Why You Need to be a Bad Writer

Ernest Hemingway once said, “The first draft of anything is ______!” I’ll let you fill in the blank.

In his statement, Hemingway hit on THE key to great writing: bad writing!

I know it sounds absurd, but hear me out. It’s a tough sell because by nature we want to get our writing just right from the beginning. It is as if we think that someone is going to see our first draft. They won’t, not unless you show it to ‘em! But if you can resist that urge, you can generate ideas and copy faster.

Here’s how to do it:

1. Think progress not perfection.

Give yourself permission to write imperfectly. The first time, just get it down. Lower your expectations. Remember that Hemingway didn’t even sound like Hemingway in his first draft! That’s why they are called rough drafts.

2. Don’t edit while you write; edit after you write.

These are two distinct tasks that each requires a different approach. Not to mention that each uses a different side of the brain. The edit-while-you-go approach will both stress and wear you out. When that happens, the creative juices dry up, often resulting in that dreaded monster called writer’s block. So write now, edit later.

3. Write the way you talk.

That means don’t think about formal English or proper grammar while writing. There is a legendary story about Sir Winston Churchill. One time an editor was highly critical of a grammatical faux pas in one of the prime minister’s speeches; he had ended the sentence with a preposition.

Sir Winston reportedly wrote the gentleman back and said, “That is pedantic nonsense up with which I shall not put!” Remember that formal communication isn’t always the clearest communication. According to formal grammarians, the phrase, “At what are you looking?” is technically correct. But, “What are you looking at?” is more clear. And that’s the key. Read your copy out loud and go with the version that sounds better.

4. Fourth, KISS everything you write.

You know, Keep It Short and Simple. Simple doesn’t mean simplistic.

Keeping your writing at the 7th grade level is ideal. One of the best tools to accomplish this task you most likely already have. It is called the Flesch-Kincaid reading score (learn more about it here in this great article by Michael Masterson).

That means the “big” words are out. Never use a three-syllable word when a two-syllable one will do.

Don’t use disseminate when issue or send works better. And resist the temptation to turn use into leverage. Keep your writing straightforward. There’s no need to be sesquipedalian, now is there?

Should you really aim low when writing? No, but these principles will help to take the initial pressure off so that you can do your best writing from a creative place and at a relaxed pace.

Do you "write bad" too? I welcome your feedback. I would love to hear how your bad writing has been your best writing.

Join me tomorrow for another edition of The Writer’s Life when we talk about getting physical with our writing. We’ll learn how our best writing often comes from not writing at all!

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Published: April 17, 2012

5 Responses to “Why You Need to be a Bad Writer”

  1. Bob,

    Thank you for contributing your ideas here. Your ideas reflect your wisdom.

    Stream of consciousness writing has worked for me, over time.

    Just let the words and ideas flow without trying to judge. You may just be surprised by what you come up with.

    You can edit your work later, of course, but initially may not be the best time.

    Of course, this may not work for everybody, but you can always give it a whirl.

    Flashes of insights and eureka moments must be captured without any delays.

    Archan Mehta

  2. "Don’t edit while you write; edit after you write" - This is perfect advice because editing while writing does wear me out. Thank you so much for this post! . :-)

    Guest (Rachel Raw-kul)

  3. Hi Bob,

    Good article. However, I'd like to point out that the difficulty is not writing badly. I can write badly quite well (I think that's a paradox). The problem is that once the client gets the copy, it goes through the rounds of approvals and all the in-house pedants slaughter it! So you spend a long time trying to explain the copy is written to sell not to be grammar perfect.

    Guest (June)

  4. Hi, Bob and AWAI readers:

    I write for Writers Excess, and I don't write bad, but I do write badly, only to turn it around into something great in the editing phase. They have repeatedly written me to tell me that I am their "star writer," a compliment which I greatly appreciate.

    You are correct when you caution not to edit while writing, and I don't, especially when the ideas are flowing like a river down a waterfall.

    Thank you very much for that bit of writing wisdom.

    Cheers, Princess

    Guest (Princess)

  5. Wow, this is such a relief, I've always tended to write like I talk, which looks pretty silly on paper since I speak with a very noticeable Boston accent. I don't tend to spell like I talk w/the exception of leaving the g's off words that end in ing. I love the thought of being able to be free to write like I normally do and waiting till I'm done to edit it. Editing while writing, certainly does hinder the "creative juices". Thankyou so much for this tip, I will be sure to use it from now on.


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