Beating writing into butter…

If you whip a bowl of heavy cream for a desert topping, you notice at first it begins to thicken, then it starts to peak nicely and finally it’s perfect. What happens if you continue to beat it? You are in big trouble because the cream will clump up and turn into butter! Not exactly what you had in mind, right? The trick is (as with most things in life) knowing when to stop. It goes for writing too. Obsessive writers can beat their writing till it is flat and lifeless. Knowing when to walk away takes courage and humility.

Here’s the thing about over-crafting. You never quite know at which point the writing changed texture and lost its freshness. It’s not the big changes but obsessive nitpicking that does it: a word here, too many  nips and tucks and before you know it the writing is clumpy and flat. Butter. When that happens to me, invariably somebody in my writers group will say, “What happened? The first version was so much better.” If I did not save the first version, it’s gone. It’s almost impossible to recapture the freshness turn the butter back to cream, so to say.


My bro-in-law tells us this story. He used to work in Merchant Navy in his younger days. Every time the ship docked in port and crew members went ashore they had to sign themselves out in a ledger. Next to their name they wrote the words “IN PORT” so others knew they had left the ship. Now, there was this Chinese cook. Let’s call him Wong. Wong spoke no English and knew just enough alphabets to sign the ledger. One day bro-in-law looks in the ledger and here is what he finds:

First day Wong writes:  IN PORT

Second day Wong writes: NI PORT

Third day Wong writes: NI PORG

From IN PORT to NI PORG!! 

This may be a stretch, but the point I am trying to make is this:  if you obsessively reshuffle words and piranha-nibble your writing, you can lose the sense of what you were writing about somewhere along the way. It happens in subtle stages. So instead of being safely IN PORT you could be floating in NI PORG!  Does this make even sense? Well, whatever.

And here’s my parting advice: never rewrite on an empty stomach and always drink plenty of tea.

Have you beaten your writing into butter? Instead of smooth sailing have you been marooned in NI PORG? Are these silly questions? You decide.

Cheers and have a good weekend!

15 thoughts on “Beating writing into butter…

  1. Yeah, Shona…You can end up with contrived or over-produced or mechanical-slick. All left brained and no oomph. No rawness, no electric, no surprise left. I know what you mean…Perfect is not interesting. Perfect, as punctuation, is a full stop. You take care.


  2. Very good point! I like the seafaring story, that demonstrates what you’re saying very nicely, I think. It can be difficult to just stop, but it’s so true that the freshness can disappear. It’s a hard balance to get right, because you (or, at least, I) almost always need to tweak the original to some extent, maybe just the reorganisation of a sentence here and there, but obsessive tweaking is counter productive. Incidentally, I’m still not getting emails about updates from your site, despite following you. 😦


    1. Wow- wonder what is going on?? You show up as my WordPress follower but not in my email follower list. You need to click the “email follow” tab that is somewhere down the left hand side bar?. Thanks soooo much for taking the trouble to still check in despite not getting updates. I am glad you got the point in the seafarer story. I had my doubts because I tend use obtuse examples sometimes and people go “Whaaaat???”


            1. That was really a nice tip Shona. I like your writing and your advice too. Tea of course is the perfect catalyst


  3. excellent post shona, struck a chord with me the way my last week shaped out……. My project manager beat one design project into butter this week……. I think his mantra is ” giving it your all” and “never stop improving” …. was left making changes 5 seconds before actually printing the stuff that needed to be sent out !! As a designer too the challenge is in knowing when to stop! Tea,as usual, helps!


    1. I am a designer too and I know exactly what you mean. And nothing is worse than somebody else’s insecurity rubbing off on you! You take it easy now! I wonder if coffee calms a person down like tea does? Hmmmm…..


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