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Raw Literature: Writer Unplugged

Essay by Sarah Brentyn, a member of the Congress of Rough Writers.

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I’m in awe of “raw”.

This tiny three-letter word is like a super hero. I’m a word nerd and I love that this petite power house can describe so many items, objects, and states. We use it to talk about food (uncooked), the weather (cold and damp), skin (red and sore), emotions (intense and unrestrained), fabric (unfinished, unhemmed)…

My favorite definition, from the depths of Google’s dictionary, is of “a material or substance”: in its natural state; not yet processed or purified. It also provided some marvelous synonyms: unrefined, untreated, natural, unedited… That, to me, is raw literature.

And that is all I write.

I’ve been scribbling stories since I was nine years old. Probably younger, but that’s when I remember completing my first fictional tale. Have I moved beyond that? Of course. And no.

I write.

Because that’s what children do. They write.

They color, they build, they read.

I think back to what was important to me during those times.

When I colored? The feel of the crayon, the choice of color. No consideration of palettes and hues and color wheels.

When I built things? The placement of blocks, the satisfaction of knocking them down. No concern over whether the blocks were positioned correctly or, if it were to scale, would hold the weight of cars.

When I read? The pure enjoyment of a story, the sparking of imagination. No analysis of plot, character arc, or dialogue.

As for writing, there were no thoughts of revising or editing.

Maybe I never grew up.

I have a style. It’s stream of consciousness. It’s how I’ve always written and all of my pieces, whether they were for school or websites or newsletters or blogs, started out that way. Most of them stayed.

I was never very good at changing my style to fit into a box for academic papers or employers.

I’m capable of it, of course, but it’s not as enjoyable. I can tailor my style for an audience. It’s one of the things I taught my students. It’s one of the things I asked my clients. Who is your audience?

It’s important, regardless of whether you’re writing for a magazine or for yourself. Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction.

But, when I’m in the zone, that strange and fascinating Writing Zone, I don’t think about audience.

I write.

As my bio says, “I bleed ink.” That’s basically what I do.

I recently found something I wrote three years ago, in March 2014:

“first drafts have an amazing combination of raw emotion and the writer’s real voice.”

First drafts bring freedom. To dance like no one is watching. I write like no one is reading.

I connect with my Self. My inner thoughts and emotions. This kind of writing presents a vulnerability and genuineness that is not often found in a polished piece. It is found in the raw, unrefined writing that travels from heart to head to keyboard.

By connecting with your Self, being vulnerable and genuine, you connect with readers. The veil is lifted.

This is me. Writer unplugged.

* “Unplugged” is a reference to musicians playing their music (usually live) without electronic instruments or enhancement. It’s not, like, a toaster or computer or something. It’s a musician, sitting on a stage, strumming an acoustic guitar and singing while you drink your ice cold beer.


Sarah Brentyn is an introvert who believes anything can be made better with soy sauce and wasabi.

She loves words and has been writing stories since she was nine years old. She talks to trees and apologizes to inanimate objects when she bumps into them.

When she’s not writing, you can find her strolling through cemeteries or searching for fairies.

She hopes to build a vacation home in Narnia someday. In the meantime, she lives with her family and a rainbow-colored, wooden cat who is secretly a Guardian.

Amazon: Hinting at Shadows & Author Page

Blog: Lemon Shark

Lemon Shark Reef

Twitter, Google+, Author Website


Raw Literature is an ongoing conversation about those first works we create as writers, as literary artists. Guest Authors share personal insights on their craft, its process, the experience of creating raw literature and what they do with it. Carrot Ranch is a dynamic literary community that creates raw literature weekly in the form of flash fiction (99 word stories). If you have an essay idea, pitch to Charli Mills, Lead Buckaroo, at


  1. Charli Mills says:

    Sara, thank you for your post which speaks to my experience with raw writing. When I used my writing skills for work, I missed writing raw, writing fiction. While we have so much diversity her among writers, experience and exploration of creative word craft, this is like the nugget that we all have. And yet, what we do with it is broad. Your book cover and trailer are engaging and elegant, fitting your style. You are well branded! 🙂

    • Yes, exactly. We all ride off in our own directions but we begin at the same place. The beginning. It’s raw and unedited and beautiful, in its way. What we do with that nugget of gold is entirely up to each individual writer.

      “engaging and elegant…” I’ve been called many things but this may well be a first. Thanks! 🙂 Don’t know about the branding. I struggle with that but I appreciate the comment very much.

  2. This is a great post, Charli. I think this gets to the heart of how we all are and feel as writers. Sarah’s book sound like a lovely read.

