How to write badly
October 4, 2021 1:21 PM   Subscribe

I want to write more, but my inner critic makes it really hard. Are you someone who learned (or taught yourself) to write bad first drafts? How did you do it?

I was working on writing a novel, my first, earlier in the year. I want to write more, but I get blocked because I can't overcome my urge to edit, adjust, tweak, rewrite, redraft, and start over. I'm really envious of people who can just churn out prose and I think that if I was able to just get the story out and then work with that raw material, I'd stand a much better chance of actually finishing this thing.

I don't have delusions that what I am writing is going to become a bestseller or even get published. I'm not aspiring to write a literary masterpiece. I just want to tell fun stories and writing a novel is just something I've always wanted to do. But even though I know nobody may read this but me, I find it hard to just throw prose down on the page because I just can't leave it well enough alone.

Are you someone who learned to embrace the "shitty first draft"? If so, how did you get past your own inner critic?
posted by synecdoche to Writing & Language (26 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
I got better at this by TYPING MY DOUBTS AND FEARS AND FRUSTRATIONS IN ALL CAPS while I'm writing.
posted by 10ch at 1:40 PM on October 4, 2021 [1 favorite]

This was me, and I got a lot better in the last year. Two strategies that have been effective for me:

1. Time-boxing: giving myself a fairly short amount of time to get a draft done, with the promise to myself that it can be as bad as it needs to be as long as I get it done within the time period. Somehow, changing the goal from "write a good thing" to "write a thing in under an hour" reframes the challenge and shuts up my critic.

2. Co-working: for personal writing I have a writing partner that I spend a few days a week (virtually) writing with. At work, a small group of us get together a few times a week and work on work writing. In each case, having other people in the same (virtual) space all silently writing helps pressure me into getting my writing done, too.

Other than that it's just been practice and repetition. I've gotten better at getting things done over time, and these two tricks have helped, but mostly the change came from just writing more until I got more comfortable with my early drafts.
posted by dorothy hawk at 1:43 PM on October 4, 2021 [4 favorites]

I read this in 8th grade (assigned by my English can tell I went to a very liberal private school!) and have always found it immensely helpful.
posted by radioamy at 1:45 PM on October 4, 2021 [3 favorites]

I also came here to recommend Anne Lamott. The whole book Bird by Bird is great.
posted by Phssthpok at 1:49 PM on October 4, 2021 [1 favorite]

I'm so sorry and this will sound like such bullshit but: begin. And then keep going forward.

dorothy hawk is so right that this is all about practice and repetition. The more often you write, the easier it gets for you to sit down and start writing in the next writing session. So begin. And then keep going forward.

I will say that a novel is a terrible thing to begin your writing career with. The hugeness of it, the *weight* of needing to be awesome, it's just an unnecessary amount of stress to put on yourself. It's also fucking impossible to finish a novel. I have literally never met a single person who has finished one. (Look we all need to tell ourselves soothing lies sometimes...) Anyway.. when you start writing tonight, write a short-short story about your main character doing something. Don't write the novel. Write a thing you can finish in your allotted time of 60 minutes or whatever it is. Help yourself create a habit of finishing, because finishing, too, is something that only becomes easier with repetition and practice.

I will also say that NaNoWriMo exists entirely to help you with your exact issue and you need to become One Of Us this November. :)
posted by MiraK at 1:49 PM on October 4, 2021 [2 favorites]

Pragmatically, I do this by defining writing goals for a particular writing session. I have to be specific about what thing I'm drafting (for me, a subsection of an academic paper. for a novel, maybe a scene or conversation) and how long I'm going to spend on it that day. That will help me turn off my internal editors and just churn out some text. I will sometimes also tell myself when I am going to work on improving it, this also helps me relax.
posted by ewok_academy at 2:14 PM on October 4, 2021

A technique I have tried that worked for me when I had to dislodge some writing I had to do that was stuck in my head was locking myself in my room and writing everything down as fast as I could onto a writing pad and not stopping until everything was written down. If you can't write by hand (and I mean can't, not just dislike) you just have to arrange your writing set up so you can't easily see or make changes to what's coming out while you're writing.
posted by bleep at 2:26 PM on October 4, 2021

When I'm writing (to be fair mostly for work, may not be suitable for fiction writing), for some reason putting the text that I know I want to change in square brackets relieves the feeling that I need to immediately deal with it and I just throw in whatever I don't like about it as a note to myself for later. Sometimes I put placeholders in like [SOMETHING SMART HERE] so I can move on if get stuck.
posted by lookoutbelow at 2:26 PM on October 4, 2021 [3 favorites]

For me: committing to writing and publishing something every day, even if it's just a single sentence or a paragraph. Also, using writing prompts.

