On Writing Badly and Redefining Failure


Credit: Monda at Creative Commons

I want to start by saying how proud I am of all of you who are attempting NaNoWriMo. I’ve done NaNo before, and I know how hard it is to plan and write an entire story in one month. I remember the struggle, and I still remember the lessons that I learned during the process. Because I know that many of you might be hitting the wall, I’d like to share some inspiration that might help you soldier through.

The thing that frustrated me the most when I started drafting was how blah the writing was. It was hard enough to get the words down, and once I did, I was completely underwhelmed by them. Then I stumbled across this quote by Shannon Hale that’s been making the rounds:

I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles. 

Yes. Yes! By all that is holy, YES! This is what we do. We shovel words onto paper, as fast as we can, knowing—even expecting—them to be fairly crappy. Don’t worry about correct word choice, proper grammar, or flair. Just get the words down. That’s what you’re aiming for this month.

And that ties in to my second mantra, stolen from Dean Wesley Smith:

Dare to be bad

I’m a little weird in that drafting is the most difficult part of the process for me. Every day when I sit down to write, it takes forever to get going. For me—and for a lot of writers, I’ve learned—it all comes down to fear. Fear of starting in the wrong place, of wasting time, of going through all this effort and the story not being any good—all of this stymies the writing. It wasn’t until I read Dean’s advice that I freed myself up to write badly. I realized that the only writers who do get it right the first time around are the ones who’ve been doing it for years and have written roughly a gajillion words. I’m not there yet. But I will be, if I keep writing. And so will you. So when you’re struggling through that first draft and you’re afraid that it totally sucks, don’t worry. Dare to be bad, and just finish the story. You’ll have plenty of time to pretty it up later. That’s what the revision process is for.

And that leads to a favorite quote—this one from Kristen Lamb—that we all need to remember from time to time:

Redefine Failure

When I started my NaNo, I aimed for the standard goal of 50,000 words. It became clear very quickly that I wasn’t going to make it. Wasn’t even going to come close. I had to revise my goal, and I ended up with 30,000 words— barely a third of my novel. At first I was disappointed that I had achieved so little. But then I realized, No. I had planned and outlined an entire novel. Wrote the first third of it with a preschooler underfoot. Wrote 30,000 words that I wouldn’t have had under my belt if I hadn’t tried. Mastered some new techniques that are getting me closer to being able to write those solid first drafts. I had to redefine my notions of success and failure to appreciate all that I’d accomplished in just thirty days.

And that’s my hope for each of you: Get the words down on paper. Don’t worry about the quality. And realize that what you’re doing is A-MAZING. This month is about more than just finishing a book. It’s also about the writing, whether that’s 5000 words or 50,000. With every word you write, you learn. As you learn, you improve. And as you improve, the process gets easier.

You’re doing great! Keep up the good work!




Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
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21 Responses to On Writing Badly and Redefining Failure

  1. Shahriar says:


  2. Leslie Rose says:

    As if I wasn’t already a Shannon Hale fangirl…Fab quote.

  3. THANK YOU VERY MUCH FOR THIS POST! I really needed it! 🙂

  4. Abby says:

    Thanks so much for this post! It’s exactly what I needed to hear. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by how much I still need to write. But, my goal is 30,000 and I’m already 2/3 of the way done! 😀 I cannot wait to keep writing. Thanks for the encouragement!

  5. Dwayne Clayden says:

    Hi. I am not doing NaNoWriMo this year, but I am doing a revision of a NaNoWriMo novel from two years ago. While there are a lot of bad words and sentences (a lot!), there is a really good foundation and as I write/rewrite, the characters and the story are helping me fill in the blanks. I can see where I need to add/move/delete chapters. I can change bad dialogue to more better 🙂 dialogue. I’m having a great time with the rewrite. I had an outline that I was going to use this month, but the priority was to get this revision done. To those who accepted the challenge this year – write on!

  6. This post definitely makes me feel better about having to scale back on NaNo this year. It’s so easy with all the advice floating around to get caught up in the mechanics of writing and forget it’s first and foremost an art form. Art, at its heart needs to be spontaneous, later we can step back and assess what worked and what didn’t. I paint with watercolors and if you overthink and overwork the paint you end up with a muddy mess and ruined paper. You have to allow yourself the freedom to just go and see where the words lead you.
    Thanks for this!

  7. Melissa shanker says:

    This is EXACTLY what I needed to hear! Thanks so much.