  3. Ruchira Khanna says:

    Raw writing…I am in awe of it.
    Sarah I agree with you 110% on the impact a first draft. Having scribbled some manuscripts and polishing and re-polishing them so that they could ‘shine’ There have been moments I have lost that touch via the edits (blame it on my editor :P)

    Your book title looks intriguing. Will check it out.
    Thanks for the reminder of the word, RAW. It can actually keep us grounded if we identify the essence of it 🙂

    • Ah! I love the idea of the word “raw” keeping us grounded. That’s lovely (and so true).

      Yes, the impact. That initial pouring out of our thoughts and feelings can be powerful. Polishing too much can make it shine but might wear away some of the detail, you know? Some of the initial power may be lost if we polish too much. Thanks, Ruchira. 🙂

    • Charli Mills says:

      I’m finding that polish is a rub of sorts! I’m waiting for that leap in my mind to assimilate the balance between raw and polished.

  4. Annecdotist says:

    Beautiful essay, Sarah, as I knew it would be when I saw who had written it. But are you saying there’s more emotion in the raw version? That’s not my experience – one of the pleasures of rewrites for me is going deeper into the emotions of the characters and finding ways of expressing it in (hopefully) subtle ways.
    And your video for Hinting at Shadows is fabulous.

    • Aw, thanks, Anne. <3

      For me, it's always more intense. It's like journaling or free-writing (which I also love). I find it's much more interesting to just let go and write and see what's on the page when I'm done. When I polish too much, the power of that first draft is gone. I feel like I'm fine-tuning my thoughts and voice to fit into a box. I've had to edit my voice out of pieces for school and employers and I barely recognize it as me.

      That said, I completely agree, when writing a novel, your editing and rewrites give you a chance to flush out the characters, see them in different situations, get to know them on a deeper level. Absolutely. Makes for a much richer character.

    • Charli Mills says:

      Anne, I’m wondering how to be more deliberate in shaping a character’s emotion or that of the story without losing the initial flame.

    • I find that in the edit I too add detail of the person or place but at the same time it takes from the raw writing my voice. Readers may prefer the polished version but I always feel as though I have sold my soul with my embellishments (although true.)

      • Sold your soul. Yeah, I’ve felt that way more than a few times. Do readers really prefer the polished version? I think it depends on what type of writing it is. Memoir? I’d love to read a raw memoir.

      • In my case they probably do prefer the polished version. I don’t spell things out for people leaving them to know the situation from how they would react. This may be how I would react but maybe not. I prefer it this way. In my first memoir this was fine as the story was so strong. In the second the examiners wanted information I considered private. They wanted me exposed in the raw so to speak. In my mind they were marketing to a different sub-genre to the one I had in mind.

      • Charli Mills says:

        I wonder if we’ll find a balance between the two?

      • That’s an interesting thought.

      • Annecdotist says:

        Lovely to get these perspectives from the three if you, it’s something I’m really curious about. I can see how sometimes if you are writing for a particular outlet you might feel you have lost something from the original in order to fittings in with the requirements of whoever is paying. For me, I’m either deluding myself that I’m maintaining the emotion – and actually going deeper – or it might be an advantage of the psychoanalytic studies I’ve done which teaches the integration rational and emotional. Can’t think this through properly right now but might come back to it.

      • Yes it certainly gives pause to think. I know for me, despite being a memoir writer, I am a very private person, and my raw writing hopefully shows how one would feel at a particular point of the story. I am on the understated side which i prefer but readers often want it spelt out for them – they want you laid out raw. Having read your book I think you are most definitely maintaining the emotion and going deeper with great success.

      • Ooh, that’s tough. How do you know what will make a good story and what is too private? Just what you’re comfortable (or not comfortable) sharing? I wouldn’t want people telling me what I had to include in a memoir. A certain amount of raw writing would make for an amazing read…but you have to be comfortable sharing that information.

      • Anne – That’s it. Requirements taking away your ‘self’, your voice, etc. I’ve read your work and don’t think you’re deluding yourself. Just saying. 😉 Maybe it is the studies in psychology but, whatever it is, it works.

      • Charli Mills says:

        Anne, I’d think your professional training gives you deeper understanding of human emotion and behavior, but also your training is from a detached place as observer. Raw writing might be coming at it from the opposite direction of sorts, that of feeling the deep emotion and then trying to convey it. For the writer, the emotion feels strongest raw. You might have an advantage in revision and I don’t think you are deluded that you do go deeper.