I've found it easier to practice writing outside the context of "one giant important-feeling project" — I'd consider whether writing this novel is the thing that you most want to be doing right now, as opposed to spending a few months writing a lot of throwaway short writing just to practice getting words onto the page.
posted by wesleyac at 2:42 PM on October 4, 2021 [2 favorites]

NaNoWriMo, as MiraK mentioned, exists for exactly this issue. It's been the only way I can write big projects. Revising a NaNoWriMo into something readable, however, is a whole nother beast. I'm still working on my 2018 NaNoWriMo!

I also really liked the Hundred Day Writing Challenge to get (re)started, and Shut Up and Write for a co-working style experience.

Yaa Gyasi has said that she wrote Homegoing by committing to just 400 words a day. I don't know how many of those words were shitty vs made it into the (luminous) final draft, but it clearly worked.
posted by basalganglia at 2:53 PM on October 4, 2021 [2 favorites]

I really don't know because I'm terrible at it, but a deadline is the only thing that's ever really worked for me. If there's no externally-imposed one, can you create one of your own devising? Give your most trusted friend or family member access to your bank account and tell them to withdraw and give away £10 a day every day after 32nd of Novemuary (or whenever) that you fail to produce a draft. NaNoWriMo sounds like a plan. Or sign up for a writers' workshop on redrafting, for people who have a draft in hand, so that you have to do it by then.

I write plays rather than novels so - yay - fewer words! But once a proper deadline starts to loom, I move from "How am I going to craft this story in exactly the right, ingenious way I want to, with a delightful, unexpected form, subtle but significant emotion and characters that are so real you could touch them?" to "Agh! Just fucking write down what happens, in order, as quickly as you can!" The upshot is usually that it happens quite quickly, it's actually not quite as crap as I expected, and boom - I have a draft.
posted by penguin pie at 3:00 PM on October 4, 2021

I have moved in that direction and it's mostly been because I've framed it in my mind as "play" rather than "draft." I would like to recommend Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer to you for a way to look at creating fiction.

I'll also say that my former writing instructor/mentor, Alistair MacLeod, wrote one sentence, revised it for weeks if needed, and then wrote the next. While he recognized this wouldn't work for everyone, he was very clear that for himself, he couldn't write the next sentence if the previous one bothered him.

So some of this might be about embracing your process too. The "shitty first draft" can be good advice, but like all advice, it won't be universal. I think you won't know until you experiment some more but keep experimenting!
posted by warriorqueen at 3:06 PM on October 4, 2021

Oh wow, I just noticed they actually covered that in the Wikipedia article. There you go!
posted by warriorqueen at 3:07 PM on October 4, 2021

Check out Anne Lamott’s “Bird By Bird” - it is very much oriented towards “how to write badly”

Some quotes
posted by armoir from antproof case at 3:08 PM on October 4, 2021

I have a rule that I don’t edit for a week after writing. After I write a complete draft of something, I print it out on paper and file both the hard copy and the thumb drive I saved it on in a folder in my desk. This not only helps me finish writing without constantly editing as I go, it also makes my edits better because I have enough distance to evaluate the big picture instead of stupid word choice questions.

In terms of how to actually get to the point where you finish a draft, it might be helpful to write in shorter bursts. Instead of sitting down for an hour and then feeling bad because you only wrote for 20 minutes, start with the expectation of writing for 15 minutes. Personally, I write a lot on the go, in checkout lines or whatever (ahem, downtime at work), so a lot of times my challenge is that I have some ideas in my head that I might not be able to get out in such a short time. A lot of times I don’t even write in complete sentences, just bullet points so I can get the topic down on the page. If you want to feel comfortable writing badly, write in bullet points!
posted by kevinbelt at 3:10 PM on October 4, 2021

I recently finished the first draft of a novel, and I'm three or four drafts into the one before that. My experience is that I really need some sort of program or, at least, accountability. If I don't have NaNaWriMo, or Jami Attenberg's #1000wordsofsummer or a writing group or something, it just falls apart.

