When Good Writing Has a Bad Hair Day

Have you ever written something, whether it be an essay, an email, a text, memo, what have you, and when you read over it when everything’s all said and done you just know it’s complete crap? In your very soul, which aches at the thought of anyone seeing such rubbish from such a possibly well-said person, you know it’s just god awful.

Yet you send it, finish it, publish it anyway knowing that there’s just nothing you could have done to salvage it. It sucks, there, you said it, now time to move on with your life and try to forget it ever happened.

Well, that’s exactly what you don’t do. See, there’s many possible reasons as to why it’s complete trash, and whatever you happen to spew out as word-vomit generally fits under one of these categories:

1. Your Heart’s Just Not in it: I come across this most of the time in required work for classes. Whether it’s just the subject or is rooted in deep-seeded hatred for the instructor, crap will stay crap if crap is all you put into it. For me, this is usually essays, as mentioned above. Essays on a book I don’t like, in a class I find boring, or on a prompt that just sets me up to fail. I go through the motions, write myself a thesis, some supporting points and a half-assed argument and turn it in, maybe going to sleep for the remainder of class. I know there’ll be a chance to redeem myself in the near future. One bad egg isn’t going to ruin the entire batch. You just don’t care what grade you get, the feedback you receive, or the possible backlash it generates. It. Just. Sucks. Oh. Freaking. Well.

2. It’s Not Your Subject: This is similar to the previous, only in this case you’re attempting some effort. For narrative writing in my case, this is when I attempt slapstick comedy, romance, or what we fanfiction writers call “crack writing”, where it doesn’t make any sense and has no logic — on purpose. I generally try to avoid it but I know that if I have characters stick around for a book or two and no ‘feelings’ develop between anyone, people are going to start noticing. People naturally want their favorite characters to gravitate toward one another for whatever reason that suits them (trust me, I’m a fanfiction writer, I’ve seen the most out-of-nowhere, inconceivable romances possible). Yet the distinction here is that while I simply can’t write romance, those authors who can put two incompatible characters together and somehow make it work, that’s their home turf. They know the ins and outs of that style of writing, and it shows. For me, because I’m just that bad at romance, if I attempted something like that, it would be very and truly awful. It’s just not my subject.

3. Big Picture Takes Priority: This is mostly in narrative writing of all degrees. Where the author wants to just move on from the exposition, the expedition, or even small bits of character development, and get to the juicy plot. Of course, with revision it’s all patched up and smoothed over, but those first few drafts? It’s like a placeholder that never gets the attention it needs and deserves. These little possible-gold-mines of detail or plot get left behind because the bigger picture steam-rolls in and wants the limelight ahead of schedule, and, if not fixed, is very, very noticeable.

4. Out of Time, Out of Patience: Procrastination is a beautiful thing. Like the cliché rose covered in thorns. Sometimes something sucks simply because it didn’t have the opportunity to be something great. You’re rushing for whatever reason or submit it, thinking it’s good enough, and don’t wait the extra day or two for that lightbulb of epic genius-ness. Or you’ve rehashed and edited and rewritten those same damn lines of dialogue so many times that you just can’t take it anymore and want it gone and out of your sight, for whatever reason, maybe one of the ones above. It could be better, it just came at the wrong place, wrong time.

So how does one fix an issue like this? If your heart’s just not in it, take a break. Go drabble about something else for a while then come back with renewed vigor and make it the best damn essay or speech you’ve ever laid your eyes upon. If it’s just not your subject — make it so! Get down and dirty with the research about why you can’t write it, what makes the greats so great, and take it one word at a time. Don’t ever let the big picture take priority, because every little detail matters. When it’s not nonfiction, simply pure creation, every single word a character says, action he or she takes, or emotion they feel must have significance.

When it’s an essay or a speech especially, the last thing you want to do is bore the evaluator. If you have a sentence that you think sucks, think about why it’s there in the first place and if it’s not completely necessary, axe it. You want your words to glue their shoes to the floor and their eyes to your body in a speech. You want to be memorable for whatever you’re preaching about. You want to be quotable. And if you don’t then at the very least write like you do. All of that goes out the window when you leave yourself no time to fully evolve it. Ferment that wine until it’s the best damn wine in the world, aged to ambrosial perfection. No one wants straight grape juice.

But above all, have patience. Writing anything isn’t supposed to be easy. If words just come spilling from your fingers in a glorious flood of detail and dialogue, then maybe you can cut back some here and there, get to the point faster. If it’s not easy enough, that’s where the real issue lies.

The first advice I will give, because I’m just so credible, is just to drabble. Drabble means to do exactly what it implies. Cometh thy word-spew! Make your paper soggy and drip with the chaotic randomness that is pure stream of consciousness. Drabbling practices getting what’s in your head out where everyone can see. Then you take that word-spew and make an idea from it. What do you want to say? How do you want to say it? Why does it matter? Both to yourself and your readers, you must make your words matter. Because then, even if you have those bouts of horrid garbage, they’ll still hang on and cringe alongside you through that fugly bump in the road.

When you care, really, really care about what you have to say, your readers will too. So take the time to edit, to research, to get out of your literary comfort zone, and take a step back for a while to never again see the Greek tragedy that is a bad chunk of literary sin.