Have you ever wondered why, as a beginner, writing often feels frustrating and sometimes even pointless?
It might be because many beginning writers are focusing on all the wrong things.
Most writers who are first starting out have big dreams. They want to be bestselling authors. They want to be the Stephen Kings, the J.K. Rowlings of their genres/eras. They want their writing to mean something. They want their work to matter.
It’s very easy to forget, when you’re focusing on your big dreams, that you can’t go from zero to bestseller overnight. A lot has to come before that. A lot of patience, and disappointment, and tears, and feeling like you’re doing everything right yet nothing good is coming of it.
This is why I believe beginners shouldn’t focus on writing “well.” Instead, they should just focus on writing as much as possible.
Before you judge my opinion, hear me out. Let me explain my progression as a writer and how one specific strategy helped me get to where I am today.
My first major writing project was National Novel Writing Month. During NaNoWriMo, you are challenged to write 50,000 words in 30 days.
In other words, this is not necessarily the specific strategy I would recommend for all beginning writers.
However, it was during this challenge — and the many I completed in the years that followed — that I learned how to write without worrying about every little error in my work. Combine that with the news writing experience I would eventually obtain (there is zero time for slowing down when you’re covering breaking news) and I got pretty good at “tell the story now, make it sound good later.”
When I was first starting out as a writer, this was an extremely important thing I personally needed to learn. When I’m able to make the time for it, I actually don’t mind self-editing. I like grammar and all the fun literary things you can do with words. But these things, it turns out, don’t matter when you’re writing a first draft and/or practicing your writing. In fact, they can actually harm more than they can help.
Why? Because they’re distracting, and they slow you down. A book you’re going to send out to a literary agent, for example, needs to be well-written and display proper grammar usage and it needs to be an entertaining read. Of course it does.
But a beginning writer is not writing a book they are going to send to a literary agent. YET. You will eventually! But you’re not there yet!
First, you need to write a book. A whole book. And then another. And PROBABLY another.
You need to experience what it’s like to start and finish something. You need to practice your storytelling. And guess what? In the beginning, you’re not going to be very good at it. Don’t worry about that right now. Worry about slapping words onto a page. For now.
To be clear, when I say beginners should focus on writing more, not better, I’m not saying beginners should settle for “bad” writing or that they should try to publish writing that isn’t polished. Good writing is essential to success (or it should be). But you can’t write well straight out of the gate. Well, most of us can’t (I sure didn’t). It takes time to take a desire to write things and turn it into a marketable skill. Everyone starts out not that great at writing. You get better. Eventually.
What I’m saying is that in the beginning you can only focus on one thing at a time, and your focus should be on getting as much practice writing in as possible. How do you do that? You write more. It doesn’t have to be great, it doesn’t have to be anything you’re going to show anyone else. It just has to come out.
The only way to get better at writing is to write. And the more often you write, the more you write in general, the more you will learn and grow. While there is nothing wrong with taking a class or finding a mentor or reading the occasional book or blog about writing, these things will only teach you what to do. They will not do the work for you. They are, let’s say, supplements. They can help you refine your skills, but your skills will not develop if you don’t do most of the work (writing) on your own.
Some will argue that it’s a waste of time to do something wrong a hundred times before someone finally corrects you. I disagree. You can’t correct misbehavior when it isn’t happening, and it won’t happen if you don’t write. Making mistakes is part of the process. Learn as you go. That’s your keyword. Go!
It’s better to have too much material and learn how to trim it down There are people who have the opposite problem, and they may be at a disadvantage. It’s not that you can’t go back and add more later — you can, and many writers do. But even if you’re not a fan of self-editing, taking out unnecessary fluff tends to be a lot less draining then trying to figure out what to add.
I don’t work with fabric personally, but you could also look at it like this: When you’re making a custom cushion for a chair, isn’t it better to have too much material and trim what you don’t need then realize you don’t have enough to finish the project?
So I’m going to be bold and suggest you start by learning to write too much. Will you have to learn to cut things out and/or spend time clearing out filler later? Yes. But this is always a good lesson in editing and quality writing. The point is that this step should come later, after you already have plenty of material to work with. Some writers will cut thousands of words from their drafts before they call them finished. It’s certainly not unheard of.
You have to start with something, even if it isn’t “publishable.” If you spend a lot of time reading published books, it can be challenging to constantly remind yourself that the words you’re looking at are a final product. They’re polished and perfected. They’ve been through multiple rounds of edits and likely looked and sounded very different in their first stage of development.
It’s normal to look at a page you’ve just written and worry that it’s not “as good as” a page in a book you just finished reading. It’s natural to compare our writing to other people’s writing — we compare ourselves to other people in general all the time. But just because we do it doesn’t mean it’s helpful. Your writing doesn’t seem “as good as” published work because it isn’t, plain and simple. It might be someday, but it isn’t yet.
As a beginner, you don’t have an editor. You might not even have a friend willing to critique your work for you. You’re all on your own, going by what you know about storytelling to roughly put your ideas into words. So your writing isn’t perfect! It’s not supposed to be! You’re just a human with an idea. It’s not going to come out fully formed. That’s why they call it a rough draft.
It’s better to put something down. You can’t work with what you have if you have nothing, right?
Maybe my arguments make total sense. Maybe they make no sense at all and you completely disagree — if so, please feel free to share your thoughts in a comment. But this is a discussion, so be civil. That’s all I ask. Every writer does things a little differently, and I’m merely suggesting a strategy that might help someone. Writing is hard. Every fragment of helpful information could make all the difference in a struggle writer’s life.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.