You Hate Your Writing? That’s a Good Sign!

PhotobucketI received a message from a friend the other day that said he was finally writing again. He commented, “We’ll see if I end up hating it, as I have every single thing I’ve ever written before. I do hope to get over this at some point.”

Every successful writer has had to overcome that feeling. It’s an important feeling. It’s a valid feeling. And if a writer doesn’t have that feeling (at some point), I get worried.

Why?

It’s the Ira Glass principle: You have to produce a lot of crap—stuff that you know is crap—before you can produce anything good. If you haven’t watched Glass’s series on storytelling on YouTube, be sure to set aside 15 minutes to do so. It’ll be the best 15 minutes you ever spent on learning about the craft.

Glass says something critical in Part 3 that I wish every writer knew and understood:

The first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good. It’s not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambitions, but it’s not that good. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, your taste is still killer. Your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you. You can tell that it’s still sort of crappy. A lot of people never get past that phase.

Most of the writers I meet are in this phase, and for much longer than a couple years. Some of us take more time to develop our skills since we may not have consistent, focused, or quality time to practice. (By the way, this is one of the reasons that creative writing programs can be useful—you have dedicated time to produce crap!)

Unfortunately, writers in the depths of this “crap phase” will often wonder if it’s worth their time to continue.

That struggle—that feeling that you’re wasting your time—is a sign that you’re probably on the right path. But most people quit, not realizing that nearly every writer who does excellent work went through a phase of years where they had really good taste, but they produced total crap.

What’s most important is that you can perceive that gap—that gap between what you know is quality and the lesser quality you achieve—and that you understand that gap is temporary. You do get better.

That’s not to say you become less critical of your work. Great writers will always be critical of their own work because they have good taste. It doesn’t get any easier, as just about every successful author will tell you.

But that’s not a reason to quit.

Photo courtesy Flickr’s *_Abhi_*

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About Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman has more than 15 years of experience in the book and magazine publishing industry, with expertise in digital media and the future of authorship. She speaks around the world at events such as BookExpo America, Frankfurt Book Fair, and Digital Book World, and has keynoted writing conferences such as The Muse & The Marketplace. She currently teaches digital media and publishing at the University of Virginia. Find out more.

Comments

  1. says

    This seems to be a theme in the blogosphere today, and it can’t come at a better time for me. I’m in the doldrums and need to remind myself that every word counts, even the ones I delete.

    Great post!

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  2. says

    It’s always nice to have a reminder like this.

    I think this is my favorite bit:

    But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, your taste is still killer. Your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you. You can tell that it’s still sort of crappy.

    What a doubled-edged sword!

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  3. says

    I like this article, Jane.

    Definitely going to check out the video. Question – Even in a Creative Writing Group, when will you really know when your ‘crap’ stops?

    I agree with having dedicated time to purge it from your system (never thought of it this way) but without a pro giving you the North-South or East-West, I’m not convinced you pull out of the rut.

    Just a thought. I understand the importance of writing constantly and consistently. If it’s the practice that matters, then we’re good!

    Thanks!

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  4. says

    Sometimes I think of those early writing efforts as the first batch of pancakes: they taste pretty good, but they’re unevenly cooked. And you might eat ’em yourself, but you’d never serve them to company. . .

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  5. Vaughn Roycroft says

    I have what is perhaps a unique problem that relates to this. My first MS took me several years, and I came to know it was crap. I set about trying to polish it up, and, at the behest of a few close readers (read: family), I sent it out to a group of beta-readers. Then: mixed results, several major rewrites, second group of beta-readers, rounds of rejections from agents and publishers. Time to give up, right? Move on. Shelve it.

    I did. Embarked on a new WIP last year. Since then, a funny thing started happening, mostly due to the e-reader revolution. The beta-readers and friends who supported the first work started telling others about. Since it was so easy to format in a PDF and send to these readers trickling in, I did. Now I’m getting more positive feedback then ever. Yet, I still look back and cringe.

    The question becomes, ‘when do you leave a manuscript behind?’ The changes in the market have me wondering about trying yet another rewrite. I believe in the story, just know the writing still needs work. Is it healthy to linger over it? Am I still growing as a writer? Or am I just crazy? (Oh crap, nobody answer that, please.) These are things I’m struggling with this winter, and just continue to let them simmer (fester?), while still moving ahead with WIP(2).

