A Vow to Write Poorly

Having read The Help recently and about one-third so far of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, I’ve been thinking about books on the bestsellers list. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the poor quality of the writing in books on the bestsellers list.

Or perhaps that’s too harsh. At the very least, it requires some clarification.

Both of these bestsellers deal with really great subjects. They give voice to those who are underrepresented in literature and in history. But they’re not great works of literature. The language isn’t lyrical, the characters not deep or nuanced. I don’t miss the fictional world the author has created when I close the book. I just want to get through it because I’ve got Book Club and want to be able to discuss the book.

These books are first novels, through and through. They’re clumsy and amateurish. They have internal inconsistencies. But clearly, since they’re bestsellers, the public aren’t looking for lyrical, polished prose. They’re looking for a story.

This isn’t really a surprise to me. Until I got to college-level courses, the focus was always on reading comprehension rather than on enjoying a book or critiquing the methods the author used or exploring the book’s historical and cultural context. People (Americans at least) aren’t being taught to enjoy books. They’re being taught to get information out of books.

This might also be why those who want to appear more erudite get their panties all in a bunch about a split infinitive or use of the wrong “there” or “it’s”. What did we see most of on our school papers? Was it a back-and-forth discussion about the thoughts we had about a novel, story, or poem? Sometimes. But usually it was copy editing marks in red pen and a grade at the end. If our teachers cared mostly about grammatical errors, it makes sense that we, trying to emulate them and appear learned (or at least superior) ourselves, would focus our attention and scrutiny on such mundanities as well.

(I don’t want to give the impression that I’m lambasting teachers. Most teachers I know are bored to tears with this focus on petty details, too. They would love to discuss books with their students. But with their workload and the focus on grades and test scores, when are they supposed to do that?)

Aside from creating a bunch of pedants, the other problem I see with this focus on grammar over content is that it really squelches creativity.

I find it a bit surprising that I’m not 100% on the side of grammar. I have been for many years a pedant myself. I was one of those jerks who’d copy edit a menu and stop someone mid-thought to correct them. I love grammar. I love rules. I believe that you must learn the rules so you know the “proper” way to communicate, as written language is ultimately a way of communicating ideas from one person to the next.


I’ve found that I’ve internalized the rules to such an extent and become so afraid of breaking one of them, I can’t even get words on the paper without criticizing my grammar at every turn. How can a person be creative with that constant internal chatter about punctuation and whether it ought to be “lie” or “lay” in this context?

Recent research (as heard on some NPR show I can’t find now) suggests that when we read a piece of writing, our brain function mirrors that of the author as she was writing it. We essentially get inside the writer’s mind when we read. This explains why some novels transport me, put me into an altered state, and others that just leave me walking along at the periphery. If an author isn’t transported by her writing, her readers can’t be, either. And if the author is distracted by her inner critic, she’s not being transported.

This is one of the things I like about frequent blogging and one of the things I like about National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). It encourages me to write too fast for my critic to keep up. It encourages me to let my passion take the driver’s seat and turn off the GPS.

Yes, this means I write a lot of rambling crap. But crappy writing and blogging are practically synonymous. If I were writing an informative, journalistic blog, I might worry more. But really, am I going to alienate my 42 subscribers if I write something idiotic? The fact that I haven’t lost them yet would suggest that they are inalienable because I know at least 72% of my posts are completely stupid, and the rest are just boring.

Geoff Colvin in Talent is Overrated talks about the idea that every great achievement follows at least 10 years of deliberate practice. From Mozart to Michael Jordan, you don’t become great without years of slogging through, composing something no one wants to listen to or missing innumerable baskets, always trying to perform just beyond your present skill level. You can’t skip ahead. You have to practice if you’re going to be great.

And that practice is not pretty.

I’m going to be doing NaNoWriMo again this year. It will be more difficult because we still haven’t found a sitter here, which means I’ll have to write in the evenings and when I can steal time from my kids during the day. But I’m going to do it. I need the practice. I may never be a great writer (or even a published writer, which is not the same thing), but if I don’t write, I won’t even be a writer.

And no, you don’t get to read my novel. Until it becomes a bestseller.

This post was inspired by NaBloWriYe by Daryl L. L. Houston at WordPress’s The Daily Post.

10 Replies to “A Vow to Write Poorly”

  1. “crappy writing and blogging are practically synonymous” Yup, I completely agree. Hence, I’m taking the chickensh*t way and participating in NaBloWriMo and avoid NaNoWriMo like the plague. I haven’t written any fiction (at least not on purpose) since college. It used to be my favorite venue. Now, I freeze and never put pen to paper if I even contemplate it again.

    As for grammar, I’m of two minds. I love it, ignore it as I please (pretend I’m Shakespeare. heh) and am often writing at 2am. I was so tired one afternoon, I had to ask twitter whether to use “lying” or “laying.” The rules of grammar are so far beyond my higher brain functions at that time of night that well, let’s just say I try not to read anything I’ve clicked publish on.

