Why it’s better to write than to BE right

Reading time: Less than 3 minutes

Writing something stupid makes sense when the alternative is simply staring at a blank computer screen… 

When I was a teenager, I used to babysit a girl I’ll call Michelle. She lived directly across the street from me and she was famous in our neighbourhood for always asking “Why?” with a plaintive note in her voice.

“It’s time to go to bed,” I’d say. “Why?” she would answer.

More surprising, however, was her response to something desirable like, “It’s time to eat a snack.”

“Why?” 

She not only asked “why” to every question but in response to every single factual statement anyone made.

“It’s been raining a lot lately.”

“Why?”

“Your brother shouldn’t crawl out on the roof.” (Yes, he really did that.) 

“Why?”

“Milk is expensive.”

“Why?”

Rest assured Michelle is a competent adult now, living in Europe and pursuing important work relating, I believe, to an advanced degree from the London School of Economics. Her doggedness and her curiosity about the world paid off for her, bigtime. She never feared asking questions or relentlessly pursuing the reasons for anything that affected her.

And, as a writer, I think you should be just like Michelle.

I was meeting with a client this week and she was telling me about the novel she’s working on. She was having difficulty generating some plot points so I asked her if she’d written mini-biographies for each of her main characters yet. (It’s a good idea for fiction writers to do this work — even if much of it never ends up in the novel — because it helps them better understand the motivation of their characters.) “I’ve started it,” she told me.

But she hadn’t finished it. We explored the idea for a while longer and it became clear that she was afraid of making a mistake. She worried that if she later discovered some part of the characterization really wasn’t going to work she would be stuck with the problem for the whole novel.

No, I told her. It’s not chiselled in stone. If it’s wrong, just change it later.

This fear — that we’re going to make difficult, irreparable mistakes — is widely held by most of the writers I work with, whether they produce fiction or non. And I think it asserts itself in two main ways:

Fear that it’s going to take a lot of time to fix an error once we catch it or fear that we’re going to look stupid for having made a bone-headed mistake. Let me deal with each of these issues separately.

Fear that fixing an error will take more time

Writing already takes time — you know that, right? So which of the following approaches do you think makes more sense:

  • Spending the time staring in agony at a keyboard trying to figure out precisely what to write (Gene Fowler called this: “staring at the page until drops of blood form on your forehead”) so you never have to play with those words again. OR
  • Spending the time making your best guess about how to proceed and then rewriting later to make it better?

From my own experience over the last 40 years, I can tell you that the second option not only takes less time but it also far more pleasant and enjoyable. I started my career as a writer following the stare-at-the-screen style and then switched to write-fast-edit-later method about a decade ago and have never looked back.

Fear that we’ll look stupid for having made a mistake in the first place 

Never fear looking stupid. The smartest people I know don’t fear asking what others might perceive as “stupid” questions. They are confident enough to understand that it’s more worthwhile to learn something new rather than worry about how others perceive them.

Furthermore, how will anyone know you’ve made a stupid mistake if you don’t tell them/show them? This is the basic premise of the crappy first draft, which is for your eyes only. You write as quickly as you can and then you spend significant time editing and rewriting and generally fixing what you wrote. Part of the reason for this is that it’s a faster approach. But equally important is the idea that we learn while we’re writing. In other words, we don’t figure things out until we start writing them down.

Just as my former charge, Michelle, never feared asking why, you shouldn’t fear making decisions that you may have to change later. What’s the big deal about editing or rewriting? It’s work, yes, but so is sitting in front of a blank keyboard. So is feeling terrible about yourself for not getting any writing accomplished.

Don’t always try to get things right. Instead, ask yourself Michelle’s question: WHY am I delaying my writing? Then start writing.

If you’re wrong, you’ll be able to fix it later.

What’s your biggest fear about writing? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Sept. 30/16 will be put in a draw for a copy of Floating Off The Page, edited by Ken Wells. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.