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    • Sharon says

      I love your comment. Too true, when do you leave a MS behind? Amazing what we feel is not good enough, yet others, it fills the void in their lives. I guess it’s not doodies afterall

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  6. Patti Mallett says

    Thanks, Jane, it’s encouraging to read that you feel as I do, that it can take a very long time to get through the crap-phase. Your words give hope that we will get there, though, because “we have taste” and know what good writing is. That has been my belief and my hope, that practice will make (maybe not perfect but) better! The YouTube video was very helpful and I will be watching it again, taking better notes the next time.

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  7. says

    This is kind of a “good news, bad news” thing. LOL I have good taste, but my work doesn’t. :)

    Actually, with any creative endeavor, you have to “get the ugly out”. It’s okay, though, because it gets you started, and it’s the stuff you’re going to eventually discard. The important thing is that you’re working and creating. That other stuff? It’s the warmup.

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  8. says

    I hated my current WIP, but now that I’m doing the final read-through, I’m seeing that there are places where I did something right, and I’m even enjoying the story. And my mom is reading an ARC of my May release, and she says, “every book gets better and better.” (And she’s definitely not a critic. She’s an “I like it/I don’t like it” kind of reader.)

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  9. Dawn Bonnevie says

    ALL growth (physical, emotional, spiritual, social, cognitive, professional, intellectual…) requires some discomfort. Knowing your work isn’t good enough feels like your skin peeling away! But it has too in order for a new skin to grow (is it possible to be TOO thick-skinned?) If you find yourself 100% satisfied, you are not growing.

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  10. says

    @Brandon: There are a few signs that your “crap” is abating. When you receive very encouraging rejections. When agents/editors reject you, but ask to see the next work. (They can see that you’re on the verge of non-crappiness.) When you realize that what you’re writing in your group is the best of the group, and you actually need to find a new group to challenge you. Or when you stop with the groups all together, and find 1 or 2 trusted peers and/or mentors. That’s usually what happens with most experienced and published writers.

    @Vaughn: This is definitely an intriguing phenomenon the digital revolution has brought us. Even less-than-great work can find some measure of success if we can find the right readers for it.

    If revising the manuscript again would help you grow as a writer, I’m all for it. If you’re not sure if it would contribute to growth (or if you feel tired just thinking of a revision), then it’s probably best to abandon it. Use your own enthusiasm as a measuring stick.

    I see nothing wrong with allowing that manuscript (unrevised) provide enjoyment to your already devoted readers, and letting it stand as an important part of your earlier work that people may choose to read … or not.

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  11. says

    I’ve always had a good sense of when my writing just doesn’t measure up. And that happened a whole lot in the earlier years of my writing. It often felt like I had the Mona Lisa in my head, but my drawing came out as a stick figure.

    I’ve gotten better over the years, but there’s always some place in my work that I read and say, “Yeah, that’s not cutting it.”

    But for all the sweat and angst I go through when trying to make those parts better, there is no better feeling in the world than that “aha” moment when it all comes together. That moment when everything finally works right, and your stick figure comes out with that Mona Lisa smile.

    I love writing – even when I hate it!

    Kerry

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  12. says

    My struggle is trusting my taste to know when I’ve matured from crap to quality. Although I’ve been writing for years, I rarely finished anything till NaNoWriMo last year.
    Part of the deal for doing NaNoWriMo was that I promised my hubby I would actually try to get published this time (and he was fixing dinner and chasing kids), so I’m following through by researching agents and markets, and using readers before doing at least one edit. But although I love my story, I still have that nagging doubt that maybe it really is crap, and maybe I haven’t yet “paid my dues” with all the unfinished work over the past years.

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  13. says

    I’m definitely still writing crap. It’s becoming better crap, but you know, crap is crap. Good to know I’m on the right track. :) Thanks for the encouragement!

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  14. says

    It’s good to know I’m not the only one that goes through this…. and on your suggestion, I went to youtube and watched the Ira Glass series. There was so much good stuff there, but I think what I liked most was what he said about: (paraphrasing here..) if you do it enough, then the work you do will live up to your ambitions. And then you’ll be a warrior and you’ll be fierce! Love that!

