On Writing Badly
I’m not sure when I became a fanatic about the writing process. It was probably not until after I got my MFA in fiction writing that I settled into a more coherent process of writing a free-flowing, often somewhat sloppy first draft, then going back to it to rewrite and revise. Up to that point, I had steadily become much more comfortable writing every day, and often writing a lot in terms of word count. That was a positive development for me as a writer, but as I’m just beginning to fully appreciate now, that was only part of the final evolution.
For a long time—as far back as high school—I’d really valorized writing every day, and especially of hitting a word-count goal like 1,000 words (which I’d seen recommended in Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury, one of my early writing heroes). At some point, this became a religion for me, and I felt I had to write 1,000 new words or I hadn’t worked at all. This belief lasted a long time, well through graduate school. (I can see now that the facet of grad school I most enjoyed and appreciated, having the time to write, prolonged this mania for daily writing, because I usually had enough time to write 1,000 words and look over a draft of an earlier story. That’s an ideal situation, and it didn’t necessarily prepare me for having a day job and only being able to scrape up about 45 minutes of writing time. In the real world, sometimes you have to choose.)
It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve made peace with the notion that revising can be a day’s work. I held myself back for a long time by insisting on writing 1,000 words of something new when I had a finished draft of something else getting cold in a Word file on my computer. It seemed like I never had time to go back and work through those finished drafts, and the obvious—letting myself off the writing hook for a few days—was something I wouldn’t even consider.
Today, I’d go further than allowing that revising can be a day’s work and say that it’s practically the start of my work as a writer. It’s the stage of the process you’re aiming for when you sit down and hammer out that sloppy draft. It’s the stage where you get to think about what you’re saying, and look critically at this character and ask if he makes sense, if he could add to the tension in this scene, if he even belongs in this story. Everything is up for debate at the revision stage. You’re working at double your own capacity, because you’ve put your wild, unconstrained self on the page and now your critical self gets to have a look and pick out all the places where the wild self has created opportunities, along with those choices that just don’t work.
A book that helped me to appreciate what revision even is is The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction, by Stephen Koch. I remember reading this during the period between college and graduate school and wrestling with one of the key points that Koch makes, which is that after that first draft, you should essentially throw out what you’ve written before. You should be married to nothing in that first draft.
This was not dramatically different from what I’d read and been told other places, but Koch seemed to pointedly answer questions I’d been asking without realizing it. Not even questions so much as doubts, statements of skepticism and disbelief: So when I revise, I’m literally rewriting the story? Every single page? Before this, I’d thought of revising the way many young writers do: going through an existing draft changing some words around and cleaning up typos. (For this reason I spend a lot of time, possibly too much time, in all my writing classes unpacking the differences between proofreading, copyediting, and “real” revision.) Koch’s book helped me accept that yes, a working novelist will literally write her 250-page novel again, multiple times, in the process of drafting. It had always seemed somehow impossible that “real” writers did that.
Accepting that and committing to deep revision was a good first start. And it was liberating, in its way: these are the rules, and ifI wanted to produce my best work, I simply had to accept that this was what it took to produce something worth reading.
But since that time, I’ve not only gotten comfortable with this sort of deep revision, I’ve even gotten good at it. And that has yielded an additional benefit that I was not even aware I was missing out on. The benefit is alluded to in the title of this post. It’s the freedom to write badly.
Admittedly, writing badly is something I’ve probably always done, though unwittingly. But now I am confident enough in my ability to fix and dramatically re-work things at the revision stage that even when it’s painfully obvious that I am writing badly, I don’t stop or become discouraged by that knowledge. To be sure, it never feels great to write badly, and a whole day can later seem indefinably “off” if I’ve spent a morning writing badly, but I know that the trash I wrote in the morning can be fixed when I go back to the finished thing at some later point.
I’ve been thinking about this fairly simple point lately because I’ve been working on a novel that, for one reason or another, has been coming out quickly. I had a period of a week or so where I was writing many, many pages a day, on one or two days 5,000 words or more. That is kind of crazy, and when you write 5,000 words you are surely sacrificing quality. I would not want someone to publish the novel as it currently exists, because there’s certainly something embarrassing in the pages that emerged from these marathon sessions.
But in working this way on this project, I’m able to accept 1) that I’m writing badly and 2) that this is just a stage in the process; I can clean this all up later. Being confident in my ability to revise later and make this all make sense, make the characters more coherent, make their dialogue smoother and more believable, allows me to generate material at a rate that I could never match if I still labored under the misconception that every sentence I write has got to be good.
Worrying about writing well at every turn has been a great habit to grow out of, and I hope my students (and readers of this blog) can work their way past it as well.