30 October 2015 - 5:14 pm

Why NNWM: Permission to be bad

Part of the why NaNoWriMo is good for writers series.

NaNoWriMo says that it’s okay to write bad stuff. Loose plotting, awkward phrasing, weirdly-depicted characters, holey timelines: it’s all good, as long as you’re progressing your story and building up that lovely wordcount.

This is a sticking-point in some people’s opinions, and yes, it produces bad writing. No-one disputes that. The thing is: that’s one of the good things about NaNo.

Writers want their stories to be good. They want to share them, and want to make them the best stories they can be. This desire is good and to be encouraged, but it can also get in the way.

For some writers, this desire leads to getting stuck. Endlessly polishing the first chapter can be very tempting, but it’s also a trap that stops us from getting any further in the story. (It’s also pointless until you’ve written the whole story anyway, in most cases.)

For other writers, it stops them from ever starting. The pressure to make it the best it can be coupled with the weight of a blank page can halt a writer in their creative tracks before they’ve even started.

Having a space in which it’s okay for your writing to not be perfect, to give yourself permission to make mistakes and let them lie, is really important to some writers. It lets writers throw down a meaningless, trashy first sentence to break the seal on a blank page, so they can follow it up with more useful, story-progressing sentences. It enables them to blast past the rough bits and get through the meat of their story, even if it’s cooked unevenly. It lets them get to the end.

(As I said previously: the point of NaNoWriMo is not to write bad stories that should be immediately published. The point is to write whole stories, with the intention of going back and polishing later. They’re not supposed to stay bad writing! It’s just okay for them to start out as bad writing.)

As one author (whom I can’t remember) famously said: “I can edit a bad page, but I can’t edit a blank one.”

NaNoWriMo lets you make a lot of bad pages, from which you can edit awesome pages (if you so choose).

Coming soon: permission to focus on your writing.

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  1. Francisco says:

    This is one of the reasons why NaNoWriMo isn’t for me. When I write something bad it’s harder to find the motivation to write the next piece.

    November 1st, 2015 at 3:39 pm

  2. Mel says:

    Fair enough! People write in different ways. Some need that push to get past the need to be perfect, others find themselves unable to write anything good unless they take the time to make it suitable. The key is figuring out what works for you and doing that! 🙂

    November 1st, 2015 at 7:43 pm

  3. Rob says:

    I think this is a good approach for most people, and it’s a point made by a lot of wise (and famous) creative people.

    E.g., see Anne Lamott’s “shitty first drafts”, or Ira Glass talking about the creative process and the gap between your abilities and your taste.

    Also the “quantity trumps quality” test — I don’t remember if this is a real study or just an informal test… but you may have heard the story about the pottery teacher who told half her students they’d be graded on the number of finished pots, and the other half on the single best pot they could make by the end of the semester… and of course the ones who made the most actually ended up with far better pots by the end.

    It’s a bit hard psychologically to create something you don’t really like, alas, but continuing to create (and learning from your mistakes each time) is the surest path to *actually* getting better fast.

    November 11th, 2015 at 1:00 pm

  4. Mel says:

    Completely agree, Rob!

    I saw that test with the pottery class, and I think it applies here, too. Improvement is an iterative process, and with writing, you can ‘polish’ all the life out of a piece if you do too much of it.

    There are other fun quotes about how a writer has to produce a million words before they start to get any ‘good’. I don’t know that I buy into that, exactly, partly because as writers we never stop improving, but the underlying message rings true for me.

    Plus, sometimes you gotta try different stuff to figure out what works for you. So write lots. Write everything. Try things and fail and do better. 🙂

    November 11th, 2015 at 1:33 pm