plans that my friends now forget to invite me to things. I’ve hurt people I love by not returning calls promptly, or writing emails, or showing up to parties. I’ve demanded an insane amount of patience from my girlfriend, who works very hard herself and has every right to wish that weekends could feel more relaxing than they have. But I’ve done it all in the name of my artistic dreams and none of the relationships I mention has gone terminal. The people who love you will understand, they’ll accept your apologies, and they’ll celebrate with you when it’s all over. (I’m not advocating treating everyone in your life like the boy treats the tree in The Giving Tree, I’m just saying: If you’re working on a very big project, people will stick with you.) 
  5. We all “need eight hours of sleep per night”…but we can live without it. Looking back, I think it’s almost quaint that I would suggest that other people somehow didn’t require as much sleep as me. Of course Varian wants his eight hours too. But he wants to be a writer, and a good dad, and a good engineer worse. So he does those things.  He digs a deeper well. 
I wish you all deep wells, nourished by inspiration and joy and when, when the going gets tough, and your dreams are caught in a resource conflict with other parts of your life, I hope you give yourself some credit. “You’re doing it.”


  1. Well said. I'm digging a very deep well this month and next. I may regret agreeing to this number of projects, but it's so hard to turn down work when it comes!

  2. "You're doing it."

    That's a good one to hold on to. When writing/life/dayjob crash into each other, I try very hard to remember that Jim from five years ago would be thrilled and amazed at where I am today.

    It's not that simple, and it helps to have friends chasing the same artistic life.

    Hey, Steve, you're doing it.

  3. Reading aloud in front of my girlfriend improves everything I write—instantly—by at least 50%. Good tip!

  4. Steve-

    Keep dong it!

    The hard truth about accomplishing your creative goals is that one must get used to working on top of work. You're doing great. Just keep going.

    Later, you'll look back at this time proudly.


  5. You are awesome and your insights particularly meaningful... thanks for sharing. Now, get some sleep.

  6. Steve, this so resonated with me! I've been there. Had to run away from my family and friends to get the edits done and spend weekends at a café to work. I love your idea of "digging a deeper well". I've come to the realization that is what we must do if we want to write. And many writers have other jobs - I freelance too. But I also know that there is sacrifice with love - and if we love to write we must sacrifice at times. For me, it's sleep too. I often set my alarm for 4am to get the words done. I love how your father inspired you in a dream!

  7. Wow! Way to dig deep, Steve. Can't wait to read your novel. Glad to hear you are still at it. Miss your big smile! xo

  8. Indeed, Stephen. Sage advice and an important message, too. And I am with you 100%...READ IT ALOUD! I have ready every manuscript, every story, every everything aloud, often to my sleeping husband. I tell my students to do the same. Reading aloud lets you catch mistakes, allows you to feel the flow, and makes it all come together in ways that reading silently allows you to miss. Thanks for the reminder!!


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!