There’s No Such Thing as Good Writing

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Photo by Bianca Moraes entitled ‘Writing’ (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic), link through photo

One of my favorite things is hearing/reading authors talk about the process of writing; it amazes me how we all struggle with this beast, this art, so differently. Grace Burrowes is a romance novelist who sends out emails about craft once a month – they pop straight into my inbox. Last month’s email hooked me; Burrowes begins boldly, telling her audience “There is no such thing as good writing”. This quote was stolen from Robert Graves, which Burrowes acknowledges, but it certainly got me to open the email!

What Burrowes is really talking about is the difference between writing and re-writing. She asserts that the first draft will always be rough – less than spectacular. But it’s what you do with that draft that matters. The writing process is really all about your dedication to re-writing and revision. And, of course, to revise you must finish that first draft. Something that, with longer projects that have no definitive deadline (i.e. a contract, an academic due date), I really struggle with.

Burrowes makes the excellent point that, after finishing that draft, you should immediately move on to another project – giving yourself the time and space to get over your first draft. When you return, refreshed from working on something different, you’ll have a new critical eye for your own work. This is a great idea although I see this working against me all the time; I work on a project for about 35,000 words, get busy, move on to something else, get too much space from the first project, and when I come back to it, all I want to do is revise those 35K instead of finishing the overall draft! I’m an eternal editor, it seems.

It’s so hard for me to believe there is no good writing – mostly because I hate failure, and want it to be perfect the first time. I struggle with revision because it feels like a waste of time; while I intellectually understand that you only get to the great writing by writing really… bad… stuff first and then searching through the muck for gens and starting over, it doesn’t mean my heart won’t break every time I scrap 10,000 words. Or more. All those “wasted” hours (actually just practice), writing 10,000 horrible words.

But after reflecting on Burrowes and Graves’ words, I really do think there’s a point to be made with this sentiment. Don’t expect something good to come out of your first try. It’s somewhat freeing – and also terrifying. Freeing, because it means I shouldn’t be frustrated by my very, very imperfect first attempts. Terrifying because it acknowledges that the hard work of the first draft isn’t even the worst of the work to come!

Do you believe in ‘good writing’ or only ‘good re-writing’? Do you prefer the process of revision or writing that original draft? Let me know in the comments!

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