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Write Badly

One of my jobs is to help other writers write well. But often, in order to do that, I first have to teach them to write badly.

Few things are more frightening than an empty sheet of paper (an empty refrigerator and an empty bank account are two that spring to mind, but let’s stick with the topic here, okay?). Many people totally choke when facing that pale monster. And that’s a completely rational response. Though not all are willing to admit it, even pros have this problem. I can’t say for sure, but I suspect that the majority of successful, working writers have at least some anxiety (maybe a lot) when looking directly into the gaping maw that stares up from the desk or out from the screen and declares, “Feed me.”

Fortunately there is an easy way to deal with this: Write something. Anything. Let’s say the project that has you sitting at your desk in a cold sweat is an essay about the possible comeback of a near-extinct species of Galapagos tortoise. You’ve read everything there is to read about Galapagos and its famous creatures. You’ve read historic background; you now know more about Charles Darwin and Robert Fitzroy than you thought there was to know. You have the biology of the tortoises and the ecology of the islands down cold. The floor of your work area is littered with articles, research papers, and interview notes. You even have a rough outline and a couple of ideas for leads. There is no more avoiding it. It’s time to write.

After all this preparation, you naturally expect heart-stopping prose to tumble effortlessly onto the page. When the first few words that come to mind are lame beyond belief, you wig. The only possible option now is to move to another city, change your name, and get a job waiting tables at a cheap diner. Or go directly to the kitchen and eat an entire bag of potato chips (well, that’s probably what I would do). But don’t. Calm down. Stay at your desk and simply write down that stupid sounding crap. Really. No matter how bad it is, just put it on the paper. The turtles of the Galapagos are really big turtles. They were almost extinct; now they are coming back. Darwin would be so freakin’ happy.

Stupid? Of course. Don’t worry. No one but you will ever see this part. And you’ve now defeated The Demons Of The First Draft. You now have something to fix. And fixing things is way easier than making them up in the first place. The real beauty of the plan is that the insatiable monster known as the blank page (or blank screen) has been fed. Now you can concentrate on working.

When it comes to writing, this may be the most important lesson of all: In order to write well, you have to be willing to write badly.