      • Annecdotist says:

        Such an interesting discussion and I’m not sure where exactly this is going to fit in process!
        Irene, I agree with you on understated and I think that’s one of the problems with creative writing courses is the risk of being steered in the wrong direction without knowing enough about it oneself to be able to apply the brakes. I think the other problem is the push to go more personal. I do think any kind of creative writing, fiction as much as memoir, entails digging deeply into ourselves but we have to be ready. I think some tutors don’t understand that they’re playing with fire when they push writers to delve further. (I’m not saying you’ve necessarily got anything to hide but we often don’t know what we’ve got deep inside us.)
        I’m wondering how raw the emotions are that you’re writing from? My raw emotions are often beyond words. Although I admit that on more than one occasion I’ve been in the thick of raw grief but still managed to entertain the thought that I must remember what this feels like so that I can write about it authentically. But only in the future. I can’t string a sentence together in that state.
        Regarding raw emotion and psychology. Some models of psychology definitely detract from the rawness by measuring it and bringing it under experimental control. Which sounds similar to what the three of you are saying about what happens to emotion in your revisions. But the psychoanalytic models entail maintaining the rawness, perhaps even amplifying it, but bringing thinking and analysis alongside, I suppose in a way it makes it both raw and not raw, which is nearer to what I think happens in revising my writing.
        And thanks for your kind feedback on the emotion in my fiction.
        Sarah, thanks for bringing this issue to the light.

  5. Thank you for letting me guest post at the Ranch, Charli. 🙂 This is a subject I feel strongly about and is either a product of my stream of consciousness writing or the cause of it. Chicken and the egg thing, I suppose. Cheers!

    • Charli Mills says:

      Sarah, I’m glad you could open this door on the conversation because it’s where I also feel I write strongest and I want to get better at going deeper in revisions without losing that initial life and voice. A good conversation to start with your essay!

  6. Reblogged this on Lemon Shark and commented:
    So I’m forcing myself to get over my Guestapostophobia. Facing my fear. Writing guest posts.

    I’m happy to have a post up at Carrot Ranch, a supportive community of flashers (erm…people who write flash), hosted by the ever-encouraging Charli Mills. Check out my post about how letting go and just writing can produce a powerful, genuine story.

    “first drafts have an amazing combination of raw emotion and the writer’s real voice.”

  7. Eric says:

    As a fellow “raw” writer, I approve of this message and, most importantly its author. 🙂 well done, Sarah.

  8. LucciaGray says:

    Inspiring account of your writing process, Sarah. You capture the ‘raw’ moment of inspiration and letting your creativity lead the way. The challenge though is maintaining that raw, fresh version after the umpteenth edit! When to stop improving the draft? Is it less raw with each edit? I have no answers myself, but I do feel the more I write the more difficult it becomes to balance the raw and the polished…

    • Yes! That moment when inspiration strikes and you just go with it. That’s what I’m talking about. 🙂 Love that you got that from the post.

      Of course, this all depends on what you’re writing. One would have a difficult time selling the first draft of a 700 page fantasy novel.

      Just like polishing a stone makes it less raw, so, too, does polishing a piece of writing. That doesn’t mean we don’t edit or proofread but…I don’t know, I guess it’s being careful not to edit out your voice and that spark of inspiration you started with. I agree. It is difficult.

    • Charli Mills says:

      Ah, not sure I like that it becomes harder, Lucy. Maybe my excuse to re-settle a finished manuscript was an excuse to infuse it with some more raw. It felt so polished I didn’t want to touch it. Now it’s in tatters and I’m finger painting all over it! 🙂

  9. It think you were kidding us about Guestpostphobia, Sarah. Lovely piece about an awesome word and what it means to the power of writing. My raw writing is more like undercooked writing and it requires some seasoning, but what a skill to be able to write like you do without a need for fixin’s and gravy.

    • I wasn’t (and I’m not) kidding you. This guest post stuff is painful. Scary… I went through my SEBS symptoms earlier.

      It is a great word. It fits my writing so well, too. Yours…undercooked and requiring seasoning. 😂 Haha! That’s awesome. I do enjoy not worrying about gravy. Frankly, I’d rather have your undercooked meal than anything I might attempt to make that resembles gravy. Thanks, my friend. ❤️

  10. Loni Townsend says:

    You’ve always been masterful at capturing that raw, visceral emotions with your words. 🙂

  11. Kate says:

    There was nothing ‘raw’ about this post Sarah! It flows beautifully and it’s a great essay on your approach to writing once something sparks your imagination.

  12. TanGental says:

    perceptive and pertinent of course. There’s something in what you say that makes me think of writing raw as if one were naked, in front of a mirror with no one else around, so all inhibitions gone. Able to see the flaws but imagine a better shape, pull the stomach in or tighten the flesh around the eyes, pull faces, dance in an embarrassing way, pretend the six pack is emerging any moment… no need to admit to gloom or sanitise the package with the comfortable clothes – you can be as honest or as delusional as you like.

    • Ah! Yes. Naked. Exposed. All inhibitions gone. Exactly. (Actually, “naked” is another definition of “raw”.) I am loving the visual of dancing naked in front of the mirror. 😂 And we can be as honest or as delusional as we want. It’s the real deal…as we see it. (Maybe I’d best not polish the mirror, either.)

