Writing Badly May Help You Write Better


“Move fast and break things,” is a popular Mark Zuckerberg quote. It makes perfect sense to developers, many of whom have probably coded since they were in utero. Breaking things is characteristic of the young and limitless, which is how we end up with things like Facebook.

But that approach doesn’t have to be limited to software development or the marketing of such. Moving fast and breaking things in the creative arena, such as writing, is also important. (It’s just not considered sexy.)

Since branding is a big issue, you should never publish your bad writing unless you want to actually be known (and quickly forgotten) for it (think William Hung). But if your aim is to find your voice and uncover your best work, here are a few ways intentionally writing badly can help improve your game.

Memory and Conceptualization

A recent study suggested that people who took notes by handwriting versus typing on a device were more likely to retain facts as well as conceptualize what they learned (as opposed to parroting back facts that were forgotten after a short time).

You don’t have to write by hand to write badly, but it’s not a bad idea. On a device, you can easily hit the delete button and wipe out your mistakes. On paper, you’re forced to cross it out and try again. When you’re finished, you can see all your mistakes in their blinding glory.

But having a page full of pen marks isn’t a sign that you’re doing anything wrong. You’re just training your brain to figure out what works and what doesn’t.

Taking Yourself Less Seriously

Some folks take writing too seriously. So much so that they are afraid to try. Or if they do try, they don’t finish what they started. And that’s a shame.

Perhaps you wrote your first story years ago and asked a few close friends to give you some feedback. “Great!” they all said. Then, you sent it to a magazine editor or a publisher and they told you (in polite terms) that it was crap and you might benefit from taking some writing courses online or at a community college.

Your dreams of becoming the next John Grisham, J. K. Rowling, or George R. R. Martin were dashed upon the rocks of rejection. You tossed your script into the bowels of your desk. Your writing career was over before it had even started.

You need to give yourself a break.

There are a number of factors why your work wasn’t picked up. But that doesn’t mean you should give up. The vast of majority of writers, even successful ones, have received some form of rejection. They just kept moving forward.

Writing badly allows you to make mistakes and experiment with various voices and storytelling styles. You let yourself write mess that you’d never let anyone read—just to see if you can. You give yourself permission to laugh and groan at yourself. Who knows? Maybe you might learn something about yourself even you didn’t know.

Racking Up Hours

Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hour rule” is widely known. While I don’t think it’s a bad guideline, it should make allowances for breaking things. Success makes the most sense in the face of failure, as inventors like Thomas Edison and James Dyson can probably attest to. Software companies popularly put out products with the anticipation that users will find and report vulnerabilities that need patches.

Even if you’re spending a lot of hours writing badly, at least you’re still writing. You’re working towards the one light bulb that doesn’t explode. You’re one step closer to the one prototype that isn’t rubbish. You’re finding your bugs and working out fixes. Those hours, days, even years are just part of the process.

Once you see how badly you can write, you might start to see things that you like. Certain turns of phrases that you particularly enjoy. A background character might be way cooler than your current hero. Staccato-like dialogue suddenly seems more appealing to you than long flowery prose (or vice versa).

Whatever they are, they’ll start coming out more and more as you practice. The next thing you know, you’ve uncovered the writing you actually like.

Freedom to Suck

There are certain pursuits in which it would be best to not move fast and break things, like eye surgery.

But sucky writing doesn’t have to affect anyone else as long as you don’t share it (see previous reference to William Hung). In fact, once you get it out of your system, you can toss it and never see it again (although your muscle memory and subconscious might hang onto it for a rainy day).

If you want to improve your writing, give yourself the freedom to suck and write something that starts with, “Once upon a time,” or “It was a dark and stormy night.” You just might be surprised at what appears on the page afterwards.


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