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  15. says

    Thanks for that article. I’ve been bathing in this not so nice feeling for the last few months. It feels good to hear someone who has witnessed the success of many writers say that it’s a mandatory passage.

    The best thing I have for me is my grit and my determination to succeed so I’m happy it’s an asset after all and not just a mild form of mental disease. Your words hit home this friday ma’am.

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  16. says

    Had to chuckle…I’m in the first draft stage of a sequel and I’m trying to plow through, knowing that much of what is on the page is crap-ola.

    But if I may hit you with a crap-inspired metaphor, I’m hoping the first draft manure is just the *fertilizer* for what gets sown in the second draft, and what will blossom in the third, fourth, and fifth drafts…
    (hee!)

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    • says

      Anne! Love your metaphor. I have a feeling I’m going to have a bumper crop if that’s the case.

      Great post, Jane! I needed to hear this as I am revising my first draft. I am using a very large shovel. ;)

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  17. says

    Awesome article!

    I think that not only do our careers have a crap phase, but every manuscript does, too. (Depending on how you write, of course.) I’m experimenting with just drafting to get the story out and not worrying about the quality this time around. Next draft, fill in the blanks: make sure there aren’t any gaping plot holes, shore up character motivations, add missing settings and physical actions, ratchet up the tension where necessary. (Okay, that’s several drafts.) Then worry about lyrical, fresh writing.

    Every first draft has at least a little room for improvement, right?

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  18. says

    That first book I wrote 5 years ago will never, ever see the light of day, except to be raided for a few plot points or characters. My second and third books I just indie published, after a long enough time away from them to cut 20,000 words out of each and a complete rewrite for both. Right now I’m working on my fourth book and my 7th simultaneously and there’s something really heartening about how much less work the 7th needs for the same stage in the process.

    Every day is an opportunity for growth . . .

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  19. says

    Thanks, Jane, for encouraging us writers–we need it! I’ve just recently had to put away my crappy first novel and move on to the next one, which is just so infinitely better that it makes me feel really good.

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  20. says

    Thanks for this. I feel like the queen of encouraging rejections lately, which of course is discouraging in its own way.

    I finally have enough distance from my first ms that it might be fun to give it a massive rewrite and update, see if I can transform the moderately crappy into something shiny, new and enticing.

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  21. says

    I may suffer from the opposite syndrome. I never think my writing is crap. That may stem from the fact that I started my writing career in advertising and my writing, from the very beginning, was not only not crap, it was frequently the best in whatever agency I worked for. The accolades flowed, the sales sold.

    Now I write novels. And I still like my writing. So do others, pros even. A novel I subsequently self-published received praise for the writing from top agents (they didn’t have to say anything). Unfortunately, it was a little too non-genre to induce representation.

    You say that if a writer doesn’t have that (my writing is crap) feeling (at some point), you get worried. Should I be worried? Or just keep writing until I produce the story that someone finally agrees will sell.

    I look at my old stuff and see immediately that the craft and storytelling can be improved–but crap? Naw. Just a a few levels lower on the learning curve than I am now.

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  22. says

    Great post! Explains why I completely loathed the manuscript I completed a couple of years ago. It was the first one I’d written in over 20 years. Also thanks for sharing Ira’s videos. I look forward to watching them.

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  23. says

    Great post! I’m echoing the last poster. I just re-visited an old short story and found so much to correct. I guess I’m getting better, and I’m sure down the road a bit more, I’ll look back and find more that can be improved.

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  24. says

    Ah! It was crap all along…and I thought it was a string of beautiful pearls! I look back now on my first novel, and realize just how delusional I’d been! I have a second multiple pov novel too, that’s gotten a mix of good responses and a few luke warm as well. So, recently I set aside my current WIP and was really in a state of doubt. But deep inside, I know this is the one that’ll work. Looks like it’s time to give up the drama and just get back in the chair.

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  25. says

    I am newbie into the world of writing. Completed my first short fiction story today morning.

