When the Writing Stinks

Thursday, August 23, 2012
I saw a Facebook status the other day from a writer friend, lamenting her bad writing, and asking what to do when your writing is stinking up the page.

I had to smile. Because what writer hasn’t had a moment like that in the middle of a manuscript or article or essay? When you look at the reeking words before you, and then glance around in search of a blowtorch to put the putrid sentences out of their misery?

The truth is, my writing often starts out badly. My first drafts are rarely exactly what I want to say, and how I want to say it. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, I only need to tweak to get the stench off. But other times, especially in fiction writing, I’m overwhelmed at the foulness of what my brain hath wrought.

And sometimes, I don’t even have to be writing to be overwhelmed by the stink.

If I’m reading a great book—one of those novels where the words flow like manna from heaven and the plot rolls along seamlessly and the characters…oh, the richness of the characters! —I’ll put the book down and want to cry. Probably because I’ve just banged my head on the desk while muttering, “I’ll never write this well! Never. Never. Never.”

But then I take a walk. Or work in the yard, or (and this is drastic) clean under a bed. I need time off, time to remember that most writers, even the author of the book that just gave me quite a headache, thought at one time or other that his or her work was…well, crap. Then I feel a little bit better. Like we’re all in this writing mess together.

Other times, when I’m in the middle of writing (and holding my nose), I have to step away from the work, too. I’ve gotten way too close to the words to see anything objectively, so I need a perspective break. I’m always amazed when I come back to a manuscript after a self-imposed exile. I can see much more clearly where I stunk it up.

And sometimes, when the stink gets very, very bad, I need to have lunch with another writer friend who’ll laugh at my jokes. And I’ll laugh at hers. Then we’ll tell each other we’re swell—and maybe where our plots took a left turn.

Those are my strategies, but how about you? What do you do when the writing stinks? (Because honestly, who can afford a blowtorch these days?)

~from Cathy C. Hall


Sioux Roslawski said...

Sometimes, all I have to imagine is WWWWWPD--What Would the Wild Women Wielding Pens DO?--and when I imagine what their comments would be to my piece, I can go ahead and revise/fix.

If you're around gifted writers enough, you know what hunks of stench they're going to fixate/focus on, and it's (almost) just like they're there, reading my piece and scrawling comments and suggestions.

Great post, Cathy. We all write crap sometimes. And apparently (although I don't remember it), I once wrote, "Friends don't let friends write crap." My WWWPs are essential to my life as a writer...

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

I recently read a book where I, too, banged my head on the table in utter defeat because nothing I write will ever be that good. But your reminder that the author might have had those "stench" moments, too, made me feel better. Thanks, Cathy! :)

sally said...

Great ideas. And yes, it's good to know the wonderful writers wrote lousy first drafts, too.

I think as long as we can smell the stink, we'll be OK. The real problem comes when we think our sh** don't stink. But if we can see a pile of steaming poopy on the page, we should be able to get it critiqued and figure out where we went wrong.

I have my chapters critiqued by at least ten other writers over the course of a couple of years. I could not write without the critique. I simply cannot see my own work objectively. I know what the story world looks like so I add in those details as I read. I need critique partners to say, "What the...? Where did the bear come from? And how come it can talk?"

So I have a round of crits on rough draft to tell me where I'm missing major things and then I have another round of crits with a second group so they can help me catch the line-by-line stuff.

Aspie Writer said...

Thank you ladies, I so much needed to laugh today! I have been having so many of those head banging moments that I considered either giving up my stinky writing or never reading good books again!

I think having someone to really critique the work would help me. I need to find a good critique group and head in that direction. I recently completed a college Fiction Writing Workshop, which was a tremendous help because of all the critiques.

The funny thing is that the pieces I really liked were ripped to shreds. Like Sally said, there were many ""What the...? Where did the bear come from? And how come it can talk?" moments.

I actually received better reviews on the ones I thought stunk, which leaves me completely scratching my head.

I can say the biggest thing that is helping me these days is simply reading that other writers are going through the same thing. Simply feeling like I am not alone helps!

Cathy C. Hall said...

Thanks for chiming in, ladies! Yes, critique is always good. (Except when it's not. That's an art in itself, I think. Knowing when the critique is good, or when it's --I'm sorry to say--stinky. :-)

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