    • Charli Mills says:

      Oh, Geoff, I think you might need to whip up a raw and naked post! I like this analogy. Then, having to walk naked on stage, not knowing if your tummy sucked in tight enough or if the audience will see your backside differently than you do…

  13. TanGental says:

    oh and Anne’s right; the video is amazing.. did Ms Ritchie help you?

    • I know. I love that trailer. It is amazing, isn’t it? Help me? Pfft! No. Are you kidding? She didn’t help me. The talented Rachael Ritchey created the entire thing – start to finish. I could never do that. She’s awesome.

  14. Great post Sarah. I’m with you that most of my writing remains raw. As I said above when I edit I add (sometimes told to add) but I feel my voice is then lost. My latest manuscript will never be published for mainstream for this reason. I have to feel I am true to myself even though what is added is true.
    That video is awesome. Does she do this for a living. This seems like the introverts perfect way to market a product. If I hadn’t already read your amazing book this video would have had me pulling my credit card out and ordering it immediately.

    • When I’ve been asked to add or tone down or whatever, yeah, my voice is lost. No fun to write and, I’m thinking, no fun to read. Have to polish it? Eh…okay. More? Meh…okay. Polished to a shine and… Crap, it’s too shiny. Almost fake. And certainly not “me” anymore. I’ve most recently tried to stick with writing where I can stay true to myself. Great way to put it. Well, I love your writing so I’m thinking your MS will be brilliant.

      I know! I love that trailer. I think it would be fun but I shudder to think what would happen if I tried to make one. Um, well, yes and no. Rachael Ritchey is an author of a YA trilogy and she did all her own covers (many times over for fun, I think) so she just kind of put word out there that she’s had a lot of practice and loves doing it so… I believe she is designing for indies. She designed my cover and then did the trailer. And thank you. 😊❤️ (Also, I’ll pass your compliment along.)

  15. Norah says:

    Hi Sarah and Charli, I read the post earlier in the week, but didn’t have time to comment then. Wish I’d had done so – there’s many more comments to read now! They’ll have to wait too.
    Sarah, I really enjoyed your post, and getting to know you, the real you, the writer unplugged. I admire your ability to self-reflect, and then express your reflections so beautifully to share them with us. Yes, you bleed ink, but you bleed beauty in your words. Even through your darker stories, your words hold a unique beauty. That is you.
    I have no hesitation in recommending your lovely book of short, short stories to readers. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I think I previously described it as a box of chocolates, each bite-sized piece with a flavour of its own, easy to read and hard to stop at just one.
    I’m impressed by your trailer. Well done.
    Charli, thank you for hosting Sarah. There is a lot of wisdom for us to glean from this post.

    • I know the feeling of reading and having to come back. And the comments have expanded a bit. 😉

      Thanks, Norah. When you read my blog, it’s me. Always me. Just me. I like the image of bleeding beauty. I mean, not in a grotesque way, but it has a beautiful dark feel to it.

      That trailer is so cool! I love it, too. I wouldn’t have thought to have one but my designer made it and I couldn’t be happier with it.

      I appreciate the comment so much about my book. 😊❤️ I’m glad you enjoyed it and that you’d recommend it. I hope others like it as well. Yes. That was it. A box of chocolates. A lovely image. Thank you!

    • Charli Mills says:

      Thanks for reading and adding to the comments, Norah! I do like that idea of Sarah’s book as chocolates.

  16. dgkaye says:

    Fantastic to see you being featured Sarah. You see, now you’ve dipped your toes into the waters and out of guestophobia! So nice to learn more about you. I loved that you shared all your creative explorations from childhood, mine were similar, go figure! 🙂 <3

  17. I love what you said about the first draft having the raw emotion. So true! The first draft, to me, is cathartic – I spill all my reactions and thoughts onto the keyboard, and when I’m done, I feel exhilarated. I know there’s still work to be done on the piece, but you can’t beat the feeling to saying what you wanted to say.

    Thanks for this post. As usual, you’ve given me something to think about.

    And you made it look easy.

    • Ah, yes. We are always on the same proverbial page, my friend. We know there’s work to be done but nothing beats that raw emotion of a first draft. Saying what you really want to say. (I so don’t make anything look easy. You’re just a nice person. Thank you for that.) <3

    • Charli Mills says:

      That’s a good point, about the satisfaction from saying what you had to say.

  18. Damn this was an amazing read and so much I can relate to and give a fist pump to. Cheers and to writing like no one is reading 😀

  19. MoJo says:

    Have you heard if Narnia has reopened yet? I keep trying to get in but the damn wardobe is always on lockdown.

  20. […] Raw from the East Coast: Sarah Brentyn is a Writer Unplugged. A master of brevity, Sarah writes from the raw center that marks her style. With a new book out, Hinting at Shadows, Sarah explores her process and awe for “raw.” She writes, “This tiny three-letter word is like a super hero. I’m a word nerd and I love that this petite power house can describe so many items, objects, and states.” […]

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