Why Is It So Hard to Write Badly?

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.

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About J. Sevick

Just write.
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8 Responses to Why Is It So Hard to Write Badly?

  1. This was such an inspiring read. I needed this. I’ve been working on the same novel (1 of a trilogy) for three years, and have yet to completely FINISH any draft or version. Although, I have gotten awfully close – 78,000 words at my highest.

    • J. Sevick says:

      I have been there–for YEARS I talked and talked about writing, but never got anywhere and definitely never finished anything. I wasn’t sure I even could finish anything, and this is what I wanted to do with my life! But you are sticking with it, and that’s amazing–and 78,000 words is awesome!! Even if it’s not finished, you’re trying, and that’s everything. Good luck!!!

      And thanks for the comment! 🙂

      • There’s so much that goes into writing that I’m not sure when or if anything will ever be fully finished! But, I love the process and seeing each version get better. Trial and Error! 🙂 Thank you for the kinds words!!

      • J. Sevick says:

        Yes–I definitely trust in multiple versions. I kind of view ideas like a Rubik’s cube, tweaking and twisting and trying to find the right combination of factors. My current project is a version of a story I’ve been working on for five years, and it’s so different from where it began and yet still holds the seeds, which I kind of love. But it takes a lot of patience! 🙂

  2. Kat says:

    So very true — and something I’ve only started to realise, or I have to for the sake of my novel; it’s absolutely terrible, in all kinds of ways, but it’s what makes me want to continue writing it, as it’s all part of the process. The first draft will likely always be rubbish, but for me, it’s practice, it’s experiencing, it’s developing as a writer. Even if I were to never consider it for publishing, it’s still a stepping stone closer to that goal. Though it’s incredibly hard, trying to dismiss my perfectionist side, I’ve begun to convince myself to believe that’s okay, you can make it better later. That’s what keeps me going, (besides the fact that writing is the only thing I can do.)

    I rambled, but great post. 🙂

    • J. Sevick says:

      I totally agree. Even though I heard this kind of advice for years, it didn’t sink in until I just… kept writing. BADLY. And even though I do have faith in revision and being able to make it better later, I’ve also come to accept the idea that even if it’s never “good enough,” I’m still learning so much just finally writing. I’ve had a project that I sent out and got rejected, and while that sucked, I also know that I will never regret having written it–the complete experience was still pretty amazing. So every bit of writing, even the bad stuff, is worth it. And that’s how I keep going, too. 🙂

      Thanks for the comment! 😀

  3. I agree with the importance of writing badly, definitely. However, I feel differently about drafting; I outline my reasoning in my post “Why I Dislike Drafting.” Thanks for the great read.

    • J. Sevick says:

      That’s an interesting take on the process–I think ‘editing as you go’ is a perfectly valid process, but for me, I would get stuck trying to perfect what I’ve already done and never make it past page one. But if that’s how you enjoy the artistry of the craft, awesome! Sometimes it seems like writing advice is ultimately meaningless; for every writer, there’s a different process. But I think that’s what produces such wildly and wonderfully different works to read. 🙂

      Thank you for the comment!

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