struggling with the gap

There is this misconception that all of the writing has to be good all of the time. Here is a secret:

It is okay to be bad at writing.

I am giving you permission to be bad. It is okay if you miss some commas. It is okay if your book has three main conflicts. It is okay if your main character’s mom is named Grace at the beginning of the book and called Maria by the end. It’s all really, really okay.

There’s this perception, even from experienced writers, that your first draft has to be great. That the “ideal” outcome is for the writer to sit down and birth, from the tips of her fingers, a masterpiece. When approached from this angle, writing is so glamorous! The tortured artist, the brilliant creative savant, a channel for the divine.

It’s a big fat lie.

The glory of writing doesn’t come from flawless first drafts. This expectation of your work will hurt you, and it will hurt your writing. Content creation is a process. Until you give yourself permission to suck at whatever you’re doing, you’re going to spend a lot of time spinning your wheels.

It’s really easy to get hung up on whether or not your scenes are tight or you have a good hook at the beginning of the story. When you edit your work as you write it, you’re standing in the middle looking out. How do you know if the little bit you’re staring at fits into the big picture? You can’t see the big picture. It doesn’t yet exist. It’s an exercise in futility.

It’s true that you might finish the book and decide the whole thing is untenable. You might rewrite your third chapter seven times and still end up cutting it. You might write 100,000 words and then change every single one of them. That is OKAY. The important part of the process is letting all of those words exist in the first place.

The internet is a big fan of Ira Glass’ quote about the gap between the creator’s “taste” and the ability to execute. It’s a great concept, but it’s useless unless you allow yourself to create without judgment or reservation. How are you going to close the gap if you don’t allow yourself to practice?  I spend a lot of time talking writers, experienced and not, off the writing ledge. Halfway through their drafts, they lament, “It rambles. It’s not tight. It’s not interesting.” Of course it’s not!

Have you seen a statue as it’s being carved? The process begins with a giant chunk of marble. It’s a big, fat rectangular prism. Ten hours into the carving process, you have a chunk of marble with large pieces missing. Twenty hours in, you have a boxy head and some vague, arm-like blobs. If you pop that lumpy statue into a gallery, the visitors are going to be underwhelmed…and they should be.

Judging your writing before you’re done with it is like condemning the lumpy block of marble. It’s completely unfair. You can’t adjudicate your work until it’s complete. Don’t worry about the arms being out of proportion to the head until you can see the arms and you can see the head.

There’s a reason that the writing process includes revision. In my opinion, the revision process is where the masterpieces are made. Once you see the big picture, it’s a lot easier to understand where a scene truly belongs and isolate the core message that you want to convey. Trying to edit your work before you finish drafting is like trying to polish the statue before you finish carving the arms.

Be patient. Give yourself permission to finish. We can always make it better.

Writer-types: I’m planning on having a weekly reader Q&A on Fridays. If you have any burning questions about writing (or the writing process) that could be answered by an editor, feel free to email me (brenda [at] eclecticeditor [dot] com) or comment with your question.

Comments

  1. Love this! I think this can apply to academic writing as well. Whenever I sit there and think about what I’m doing and how bad it’s turning out, it takes much longer, and doesn’t come out as well. When I just write and then go back and fix (or have you help me fix it), it comes out so much better…and faster in the end. Thanks for posting this! I needed to see this today. :)

  2. Katie, I am so glad that my thoughts helped you out. I think writing, like so much of what we do, is 90% about getting out of your own way, and if I can help people do that even a little bit, it makes me really happy.

    I think you’re absolutely right about it applying to academic writing as well. Although fiction, nonfiction, and academic writing are oftentimes treated as different beasts, in my experience, there’s a lot of similarity in the processes around them, even if the outcome and the writing itself is very different.

    And, of course, happy to help whenever I can. Just let me know. :)

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  1. […] write a word. This is okay. If you expect the month to run like clockwork, you’ll be disappointed in yourself, and this disappointment will make it more likely that you’ll bail halfway through November. […]

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