    And this from a former copyeditor. Ugh!

    Some of what you address seems to come up often in bloggyland. I’m passing along your post. Hopefully others will weigh in.


    1. Yep, Moleskine. Nope, no smudging, and I’ve used several different pens in it (although mostly a Dr Grip. That’s been my favorite pen since the late 90’s. I’ve recently been flirting with the new Sharpee fine points that don’t bleed through the page, but I’m not sure the infatuation will grow into love. I think I press too hard to use a felt-tip). I haven’t been able to find my favorite journal since 2003 or 2004, so I’ve been trying lots of different ones. The Moleskine’s nice. Lies flat. Looks important.


      1. That “looks important” is vital to a writer’s success!

        I like Dr. Grips as well (one of Elijah’s first words, I kid you not, was “Doctor Grip” when I was shopping in Staples. He said it with almost a German accent. Very odd). I like the new(er, I guess, they are several years old) ones with the silver barrel and the colored part under the grip. The smudging problem I have is with the cheaper gel pens, the ink doesn’t dry fast enough to be able to work fast with them. If you look in my moleskines, you’ll see that a couple are smudgy messes. Right now I’ve been using a Papermate Profile (I like bold lines when I write), and it seems to work ok.

        Don’t tell me about new pens…I’ll have to try them. I have $6 in Staples Rewards I need to use…

        I generally try not to say too much about the plot of my stories as I am writing them, because even though I don’t set much store in Joe Schmoe’s opinion, just talking about it makes some kind of release happen, and I find that i am not as excited about the story as I was before. Not everyone is like that, but I really have to try to keep things under wraps, at least until things are really rolling. The other thing is that if I tell someone about a story, and then they read it to critique it, they go into it with preconceived notions, and some people can’t separate their expectations from what they are actually reading. So I’ve gotten critiques back saying “This romance is awful, there isn’t even a hero!” (well, that’s because it’s not a romance!). Don’t sweat one person’s opinion (who knows, maybe they liked it but got hit by a bus or something… or had to go into witness protection. ANYTHING could have happened!). If thirty people tell you they hate it, maybe. But hey, I’ve had a story rejected many times, but all you need is that ONE editor to like it. And afterward, all I got were positive reviews on it.

        OK, I really should shut up now.


  2. Sigh… Yes, Jamie’s book. Yet another person I knew BEFORE. It astounds me how successful he has become, and I don’t really mean because of the quality of his book. It’s because he was one of “us” just a few years ago!! Now, he’s all famous and stuff, and has a tour schedule. It’s all so professional, and seems so impossible. He used to continue keeping up with the group, and still pops up every now and again, but really has stopped. Sniff, he’s become too big for us ;). But he’s also a very nice guy, and very helpful.

    Honestly, if I just sat down and edited some of the crap I wrote…Oh, wait, that’s right, I lost most of it when my harddrive died two years ago… Anyway. Theoretically, I could edit one of my six completed novels and send them off. But to me, they just don’t seem good enough. Maybe that is what you are getting at here too, it’s that inner critic that just hounds on me. Not just the grammar and such, but the ideas. “Oh, but no one likes dragons…” (meaning, publishers) “Oh, no one wants to read about this…” No matter how many times I or anyone else tells me that I should just write the darn thing and get it out, I just find myself frozen. I’m hoping that NaNo can help get my butt in gear, and reacquaint myself with my writing (like, rediscover why I love writing!). I can’t believe this is my EIGHTH one. I can’t be that old…


    1. With the number of “not awesome” books out there, I have to think that the difference between “them” and “us” (or at least them and you…I’ve started three novels but finished zero) is persistence and the courage to put it out there, even if it’s not “done.” I think the thing I’m learning is that writing isn’t magic, it’s just something people do and writers who are published aren’t necessarily extraordinary, they’re just normal people. Which is both reassuring and maddening because it takes away one of my excuses (great writers are gods among men, or something like that).

      Part of why I stopped working on the novel I started during last NaNoWriMo was because I told someone via e-mail what it was about (I think I’ve told maybe three people total) and that person never responded to me. My mind ran amok with that, and I decided that the only possible conclusion was that he really thought the idea was stupid (something I already worried about) and since he couldn’t say anything nice, he decided not to say anything at all. Which, even if it’s true, isn’t really a great reason to abandon my book. A lot of books sound stupid when you say what they’re about. Kind of like dreams. Doesn’t mean they are when you read them.


  3. Nice post, and the last portion reflects my comments on Daryl’s blog exactly. Nano is a wonderful tool for developing a good writing practice and for silencing the voice of the Inner Critic and Perfectionist.

    I first participated in 2005 – If you’d like a Nano Buddy, you can find me at JaneBond there)

    Good writing to you!


    1. Thanks, Janece! I’ve not logged in again yet, but when I do, I’ll look you up!


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