Are you a bad writer?
Do you wake up at night in a cold sweat, stories dripping through your veins? When you return at dawn to your midnight ramblings, are you left scratching your head?
Or, have you ever had a heart-pounding plot assault your morning commute, leaving only the lingering taste of action the moment you try scribbling it down later?
Perhaps you’ve gotten lucky: you’ve collected a few of those wiggling wisps of inspiration. You’ve trapped them in a notebook, your phone, your laptop, in blue pen down the back of your hand… You’ve got em’! Now it’s time to sit down at your computer with limber fingers and a cup of coffee. Except…
Hours, days, even weeks later all you’ve written is: shit.
There’s no way around this: you’re a bad writer –but that’s okay because I’m a bad writer too.
A bad writer is not the same as an untalented writer. Bad writers can be absolute genius’ of their art, hoarding mountains of masterpieces within their soul. There are plenty of talented bad writers, and there are a lot of untalented, good writers too.
Are you confused yet? Let me break it down:
When I started this blog, if I sat at my desk to write, I’d do everything except write: I’d check my social media, fall down a Wikipedia rabbit hole, create character and setting templates, play with map generators, etc. If I did write anything, I’d spend hours over-editing it, changing it, tweaking it, and getting no further than a paragraph or two. I never practiced writing. When I finally wrote, I expected brilliance. Unsurprisingly, brilliance never occurred.
When we talk about the painter, the musician, the actor, or the singer, we never suppose the virtuosos of these crafts simply wake up and perform perfection. So, why do we pressure ourselves to write like prodigies? The internet is full of stories about how some of our famous authors failed – and failed hard – again and again and again. It’s normal to fail, rework, rewrite, and recreate.
It’s normal to begin as a bad writer.
Below are five tips I gave a friend of mine the other night at 2 am (it’s always 2 am). After typing out my response and sending him an overly long reply I know he didn’t ask for, I realized this is exactly the advice I wish someone had given me years ago.
And, truthfully, advice I still need reminding of.
PRACTICE WRITING PROMPTS
When I think of writing as a muscle instead of a talent, I feel better. You can build a muscle, right? I start by finding a journal prompt like “Describe your first crush?” or “What’s your earliest holiday memory?” Are these personal? Yes, but personal questions are sometimes easier than open-ended, fiction ones. Start with prompts about you. When those get tired or you’ve answered enough to publish your own autobiography, move on to fiction prompts.
Before I get started, I set a stopwatch for five minutes. Why five? Because five minutes is accessible even with a busy schedule. For 300 seconds, I force myself to word vomit. No editing. No stopping. I’ve literally written crap crap crap – has it been five minutes? on a page. I try doing this once a day even if I’m typing on my phone in the waiting room of a doctor’s office.
Sometimes, I ignore the timer and keep writing in feverish inspiration. Sometimes, the timer goes off, and I sigh, like I’d been doing a five-minute plank, and scrap it. But every time I write, I’m working that muscle. I’m getting better.
DESIGN ACHIEVABLE DEADLINES
Deadlines have a special way of sparking a fire in your soul and igniting your fingers. Make these deadlines small at first.
Try: I will finish this page by noon. Not: I will write a novel about Elven culture by next Wednesday.
That’s too much… for anyone, really. Again, keep deadlines accessible, and when you reach your goal, reward yourself. If you can get someone else to hold you accountable by loudly eating chocolate ice cream in the next room and not letting you have any until you finish that goddamn chapter, even better.
I’m great at churning out academic papers three hours before the deadline, but I struggle with open-ended writing projects. I’ve learned the soul-crushing, self-doubting, hard way that I’m a deadline writer. You might be too, which means you must learn to create your own deadlines or at least invest in a lot of chocolate ice cream.
LEARN THE ART OF OUTLINING
Some people are pantsers: they write masterpieces by shitting ideas on paper. I’m not a panster. I’m a constipated writer. I need fiber and encouragement and a great outline. When I have an idea, I begin by drawing it. I’m a terrible artist, but I do it anyway. I draw a stick-figure scene or the lopsided trees in my setting or the dreamy (and slightly crooked) eyes of my protagonist who definitely doesn’t look anything like my fourth-grade crush Mark Byers… you know, whatever strikes me.
Then, I move on to a very simple story arc: who is my character in the beginning, middle, and end of the story. From there, my idea expands, and I’m ready to write. Even better, I have a map! The dreaded Writer’s Block has a much harder time crushing all my hopes and dreams of seeing my name on the crisp spine of a brand new book when I have an outline.
A super helpful book for outlines is Plot Versus Character by Jeff Gerke. Gerke lets you know if you’re a character-first writer, a plot-first writer, or a little of both. Then he’ll help you outline your story so you can stay focused on the actual hard part: writing it down.
BAN THE BACKSPACE
Do. Not. Edit. As. You. Write.
Stop it. Stop it right now. Editing as you write is a waste of time. Try this instead: change your font to white. Ha – you can’t see it now! What did you just write? Who knows? Keep going. Write a page like that. Then two. Then ten. You can edit tomorrow, but don’t edit as you write!
Feel like tempting the literary gods today? Check out Write or Die. I’m offering zero context for this app so you go in blind, just like I did. But it will keep you writing.
DON’T JUDGE YOUR FIRST DRAFT
First drafts are closed-door drafts. Show no one–not even your cat–your first draft. A lot of writers go through multiple (3! 4! 7!) drafts before they submit a manuscript. So, take the pressure off your first draft.
In fact, your first draft is you telling yourself the story. I learned this from another invaluable writing resource: The Modern Library’s Writer’s Workshop by Stephen Koch. It sounds weird–you telling yourself your own story–but that’s what it is. A story isn’t a story until it’s told, right? So tell it. Tell it in all its sloppy run-ons, broken plots, and Deus Ex Machina. You can fix those later. Plus, your story will probably (definitely) change from your outline. Hell, you might decide halfway through your first draft that your protagonist’s quirky pirate-talking best friend deserves her own adventure series and rewrite the whole damn thing.
That’s normal and 100% okay. You can fill in all the plot holes, carve into the flat edges of your characters, and find a cool name for your villain instead of just calling him “Jim Badguy” later.
But Jim Badguy is okay for your first draft. Jim Badguy gets the job done. Jim Badguy keeps your fingers typing instead of stopping your inspiration for three hours while you look up popular gangster baby names from the 1950s.
You can address all that story maintenance stuff in your second draft. A finished second draft is readable. Now you can show your cat. Or your friends. Or strangers from the internet (but don’t; they’re terrible). From there you might edit again, or alpha/beta read it, or edit it some more! It’s up to you, but offer grace to your first drafts. They’re babies. They’re helpless and messy and prone to spontaneous mood swings and vomiting.
I hope this blog helps my fellow bad writer friends. It’s helped me a lot, but I’m still working on my writing muscles too. It’s a lifelong exercise, and I don’t believe in peaking as a writer or an artist. There’s always room for improvement.
So, next time you’re staring at a blank screen, close your eyes and write about your day. Begin with waking up. What did you see? Follow your thoughts. Just start. Or describe the lamp in the room. The wall. Your left shoe. Your ex-best friend from 9th grade who totally wore the same dress as you to Homecoming even though you told her you were wearing it first. The last movie you watched. Whatever.
It may not be what you meant to write, but that’s okay. If you get any words on paper, you’ve won that day. Keep that in mind above all else. It doesn’t matter if the words are crap. They’re practice words, and your writing muscle will be stronger tomorrow.
A final hard lesson: it’s possible your writing muscles aren’t strong enough to tell the story in your soul. Mine weren’t. But, as frustrating as that is, know that they can be.
And they will be.