    I know I don’t like some of my writing. I feel it is crap. I wonder will audience receive me if I write the crap? While reading a book, I always delivered judgement onto it like boring, interesting, …

    But I never hate my work. I just don’t like some part of it. I must love my work then only I will be able to improve it.

    with warm regards
    arandomarticle.blogspot.com

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  26. says

    I don’t know how many people would hate their writing AS they’re writing. I think it’s more common to see the flaws after you get some distance. The stories I wrote 15 years ago— I thought they were great while I was writing them. But I look back on them now and cringe at how bad they were.

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  27. says

    Brilliant! But then truth always is. I so love the idea of “killer taste” lurking in the background and acting as a kind of/sort of guiding light for the writer trying to get through the “crap.”

    Like I said: Brilliant!

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  28. says

    I enjoyed this article so much. It made me realize why I am so absorbed by the flaws in my unfinished novel.

    I would go through writing a chapter and end up throwing it on my waste basket mountain along with its other unborn siblings. I hated my outputs all the time, and had a hard time moving the story along.

    But I guess, thats what growing up is all about. Making mistakes as a stepping stone to higher levels of skill.

    Thank you so much Jane for this, and I hope I would be able to get past the crap phase of my life soon.

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  29. says

    I hope I’m not too late with a comment on this post: what a great word! I’ve seen the Ira Glass videos, and they’re definitely worth the time. It took me three years to confess that I didn’t know how to write, then another four to figure it out without going back to school (absolutely out of the question). Then another three to finish and polish my first novel. Out of all the advice I received from books or others, the best was this: read good writers. Besides reading them, I tried to take their craft apart, examining their choice of words and how they were arranged on the page to create not only meaning but rhythm. Learned a lot–and finally got beyond the temptation to quit.

    Love your blog, Jane. I tell every writer I meet to check it out. Thanks for the time and obvious effort you put into it.

    Jim H.

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  30. Troy says

    Wooow this just defined the first five years of my writing career. I worked on this fantasy romance book for so long that it just lost its essence, and it’s become to thin to touch.

    Now I’ve moved onto a drama story and I haven’t looked back ever since!

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  31. says

    Great article. Overcoming ‘the fear’ of what you’ve written is a big thing in my opinion, as even if you ‘hate’ it – doesn’t necessarily make it ‘bad’. But if you’ve poured self-editing on self-editing and still can’t get a particular story where you want it, then I agree it may be time to start with a fresh page. Thanks, enjoyed reading it. Adam

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  32. says

    Oh, and the question for me is if you’re not happy with something would you want other people to know you wrote it? Probably not! #nevergiveup #keepwriting…!

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  33. says

    Jane, thanks for this! A brilliant article, and just what I needed to read today. I hate my current WIP, and have spent weeks agonising over whether there’s any point in carrying on with it. I have been torn between deleting it, or putting the doldrums down to yet another bout of procrastination. Having read this, I think it’s time I got some work done….

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  34. says

    Perfect!! I’m encouraged by this. Thank you. I’ve come close recently to signing with an agent. Just didn’t work out. I feel like your third and fourth paragraph. Do I continue? Will I ever produce the ‘wow’ factor they want? (Because I was told I had some wow factor.) Blah…. You’ve set me back on track with this. Thank you, again.

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  35. says

    Fantastic post. It’s absolutely true. When I first started writing, every word was precious gold. Then I learned more and everything I wrote was drek. I’m getting better, but learning how much we really do have to learn is an important step.

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  36. Yuanle says

    Thank you very much.

    I’m always in the phase. Because I always think that I am writing crab. So, I always quit.

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  37. Tom says

    Wow! I’m so glad that you wrote this! I just finished my first novel and as I read through it I am devastated because I think it is just awful! I am so dissapointed. It is very tempting to quit, but I gues I will reconsider. Thank you.

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  38. says

    I love this info, I am yet to watch the You Tube but have it stored away.

    You have nailed this. I have been re-reading my work for subject matter and I see a marked improvement on what I think is okay, good and great. But what I see more so is that I am getting comfortable with being uncomfortable with writting.

    Before I begin a project, I could near say I feel sick and every part of my body wants to reject this and not even start. But once I begin, it is like I see how wonderful the process is, how I do love it and how the struggle is just the beginning.

    Oh I still struggle with confidence but I am always trying to better that too. Because I am now seeing think alot of my end products when I put the full 100% in are something I should be proud of.

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