the reward of writing poorly

We begin to judge our work too early and think we need to achieve perfection. Inevitably writer’s block will come knocking because we can’t meet those expectations. We need to give ourselves permission to fail so we have the freedom to explore, experiment and improve. —Lynda R Young

Last week I wrote that success requires you to read more and write more. By this I meant you need to read more and better stuff. There is a lot of drivel out there, and you should be selective.

But you don’t have to write better stuff. You just have to write.

This is because the fear of making a mistake often keeps us from writing at all. Call it the red pen syndrome. School has taught us that there is a correct way and, if we aren’t sure we have figured it out, we don’t write at all. Someone told us anything worth doing is worth doing well. You must reject this curse. As far as writing is concerned, anything worth writing is worth writing poorly until you learn how to do it better.

practice your writing

More writing leads to better writing. Writing is a skill that improves with practice. And practice is what we need. We need to scribble and doodle and journal and even fail before we can succeed. We have to overcome our perfectionism and our insecurities. We need to write more and worry less. Keep a notebook and write down what you see, hear or think. Write something every day.

We have to do all kinds of private writing if we want to get better at public writing. And as we do we get better, more confident and more skilled, we begin to hear the rhythms in our head. We develop an ear and find a voice. When we can get a draft down without hyperventilating, we have something to work with, to polish, not perfect. To edit, not publish.

polish your drafts

Here are three tips for editing these early efforts:

1) Set it aside. Walk away. Often our subconscious will continue to process our thoughts and we will come back with a fresh view and sometimes even a fresh voice. We come back with better examples and more passion.

2) Read it out loud. This is a simple step that is overlooked and underused. But hearing it in our own voice reveals missed words, awkward sentences, redundant thoughts—all sorts of improvements will come to mind. READ IT OUT LOUD. (It doesn’t hurt to read some of those better books out loud as well. Writing is an artifice, but effective communication is aural. We have to hear it in our heads to get it down on paper.)

3) Share it with an (honest) friend. They will not be able to resist the temptation to copy edit it, but that is not what you really want. You want to know if it’s clear or confusing, if it flows or if it’s disjointed. You want to know if it is working. The copy editing is a bonus, but probably not sufficient.

As you listen and then improve the document through this process, you are beginning to understand what you actually meant to say and how to say it better. You may find that your favorite section just doesn’t work. You may find that you need to gather more information or provide more detail or do more research. Sometimes you discover that you have to start over.

The important thing is that you are still writing. It is a process. Every draft is practice and practice is what you want if you want to write well. You are learning more about the craft and more about your message. Feel free to tinker with it until you are no longer sure you are improving it.

publish your revision

Then you are close to publishing. But before you do, share it with a skilled friend, or pay a copy editor. While writing is a solitary act, publishing is a team effort, even if you are blogging. Spell check and Grammarly won’t do. You need more eyes, more ears, and more distance. A good editor can give you that. Just don’t argue with him or her. If it is not clear, it is not clear. Don’t get defensive. Get better.

In this way, your vision will clear and your instincts will improve. Practice, polish, publish. That’s the formula. In the end, though, good writing (yours) will increase your confidence, give you perspective, teach you persistence, and increase your influence.

That’s the reward.

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