One of the most important tricks to actually start writing—perhaps the key to a finished first draft—is to learn how to write badly. This may seem counterintuitive; after all, isn’t the point of learning to write and wanting to write professionally, you know, being good at it?
But trying to be “good” is the kiss of death for a first draft.
First, there are two kinds of writing. “Style” writing is the surface level: word choice, grammar, sentence structure, humor, dialogue, description. When we think of “bad writing,” it’s probably bad style writing that comes to mind, because it’s the easiest to see. But it’s also easier to fix, with time, and that’s why it’s probably easier to push through bad style writing on a first draft.
“Substance” writing is the foundation: characters, plot, pacing. The challenge here is that “bad” and “good” substance writing is much more subjective, and a lot harder to see. You may know when a character is flat, or the pacing’s off, or the plot is just illogical—but it may take you a while to see it. And, especially in a first draft, it’s particularly hard to be objective about it; everything seems bad in a first draft. Bad substance is a lot harder to fix, because it’s more to fix and sometimes it’s the very foundation of your story.
But you have to be able to keep writing anyway. That character is inconsistent and uninteresting? Keep writing him anyway. That plot point makes no sense, but it’s the only one you can think of right now? Keep writing anyway—you can rewrite the whole plotline later if you have to. Just. Keep. WRITING.
The way I look at it is this: the first draft is a safe space. Anything goes. Anything. The same goes for ideas, for me, because I think we’ve reached a point where we’re too afraid of criticism to go for the most ridiculous or cringeworthy or unoriginal ideas… But, for me at least, my actual productivity has come just when I gave myself permission to write ideas that might not be good. And even if they are, in fact, no good and never get published, I’m actually writing—to me, that’s worth everything.
Even with this mantra, though, it’s still really hard to write badly. I mean, of course, it’s not hard to write badly; just show me a blank page. But it’s emotionally and mentally hard to push through that feeling of “wait, this isn’t right, you suck and you have to stop.” That last part is what kills first drafts—but why?
This is what I think. When you sense you’re writing badly, for whatever reason, and you try to push through it and keep writing anyway—you’re not eliminating the judgment of others, you’re postponing it. Which, when you trust in revision, is the best thing to do. But whether you’ve never gotten to the revision stage before, or you have and it wasn’t as easy as you thought, you might know that revision is not a magical cure-all. So that judgment still lingers there, waiting…
And, on top of that, right now the only thing you have to judge your own work by is what’s right in front of you: the crap. So you can’t be entirely sure that you’re capable of anything better; after all, you are trying to be good right now… What if this is the best you can do? And so you imagine being judged on the shitty first draft in front of you, and it pains you, and you start to tense up and want to fix it now—which eventually becomes starting all over or moving on to something else, something “good.” Until it starts all over again.
Is there a simple fix for this? Not really. You just have to write badly, and keep writing, and finish and not look back (until revision, which you should give some time after before diving into).
Here’s the thing: you simply cannot be objective while you’re in the thick of it, no matter how cool and unemotional you think you are. There’s just something about creating that makes you a bit tender about it, which can work in two seemingly opposite ways—being far too hard on it, and being unwilling to kill your darlings. That’s why you need the distance from a finished draft; maybe it was better than you thought, or maybe you really do need to rip into it but now you can.
Revision is not magic, and your work will never be perfect. Judging by some bad writing that’s out there published and even beloved, that’s not a dealbreaker. But it can make bad writing better, and that’s what you have to trust while you’re in the trenches.
Because right now? You just have to write. Badly.