Have you ever tried to do something badly— on purpose?
Course not! You say. No one tries to do things badly on purpose…or do they?
Actually, they do:
- Navajo weavers deliberately weave imperfections (called ch’ihonit’i) into their rugs.
- Japanese artists have been including “wabi sabi” (deliberate imperfections such as nicks or asymmetry) into their art since the 16th century.
- Islamic architects also incorporate minor irregulatrities into the decorated ceilings of their mosques*
These artists and creators do this for various reasons, which mostly boil down to one: acknowledging and reminding themselves of their own imperfections.
On some level, we all know that we are imperfect. But we tend to have a hard time accepting that fact.
Why else would we spend so much time fretting over our work, our looks, ourselves?
Why else would we be so afraid to finish our novels, hit “publish” on our blog posts, or create lots and lots of failed/poorly written/ignored articles — without losing our motivation?
Good writing doesn’t spring from the head of writers, like Athena from Zeus’s noggin, perfect and fully-formed.
The Athena/Zeus story is a myth, and so is the idea that writers are able to create brilliant work at the drop of a hat.
In her book The Upside of Down, Megan McArdle points out the fact that students rarely get to see the bad rough drafts behind famous books. But rest assured, there are bad rough drafts.
All writers have to go through bad writing in order to get to the good stuff.
So if you really want to be a good writer:
Practice writing badly.
Lessons on Fear and Failure From Pottery Students and Petite Spaghetti Masters
In a story from Bayles and Orland’s book Art & Fear, a ceramics class was separated into two groups. One group was told to spend the year focusing on making one perfect pot. The other was told to make as many pots as possible in the allotted period.
In the end, guess who made the better pots?
That’s right, the second group.
The first group was too hung up over making that one perfect pot, that they did not allow their creativity to run free. The second group threw “perfection” out the window and focused on churning out pots.
They gave their brains free reign to experiment and imagine, and in the end, they came up with more higher quality pots than the former group.
Similarly, in a design experiment conducted by Peter Skillman, participants were given raw spaghetti, a piece of string, and a meter of duct tape, and told to build the tallest structure that would support a marshmallow.
The engineers who participated in the experiement did fairly well, and the businessmen did the worst. But who soundly beat everyone else and ultimately earned the title of Spaghetti Masters?
A group of kindergartners.
That’s right, the diminutive ankle-biters** far surpassed their adult counterparts.
They weren’t afraid of failure. They also weren’t afraid of breaking rules. They had fewer preconceived notions about how this whole spaghetti-structure thing was supposed to go, so they just jumped right in and started trying.
They asked for more spaghetti (no one else did, so no one else got any). They experimented. They tried and failed. They weren’t self-conscious, and they didn’t waste any time drawing plans and holding discussions about how to do the work — they just dug in.
Which begs the question: What would your writing be like if you wrote the way these kindergarteners approached their spaghetti project?
No One Is Watching — Rejoice!
When I first started writing online, I didn’t do too well. Just like all beginning writers, I had no readers or fans and was self-conscious about posting things that were less than perfect…
Until the day I threw that all out the window and challenged myself to just hit publish.
The first time I got over 1,000 views in a day, it was a total accident. I had no idea how I did it. This little statistical spike caused a small cascade of emotions and thoughts.
The predominant questions I had, though, were:
- Oh wow, how did that happen? Can I do it again?
- Oh no, now there are so many people watching me, I have to be careful of everything I write from now on…Can I even keep writing? What will people think if I don’t write something as good as that last article?
Answer to question 1: Nope. (At least not right away)
Answer to question 2: Don’t worry about it. Because nobody cares.
Really. Of the thousand people who read my article that day, I bet perhaps only ten of them (or less) remembered me five minutes after reading.
You’re not as important as you think you are. People aren’t watching as closely as you think they are. Don’t be afraid to practice and fail in public — no one but you will remember it anyway.
So go ahead:
Keep writing. Keep failing. Keep going.
Write Badly ON PURPOSE
Fear of judgment and fear of rejection are two fears which keep writers from finishing, publishing, writing. If that’s you, then try this exercise:
Force yourself to fail on purpose. Write an article that’s too long or too short. Share something that makes you feel a bit dumb.
