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Writing Tip #8: It’s Okay If What You Write Stinks

Monday, September 15, 2014

One of the main reasons so many would-be writers never get further than being would-be writers—people with bits and pieces of started, but never finished, manuscripts hidden in drawers or secret files on the computer—is because they’ve let something that all of us who write know paralyze them and keep them from moving forward with their writing. Which brings us to today’s writing tip.

Writing Tip #8. It’s Okay If What You Write Stinks.

As Stephen King wrote in On Writing, “Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out. Once you know what the story is and get it right—as right as you can, anyway—it belongs to anyone who wants to read it. Or criticize it” (King, p. 47).

Author and marketing guru Randy Ingermanson put it this way:

Nobody is ever going to see your first draft except a very few people who already love you, warts, backstory, and all. Those are your critique buddies. Frankly, they already know your first draft sucks, so it’s OK. . . . It’ll give them something to feel good about when they point it out to you.

(Advanced Fiction Writing Blog, 2010)

Let me put it another way . . .

Do you think Yo-Yo Ma sounded like this or like this the first time he picked up the cello?

How many times do you think Evan Lysacek had to do this before he could do this?

It’s okay if what you write stinks
because you can always fix it later.
The only thing you can’t fix is a blank page.

When you’re in the creative process, you don’t need to be bogging yourself down with worrying about whether or not what you’re writing is “good.” You just need to write. You need to get the first draft finished. You need to turn off the analytical/self-doubting/self-criticizing side of the brain.

I love my computers. Y’all know that. I couldn’t live without them. But writing at the computer does something weird to me: by seeing the words coming out as printed prose—i.e., the way they might actually look in hard copy/printed in a book—I feel like I have to “get it right” before I type it into the computer . . . like what I’m writing has to be the correct words, without telling or loose POV or embellished dialogue tags or adverbs or whatever “rule” my brain is pecking at me with at that moment.

So when I’m really struggling with those negative thoughts and writer’s block that comes from the worries and fears that what I’m writing isn’t good enough, I pull out my trusty spiral notebook.

In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg gives the reason why writing longhand can help with writer’s block and overcoming those nasty “it has to be perfect as soon as you commit it to text” voices:

In my notebooks, I don’t bother with the side margins or the one at the top: I fill the whole page. I am not writing anymore for a teacher or for school. I am writing for myself first and I don’t have to stay within my limits, not even margins. This gives me a psychological freedom and permission. And when my writing is on and I’m really cooking, I usually forget about punctuation, spelling, etc. I also notice that my handwriting changes. It becomes larger and looser. . . .

One of the main aims in writing is to learn to trust your own mind and body; to grow patient and nonaggressive.

(p. 12)

If we’re constantly questioning the quality and craft-level of what we’re writing, are we really trusting our own mind? Our talent? The story we’ve been given?

Sure, it’s easy to stand in awe of published authors—those who’ve gone out there and taken the risk of putting their writing in front of others and faced rejection and won. But, you’re thinking, they’re great writers, they’re great storytellers. I’ll never be like that.

Let me refer you back to the video examples I linked to above. No talent comes out of the gate fully formed without the need for lots of practice, lots of studying, and lots of defeating self-doubt and fear that what we’re doing (writing, music, sports, art, cooking, etc.) isn’t good enough.

Why do people assume that writing is the only art
or profession which can be perfected without practice—
lots and lots of practice?

To become a doctor, one must go to school for years beyond the first college degree. Then they must spend more years in internships and residencies before they enter their what? Their practice. The job they do on a daily basis is called a practice for a very good reason—they are putting into action (into practice) the skills they’ve learned over years and years of education and hands-on training. And they do it EVERY DAY. And they continue to pursue training and education, staying on top of the latest techniques and skills to remain at peak performance.

This is what we’re called to do as writers, too—prepare ourselves for the practice of writing by years of diligent study and hands-on training by writing daily, finishing as many manuscripts as we can, working with critique partners, and learning how to revise. But we can’t do that if we don’t write it first—despite our fears that it stinks.

I’ve had so many conversations or read e-mails from multi-published authors of whose talents I stand in awe who say they are sure that with every manuscript they turn in, it’s the worst one they’ve ever written and will be the one that ends their career. So, you see, those fears and doubts never go away.

So allow yourself to write stinky prose. Allow yourself to write info dumps. Allow yourself to use clichés and ignore punctuation and write scenes of dialogue with only he-said/she-said attributions. Allow yourself to draw _______________ blank lines in places where you need to research something or you can’t think of the right word. Write longhand and scribble things out and ignore the margins.

It can all be fixed later.

People usually write novels in several drafts, and writers agree that the first draft doesn’t have to be perfect. Many writers will tell you frankly that their first drafts are a crime against the humanities. But they write a first draft anyway, because you can’t write a second draft until you’ve done a first. So your first task as a writer is to give yourself permission to write a first draft that stinks. . . .

You always write your first draft in creative mode. When we talk about a first draft, we mean the first version you write on the page or type on the screen. Everything after that is edited copy. If you’re doing your job right, some of your first draft will be excellent, and some will be awful. Your goal is to make sure that all of your final draft is excellent, and the only way to get there is to start with a first draft, no matter how bad.

Give yourself permission to be bad on the first draft. After all, your editor isn’t going to see that first draft. Just get it written. Later on, when you go into editing mode, you can worry about making it pretty. After you finish editing, everyone will think that you were brilliant all along. Only you’ll know the truth, and you don’t have to tell anyone.

(Ingermanson, Writing Fiction for Dummies, pp. 59, 60)

Works Cited:

Goldberg, Natalie. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 2005. Print.

Ingermanson, Randy. “Backstory and the Cursed Writer’s Block.” Advanced Fiction Writing. 2010. Web. 14 Sept 2014.

Ingermanson, Randy and Peter Economy. Writing Fiction for Dummies. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Publishing, 2010. Print.

King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. New York, NY: Pocket Books, 2000. Print.

  1. Glynis permalink
    Saturday, September 20, 2014 10:02 am

    These are the words I definitely needed to hear today. Well, every day, I guess! Thanks!


    • Saturday, September 20, 2014 5:02 pm

      I have to remind myself of this every time I sit down to write so that I actually get some words down on paper. I usually end up writing anywhere from 100 to 350 words that I know will never see the light of day, but it’s rambling that’s necessary for me to “prime the pump” until the better stuff starts flowing.



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