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Why you need bad writing to get to good writing

WGA pamphlet from the mid-1990sI was cleaning out some old files when I came across drafts of screenplays I wrote in the 1990s. They were awful. Eye-achingly awful. So awful that I shredded them and put them in the recycling bin.

But when I wrote those scripts, I thought they were so wonderful that I registered one of them with the Writers Guild of America and sent it to an agent. He rejected it. I could see why. That script was so bad that DC couldn’t have turned it into a superhero movie.

Did I waste my time and effort writing those screenplays? No. They were just another example of why you need bad writing to get to good writing. Here’s why.

Get writing experience

You can read books and articles and take courses on how to create compelling characters and engaging plots. But until you write, you won’t really know what works and what doesn’t. Fiction is subjective, and everyone reacts differently to your combination of characters, story, and style. Finding the right combination of those elements requires experimentation and feedback. Some things will work. Others won’t. And for a while, your work will consist of more things that don’t work than things that do. It’s only through writing that you can discover what audiences like and sift out what doesn’t get the reactions you want.

Get life experience

You also need life experience. Not only does it give you more things to write about, it helps you develop perspective and insight that add depth to your writing. Life experience isn’t simply a function of age. Young people can have a lot of adventures and wisdom to draw from, while people two or three times their age may have fewer experiences and even less awareness.

How do you know if you have enough experience and insight to write well? Again, it requires writing, experimentation, and feedback. If your writing seems naive, inaccurate, and cliche, you need to learn more about your subject. Do more research. Experience as much as you can about the world of your story. Get different viewpoints. Then go back to writing, experimenting, and gathering feedback. Your writing experience will also give you life experience.

Change with the times

We cringe at things that seem dated. As I went through my old paperwork from the 1990s, I saw plenty of purple, magenta, and teal with wavy lines and triangles that serve no purpose. Trends and fashions change. So do our cultural standards. Characters and situations that were acceptable years ago may be offensive now. I’ve been watching reruns of In Living Color from 25 years ago with sketches that wouldn’t fly today.

We live in a world that is much different from the one of 10 or 25 years ago, or even since January 20. What worked before might not work now. Furthermore, things that are popular now might be out of style by the time our work is finished. We shouldn’t merely adapt to the times, but anticipate what people may feel or need months or years from now. By thinking ahead and not just following trends, we can avoid becoming dated.

Salvage things you can use

Although I shredded all that excess paper, I still have my original manuscripts on my computer. I save my material in what I call my boneyard. Every so often, I pick through the boneyard and find things I can use. My novel Amiga was based on a story idea that I struggled with for years until I found the right characters and plot points to make it come together. I’ve revived characters who had potential, but didn’t fit in the story they were in. The boneyard is a great place to go when I’m stuck with a story problem.

Your writing is never wasted. You can use it to find the fix for a broken story or use pieces to make a healthy story stronger.

Be encouraged

If you’re still struggling with your writing, don’t be discouraged. Becoming good at anything takes time and effort.

Get honest feedback from people you trust. Look for what works, even if it is just a few small pieces. Study the rest and learn how to avoid those mistakes. And if a story completely falls flat, save it for later use. You may find pieces you can reuse or discover a way to make the story work.

Use your mistakes as lessons and motivation. Keep writing. In time, it will get better.