Are you brave enough to write badly?

October 15th, 2012

Courage isn’t normally considered an important quality in writers. You don’t call us when your house is on fire, and most of us live in countries where we can write what we like without being executed. So I’ve always thought determination was probably the most important character quality for writers (let’s leave talent out of this for the time being, shall we? The world is heaving with talent).

I have a friend whose most common reason for disliking a book is the feeling that she ought to have written it. Implicit in this is her sense that she could – or should -have done it better, especially if it’s set in a world she knows. But when asked why she hasn’t written a novel, she said ‘I don’t want to write anything unless I know it’s going to be brilliant.’

But anyone who writes brilliantly starts off writing badly. Many ‘first novels’ never see the light of day, and are buried in drawers, festooned in rejection letters, even if their writers go on to be award-winners or best-sellers. Most writing never even gets that far. Writers don’t go from nought to sixty in a few months, they go from nought to one. Then two. Then back to nought again. Then up to five.

And even the most experienced and lauded writer will admit to writing badly sometimes, especially at the beginning of a book. A few years ago Jojo Moyes tweeted her desperation at not being able to get the beginning of a novel right, and a flock of other writers rushed to reassure her that they, too, found beginnings almost impossible. About eighteen months later, Moyes’ Me Before You hit the best-seller charts and received hundreds of excellent reviews.

And no book is ever actually perfect, so setting yourself a goal of perfection before you’ve even started means that failure, at some point, is built in. As any fule book group kno, you can find something to criticise in the most brilliant or best-selling book. Short of taking all your clothes off at Piccadilly Circus, writing exposes you more than anything. It exposes you to internal and external criticism. It is the final confirmation that, no, you are not perfect. You probably aren’t even brilliant. But if you keep at it, you may, eventually, write a good book that a number of people think is worth reading.

People get very cross when a book they consider ‘badly written’ or ‘trashy’ hits the best-seller lists. ‘I could do better than that,’ they fume. ‘I’ve got a degree in English from the University of Somewhere Terrifically Grand.’ I’m not suggesting that anyone should say they like a book when they don’t. And I know that the fear of failure prevents many of us from achieving what we’d like to achieve. But these allegedly ‘trashy’ writers were brave enough to do their best. They faced their fear, and took off all their literary clothes to go out into the cold with nothing on. Otherwise known as ‘writing a book.’

On the other hand, I don’t know how to encourage my friend. Do I tell her that failure is an essential step on the pathway to success, and that she needs to tackle her fear of it? Or do I say that she’s ‘brilliant’ and that she ought to write more? What do you think?



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