Strangely, I've found it can be helpful to limit the time I spend writing per day. To fill the gaps between the Attenberg program and NaNoWriMo, I joined a "novel in ninety days" type of program and that's what they recommended: one hour or so per day, and about 500-1000 words and no more. And the draft got done, much more easily than last time.

If you're curious about Attenberg, you can find her on Twitter and sign up for her newsletter. Her #1000wordsofsummer is an annual thing; there's actually a mini version going on this week.
posted by BibiRose at 3:10 PM on October 4, 2021 [1 favorite]

One thing that has really worked for me is to set very small goals. I've been writing very nearly every day for the past year by just devoting five minutes per day. And I follow Natalie Goldberg's advice to just keep the pen moving. (If you type, keep putting words into the processor.)

If I set the bar too high, I'm discouraged and then beat myself up for not meeting it. Setting the bar low lets me at least meet if not vault over it, and because it's only five minutes, I don't feel compelled to make it sparkle. I'm just keeping myself in practice.

Try to set yourself smaller, more modest goals and see what happens.
posted by xenization at 3:22 PM on October 4, 2021 [1 favorite]

I'm a writer who writes very polished, very slow sentences. I'm definitely that person who will spend an hour reading up on the chemistry of Saturn to write one line. But I have been leveling up my ability to handle plots in the last few years, and that comes with an enhanced ability to make myself keep going after writing a cool first scene.

Here are some different things to try:
  • Find a place to store all the revision ideas that occur to you as you go. Some messy first drafters handle this by inserting notes like [EXPLAIN WHY HE HATES THEIR MOM EARLIER] as they go, but you could substitute sticky notes or a dedicated file or a special notebook.
  • Write a tropier, more self-indulgent story. Throw in the stuff you like because you like it.
  • Experiment with different outlining styles. You might find it more satisfying to do more iteration at the outline level--or you might need to outline less, to keep that exciting scene ahead of you as a carrot, rather than recording all the fun bits about it early.
  • Find a friend who cares about your early drafts! It's so much easier to keep writing once you know one human will respond to a lovely line or that horrible thing you did to that one character.

posted by yarntheory at 4:10 PM on October 4, 2021

I came here to most strongly recommend the hundred day writing challenge, by Tim Clare. It did so much to improve my relationship with writing.
posted by meese at 4:10 PM on October 4, 2021 [2 favorites]

I do writing sprints on Discord using the Sprinto bot, sometimes alone, sometimes with a friend in a server. 15-20 minutes to get as much as you can down before time runs out, take a break, sprint again (or not). Go back later and edit, just get something written down. Even if you only do one, you've still written for the day.
posted by mogget at 4:14 PM on October 4, 2021

This word processor has been recommended in previous AskMe’s as the smaller screen real estate make endless editing less appealing.

One option that’s a bit odd, so please feel free to ignore: use a typewriter. iPhones and Android phones are able to convert pictures of text to electronic text. So you could use a typewriter to write your first draft and then convert it to electronic text by taking a picture.
posted by mundo at 8:18 PM on October 4, 2021

Write a lot privately, then slowly introduce material in larger and larger forms/pieces, while gauging reception. If you're comfortable, writers groups. If you live near a large urban area, there will be one. Groups also allow potential to escape the fingerprint that is the internet. It's also likely to be like a forum, where if you'd just like to lurk without share, you probably can.

I did this sometimes alone, but with drawing. I didn't like some drawings, so I sketched piles of poop until they increasingly became better.

You could probably literally draft creative stories about piles of shit. If you don't like it, you have a super easy out to talk about how shitty it is. People will know it's shit from the beginning.. soo.. no heightened expectations. Write about shit until you start writing about gardens. Or whathaveyou.

If you're fortunate, people won't criticize you as your silly 14yo self into your 30s. (..most people won't do this.. if they do, they might be dumb.)
posted by firstdaffodils at 10:12 PM on October 4, 2021

My second book is coming out in January (squee!!) and I’m a full-time author. My first drafts are the shittiest things you’ve ever read. No one will ever read them, but if you did, you’d realize that you 100% have what it takes. I used to get in a trap by comparing my first drafts with other books or stories I loved, but eventually I realized that I was comparing my first draft with, like, a 25th draft.