  8. Celia Lewis says:

    Thanks Becca. I’ve found that my flying fingers seem to know the story before I actually figure out where these two main characters are going… so hitting the total is a given. I’ll definitely get there. But, oh my the crap on the pages. Too much backstory. Not enough emotion and not a deeper POV. Too much dialogue. Not enough of this – or that. Blech. (pulls a few hairs out)
    Right. Sand castles. I’m aiming to eventually build some interesting sand castles.
    Merci buckets’ full this morning.

  9. Kit Dunsmore says:

    Great artcile! I am definitely fighting my way through the NaNoWriMo Week 2 slump, and I need to be reminded that my goal is just to write — not to write well, or beautifully, or even logically. I will keep filling the sandbox with sand.

    I also love what you said about goals: yes, the goal is 50K, but every word you actually write chasing that goal is a triumph, even if you don’t get there. I’m constantly telling people who say “I only wrote X words today” this.

  10. I love Shannon’s quote. We tend to put far too much pressure on ourselves writing the first draft, which leeches out the creativity of what we’re doing, and often that means we lose some of the magic. This is why I love NaNo–it places us in a space where we can better “give ourselves permission” to just enjoy creating. 🙂

  11. Thanks for this post, I’ve hit that wall and feeling like I’ve wasted valuable time, and am now fearing this story, that I was so thrilled with before I started, will now never see the light of day.
    30,000 words = trash. So disappointed, until I read your post. Going back to finish now, and looking for the diamond in the rough!
    Thank you!

  12. Eric says:

    I’m not doing NaNoWriMo, but the reminder of letting yourself write badly resonated with me. I’ve a WIP that I want/need to pick up the pace on. Thanks!

    I am wondering how many writers ever reach a point of mastery where they “get it right the first time”? Even for the best, most experienced writers, how common is this?

    • Awhile back, I ordered an online course by Dean Wesley Smith called Heinlein’s Rules. It outlines 5 rules given by Robert Heinlein for becoming a prolific writer. Heinlein’s first 3 rules basically say that you need to write, you need to finish what you write, and you have to refrain from rewriting. Then start a new project. The idea is that the act of writing is the most important part, and that much of revising is second-guessing and throwing the baby out with the bath water. By writing, then writing something else, then writing more, you obviously learn to write better. Your creative subconscious is given free rein, and your natural style comes through. By adhering to Heinlein’s Rules, Smith has written over 100 novels and multiple hundreds of short stories in his 40 years as a writer. His stories usually go through 3 revisions, and then they go to market. *boggle*

      Now, I can’t get 100% behind all of Heinlein’s Rules, so this method hasn’t worked for me. But I think the idea here is what we need to strive for. We all get caught up in so many other things, other parts of the process, and I do believe that WRITING is the most important part. Only by writing will be improve and learn and will it become natural. I think that if you look at the prolific writers out there who are able to bang out mostly publishable drafts in a short period of time, one of the common denominators will be that they simply write. Every day. Without excuse or exception. There’s an old quote that says it takes 10,000 hours to become expert at anything. Writing, writing, and more writing. This is what it takes to become an experienced writer and get closer to getting it right the first, second, or third time.

      My two cents :).

  13. I’m not doing NaNo this year, but this was a great shot in the arm for those who are!

  14. Debra L. Butterfield says:

    Becca, what a terrific quote from Shannon Hale. That’s the first time I’ve ever seen it, but it is so appropriate. I’m astonished that so many writers expect to get it perfect the first time around. I saw a post on Facebook just yesterday that indicated the writer expected to produce a perfect manuscript in the first round–no revising expected. That’s an unreal expectation and sure to set up anyone who attempts it for failure. Thanks for showing us a new perspective.

    • I know that when I first started writing, I thought it was going to be SO EASY. I mean, how hard was it to write a 1000-word picture book? I figured out straight away that it was incredibly hard. So yes, I think there’s a common perception among new writers that, yeah, it’s going to take some work and there’s going to be a learning curve—but I think many writers are shocked at how difficult it is to do it well. I also think that the Google mentality sets people up with unrealistic expectations. I mean, if I can use Google to figure out how to change the oil in my car or give myself the perfect up-do, then I can do the same thing with writing—just look it up, read some information, and write my book. So I do think it’s a good reminder that writing is a process. It takes time. Revision and Editing are part of that process.

      I’m glad you got something out of the post, Debra :).

  15. Thanks for the encouraging post

  16. Isabelle says:

    I love you for this.
    Hitting a wall after a few thousand words, feeling as if I’m bored of the story after months of planning. The words, like flies on flypaper, no flow, no spark, no order.

    I needed this. Thank you.

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