On Writing: Write Awful

When most people think of writing, they associate it to writing an email or a letter: Articulate your thoughts, dot your i’s, and send it away to your adoring audience.

That might be well and true for some writing forms, but not so for books. You don’t just get an idea, jot it down over a length of time, and ship it out to a pristine publisher.

Unfortunately, many who share this false assumption are, in fact, writers. So this post is going to clear the air as to what writing actually is like. Some say it’s like sculpting, some say it’s like architecture, I’m going with the illustration that writing is like drawing a picture.

book 11) Write Awful – You’ve got your brilliant idea, you write it out in book form, and several months later you go back and read your first draft and you think, Wow. I’m a terrible writer. This book stinks! Like the old break-up adage: it’s not you, it’s the process. Trust me. The brilliant minds at Pixar even say that every one of their movies started off as the worst movie ever.


book 32) Fix it a little – So if you think your book is awful but you’ve still retained your original idea, then yes, keep at it. Read through it again and change all the “your”s to “you’re”s and all the “their”s to “there”s. Get it a little more readable, a little more articulated. What you’re doing in this draft is removing some of that access dirt around the good idea you’ve uncovered, like sweeping away the dirt to reveal a fully-formed fossil. A word of warning must be inserted here. If, in all the chaos of writing your book, you lost track of that great idea that propelled you to write it in the first place, you might want to start from scratch. I’ve done it, I’m sure Stephen King’s done it… it’s like talking to yourself; it’s more normal than you think.

book 43) Add some detail – Now that you’ve got your book cleaned up a little bit, the main idea shines and the typos are fixed (don’t be fooled, there’s still plenty of typos still hiding), you can now start adding some detail to the narrative by adding color to the sky, rust to the park benches, and acne scars on the misunderstood antagonist. And you can also start breathing life into the dialogue exchange between your characters. Suddenly, your book is going to start taking on a more defined and grounded form. And with any luck, people will actually be able to read it and make sense of it.

book 54) Critique it – By this time you’re so tired of reading your book, just the thought of it makes you want to pull your hair out. But you’re not done. You’ve got to read it again. Heck, put it aside for a few months then return to it with a fresh mind. But this time through, you’re reading it not as the author, but as the reader. Read it with the utmost objectivity. Be hard on yourself. Ask yourself the hard questions (“Why did he say that?” “Is this convincing?” “Does she have reason enough to do this?”). Email some PDFs out to some willing friends to read it, and don’t take their criticisms personally. I’ll tell you, my wife is my toughest critic, to the point that I’m afraid of giving her my work to read for fear of having to start over or make too big of a change. But a story won’t be any closer to perfection until you put in the hard work and ask the hard questions. And it’ll be worth it in the end. (And yes, there’ll still be typos hiding.)

I_Am_LionTreat yourself to a new book for your Kindle, my newest work, I Am the Lion

About Andrew Toy
Writer when I'm not being a husband or dad. So mostly just a husband and dad.

29 Responses to On Writing: Write Awful

  1. laurabennet says:

    So true. This nails it 🙂

  2. sensoria300 says:

    Every time I go back to something I wrote months I ago, I find it so awful, I can’t believe I wrote that

  3. dfrantz1953 says:

    Great advice! Now to get my book from the research stage … and out of my head! 🙂

  4. Tilting Up says:

    It’s posts like this one that prevent me from writing a book . . . That or profound laziness. 🙂

  5. aetherhouse says:

    I love the graphics you used here. It’s a graet illustration of how to build a book.

    “you can now start adding some detail to the narrative by adding color to the sky, rust to the park benches, and acne scars on the misunderstood antagonist”

    I find this is one of the later things I do, which really irked one of my early betas (I should say alphas, even! It was the first “other humans may read this without setting it on fire” draft I had.). I’m like “It’s a work in progress! I just got the scaffolding down now! Patience!” 😛

  6. To me this is actually encouraging – don’t give up just because the first draft is less than stellar, because that’s to be expected. 🙂

  7. Love reading this today! I’m about to embark on my first published work (a chapter in a compilation) and its a little nerve wracking! Great advice that I will be taking to heart 🙂

  8. Yes! If I wasn’t willing to ‘write awful’ some days, I wouldn’t write at all. Good advice here, especially about when to go back in and add the details. Thank you!

  9. Pingback: Sharing work | The Write Edge Writing Workshop

  10. Love it. I write at least 1,000 words a week while the littles are both at preschool (3.5 hours a week! Whoo!) whether it’s good or not. Four chapters into my novel, and some of it is very good, and some ain’t, but if I agonize over it while writing the rough draft, that precious time will disappear. Just put it down and fix it later. Solidarity.

  11. A.J. Will says:

    Yep, I needed to hear this right now. Blogging is the first step for me, but I have it in mind to write a book (books?) someday. One of the things I’m noticing early on is my tendency to try to do all these steps at once, and edit along the way. I think that can infringe on my flow of thought while writing. I’m writing more in the genre of non-fiction, but I think the principles still apply. Timely advice for me. Thanks!

    • I spent years trying to do it all at once, and in those years, I never got anything written 🙂 It was always too discouraging to edit an unfinished book. But if I go back and edit a book that’s completed, it makes all the difference in the world.

  12. Reblogged this on Growing The Happy Tree and commented:
    Any passionate writer should read this.
    (I don’t think there’s any writer that’s not passionate about their work.)

  13. flowcoef says:

    Going down this road now; hopefully I’ll get there in the end (:

  14. Beka says:

    Reblogged this on Beka Tinsley and commented:
    I have a bad habit of giving up on an awful draft, even though I’m just a much in love with the core idea as I was when I started. Don’t give up! Like adoptingjames said, writing is a process. Have fun with it =)

  15. Gretiana says:

    Thank you, this was very useful

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