Learn from TED talker Jia Jiang, who conducted a 100 Days of Rejection experiment, you can try a # Days of Bad Short Stories experiment.
After three-plus months of deliberately seeking out rejection at least once a day, Jiang trained himself to become more immune to the fear of rejection, to become a more persuasive asker, and to turn seemingly bad things (rejections) into good things (opportunities).
Similarly, who knows what lessons you will learn when you not only give yourself permission to fail, but actively tell yourself to write badly?
Perhaps you will come up with ideas you would have never thought of before. Perhaps you will accidentally stumble on a turn of phrase or witty line that unexpectedly resonates with readers. Perhaps you will cure yourself permanently of writer’s block.
Psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl described a concept called paradoxical intention in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning (aff). Basically, he taught a man with social phobia to overcome his fear by focusing his attention on the opposite:
The man perspired when nervous, and got nervous when he perspired, avoiding people because he was embarrassed by his excessive sweating. But when Frankl advised him to try going out and making himself sweat as much as possible, on purpose, the man was cured of his nervousness-induced sweating.
So the next time you’re afraid to write because you don’t think you’ll be good enough, give this exercise a try: tell yourself to write something awful. On purpose. And see what happens.
Permission to Suck'You can rewrite garbage. You can’t rewrite nothing.' — The Up Side of DownClick To Tweet
We are all human, ergo we are all imperfect.
And that means that everything we produce will be imperfect in some way.
Those Navajo weavers did not need to deliberately put an imperfection in their creations — I’m sure if you looked hard enough, you’d find plenty of unintended imperfections…threads that are thicker in one place than another, discolored corners, etc.
But they deliberately included more visible inconsistencies in their rugs to remind themselves of their imperfection, to remind themselves that it’s okay not to be perfect.
Imperfection is the rule for human beings. So stop trying to be a perfectionist. It’s futile.
As a writer, you aren’t a brain surgeon or a rocket scientist. You are allowed to have a large margin of error. So be grateful, and take advantage of it.
Besides, don’t forget: imperfections can be lovable.
When I was little, I had a disproportionately large head. I would often trip over my own feet and my parents joked that my head was too heavy, that’s why I fell all the time. Even after I grew up and my proportions evened out, they still like to call me “Big Head” affectionately.
Imperfect items often become valuable collectors’ items. And your imperfections make you unique and particularly dear to those who love you.
It’s the same with your writing.
Your true friends and fans will forgive you if you make a blunder now and then. You are the one who has a hard time forgiving yourself. Stop it.
Love the Work (Including the Stumbles Along the Way)
“Learn to love the work, or do something else” — Jeff Goins
As bestselling author and blogger Jeff Goins points out in his article on loving the work*, writers are like runners. Both enjoy the feeling of completion — writers love finishing an article or book, and runners are elated when they cross the finish line.
But they both also love the process. Runners feel good when they’re running, and writers feel good when they’re writing. Even if they weren’t racing, runners would still run. Even if they trip occasionally, they still want to run.
Likewise, even if they’re not on a deadline, writers would write. Even if they write a clunker they still want to write.
It’s not just about being popular or perfect, it’s about savoring the process.
You can’t be a writer if you don’t embrace and enjoy the heck out of the process of writing. That includes every imperfect article or draft you write along the way. Each of those “bad drafts” are stepping stones toward your ultimate goal —
No, I’m not referring to the goal of a “perfect” article or story. I’m referring to the goal of YOU becoming a better writer, clearer thinker, and stronger person than you ever were in the past.
So don’t be afraid to write badly. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Don’t allow perfectionism to hold you back.
Get your writing out there. Iterate and reiterate. Write and keep on writing. Don’t focus on numbers, or fans, or any external statistics. Consider them, but don’t focus on them.
Just focus on the act of writing.
Give yourself permission to suck.
Publish your article, and then get started on the next one.
Keep your head down and keep doing the work.
When you do that, one day you will become a better writer than even you thought possible.
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