License to Write Badly

by Barbara Martin

in Writing Daily

As a writer, how often do you stop to reread your work and then agonize over what you just wrote because it’s not perfect? How much time to you spend mulling exactly where to start a scene, debating the perfect first line for the fifth chapter, toying with the perfect verb for a key sentence, or rephrasing the dialogue so it’s perfect?

And once you pause to second guess yourself in the search for the holy grail of perfection, how much energy do grind through and how much time do you waste on the endless indecisiveness rattling back and forth like pebbles tumbling around inside your head?

Perfection is Nothing But a Mind Game
Why do writers do that? As it happens, not being willing to write badly, or stopping to buff, shine and polish before going on, or insisting the words must be perfect in order to be worthy are destructive little mental games we writers play.

We get in our own way as writers when we play these perfectionist mindgames. We play them, and then we trip over them like marbles spilled across the floor.

Why The NaNoWriMo Model Works
I’ll let you in on a little secret. We don’t have to play this particular game. The NaNoWriMo or National Novel Writing Month scenario, through its silly rules, crazy pace and indomitable spirit, invalidates that perfectionist tendency.

During the month of November, NaNoWriMo participants attempt to write 50,000 words of a novel. When you shoot for that kind of quantity, there is no way you can expect anything but a gloriously imperfect result. And who says you can only write this way in November?

Perfect Gems in the Gravel Pit of Endless Text
So if it’s imperfect, why even bother writing like that? Crazy thing is, when you do get out of your own way, some of what gets written will be … just fine, and quite possibly markedly better than that!

Case in point, I astonished myself when I went back two years later and reread parts of my own NaNoWriMo “shitty first draft” and discovered that some sections were as bad as I feared but other parts were plainly awesome. For being a first draft, a rough draft, a now I have something down on the page I can work with kind of draft, it’s spectacular!

Are You Devoted to Being a Perfectionist?
Take the hint. Put your obstinance aside, take a deep breath or heave a sigh of relief, and be willing to let go of “perfect” for now — whatever perfect has come to mean to you — and get going with your draft. As an experiment.

Whatever your third grade English teacher scared you with, whatever your college creative writing class intimidated you with, whatever your last editor’s criticism left stuck in your craw: Let. It. Go.

What Do You Have to Lose?
Now write something. Today, and every day, make it a habit to write something. And no, it doesn’t have to be close to perfect. And no, it doesn’t have to be 2000 words. Just put in an honest effort.

Be a Bad but Prolific Writer
And for goodness sake don’t take the time to go back and second guess yourself. Just write. Relax and lean into it. Turn the screen blank as you type if you must, but just don’t look! Give yourself at least fifteen minutes to get into it with permission to be a bad but prolific writer and see what happens.

Official License to Write Badly
If you use this as an opportunity to resist the persistent urge to be a perfectionist about your writing, I’d love to know how it goes.


stargardener November 9, 2009 at 9:05 pm

Whoa! First I am relieved to know I do not suffer alone! 😉 And second, it woulda been so awesome to have read this post before today. This day of “Perfect Gems in the Gravel Pit of Endless Text” … But I thank ya’ kindly for this here “Official License to Write Badly” ?

Barbara Martin November 10, 2009 at 9:37 pm

Misery loves company! haha

Well, I was thinking of diamonds in the rough being panned out of a river of mud but wanted to tie in with feeling like there are rocks in my head, hence the gravel — but anyway, technically, all diamonds are considered “rough” until cut. Even if they are internally flawless. Interesting perspective.

You are so welcome for the encouragement to write badly. Standing invitation! Stay tuned, because I am working on a little surprise in that regard.

Thanks for commenting.

char brooks November 28, 2009 at 10:12 pm

you have a beautiful voice barbara – and the license to write “badly” was so beautifully articulate and like balm to my recovering perfectionistic self.

thank you for this.

Barbara Martin November 29, 2009 at 4:35 pm

Thank you, Char, for commenting. So happy to hear you found this helpful! Isn’t it amazing how hard we can be on ourselves? Much harder than we would likely be to anyone else….

I suspect if we could treat our creativity like a child in need of encouragement and reassurance we would all be much better off.

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