Building a house is my current favorite metaphor for writing a book. Every draft has a different purpose, and at first you’re just building and figuring it all out. My bar for first drafts is simply super low - I think of it like a very skeletal blueprint. Eventually, with subsequent drafts, I finalize the floorplan, start decorating, and add finishing touches. If I find myself fiddling with style early on, I remind myself to stop picking out throw pillows and get back to figuring out the flow of the rooms. First drafts are for the bones, and if you spend time making it pretty, you might just end up with a bunch of nice throw rugs you’ll have to throw out later.
posted by blazingunicorn at 10:15 PM on October 4, 2021 [5 favorites]

How to write badly: there's a couple variations out there for this, but basically any timed writing exercise which threatens me if I stop writing, like

(Seriously there's a whole bunch, some play obnoxious music or start flashing red if you take too long a break or start backspacing. Just find the member of the genre that works for you)

Because then obviously my goal is to survive, right? Not to write something good, just to appease the mean scary app. And then, voila, I have written.
posted by Cozybee at 2:57 AM on October 5, 2021

When you're writing a first draft, your inner critic will take every opportunity to remind you that what you're writing is worse than the amazing books that inspired you to write. What your inner critic won't mention is: it's comparing your first draft to your favorite author's final draft.

I had the amazing good fortune to take a creative writing class with Toni Morrison. Early on, she told us that she had a really hard time with opening scenes. Usually, when she got to the end of her first draft, she'd realize she had started it in the wrong place, and then she'd have to go back and completely change the beginning.

That was one of the most valuable things I learned in my four years of college, because it reminded me that even Toni Morrison didn't just sit down and turn out perfectly crafted pages. She had to feel her way and make mistakes and figure things out, and then fix things in future drafts. Knowing that makes it a lot easier to embrace the crappiness of my own first drafts.

The more I learn as a writer, the more I think Barbara Kingsolver has it right. According to her, the two steps to writing a good book are:
1. Write a bad book.
2. Revise it until it stops being bad.

In short: keep reminding your inner critic that the incredible crappiness of your first draft simply means you're on the same journey as every writer you've ever loved.
posted by yankeefog at 6:19 AM on October 5, 2021

NaNoWriMo. I used to be someone who routinely stared at a blank page for hours, and sometimes just plain failed to turn in school writing assignments because I couldn't come up with anything good enough to write. After doing NaNoWriMo a few times, I can pretty consistently knock out a bad first draft. (Revision/editing is a whole other skillset, and 15 years later I still have a long way to go.)

The crucial takeaways for me were:
1) No revision. You can add notes like [improve this sentence later] but you can't go back and revise the previous sentence while writing. If you start fixing things now, you'll never make it to the end. Save that for later. When writing that first draft for NaNo, THERE IS NO DELETE KEY (except maybe for typos).
2) Wordcount is everything. It doesn't matter what you write, just write something. You don't have to show it to anyone and you're not allowed to critique or edit it right now (see point #1) so just generate words. 1667 of them every day.
3) Supportive community makes a huge difference. It's a million times more fun when you can share your wordcount successes and failures, the weird directions your plot has taken, and the crazy things your characters are doing with people who get it and are experiencing the same thing. Also, they'll help keep you focused on your shared goal and guilt/cheer you into pushing your limits.

Bonus thought related to point #2: When you start writing like this, set aside the story you're really passionate about for later. Instead, pick something fun and maybe a little sillier than you would normally write. That way, when you get stuck you can throw in a ridiculous/incongruous element to keep the plot moving without breaking your heart and ruining the story that is your one true love.

NaNoWriMo (or any kind of high-speed drafting) isn't about crafting a beautiful object, but there is a different joy in speeding through your story at breakneck pace, laughing at the terrible parts and rejoicing when some brilliant, perfect phrase springs fully formed from your mind. (I've watched a lot of Simone Giertz's videos recently and many of them, especially the earlier "Queen of Shitty Robots"-era content, captures this pretty well.)
posted by sibilatorix at 10:53 PM on October 6, 2021

« Older Can I Eat These Fruit?   |   Does the external hard drive I want exist? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.