Hello, it’s your friendly, neighborhood editor again…. And today I’ve come to tell you to write badly.
I know that sounds weird.
That sounds weird because good writing is a good thing—I think we’d all like there to be more of it. Certainly, I’d rather read good writing than bad writing (though there are many ways writing could be good, and a piece can be good in some ways and bad in others, so it’s not quite a matter of either/or).
“Write badly” sounds weird, too because writing well is a great thing. To do anything well—and know it—is a great feeling, and to work hard to do the best you can, to do better than you thought you could (whether or not the result is great, objectively speaking) is also wonderful. Having someone in your life who can tell you “this isn’t good enough, do better” is one of the greatest blessings in life, provided it’s said with truth and respect. I’d do that for you, if I could.
So why am I saying “write badly”?
It’s not to assure myself of more business, although I genuinely enjoy editing your work. I love language, and I love seeing how other people think, and editing is one of the greatest opportunities I know to explore both.
No, the reason I’m telling you to write badly is that you’re worried about whether you can write well. I know you are. I know that you sometimes stare at your blinking cursor unable to type because you’re worried what you write won’t be good enough. I know you sometimes question whether you should be trying to write at all. I know that if I’ve edited your stuff, you’ve probably felt bad about it, thinking that the changes I’ve made must mean I think less of you (I truly don’t. The thing is, I’m a writer, too, and my rough drafts always need a lot of help. It’s just the process). And you need to know, right now, that writing well enough isn’t a thing at all.
“Write badly” can mean a lot of things. I use it to remind myself to make that blinking cursor go, to just write anything, to stop worrying, because I can fix it later if I need to—but it’s impossible to edit what hasn’t even been written. So go ahead, write badly, but write something.
It’s also a pretty good way to battle both low self-esteem and arrogance, those twin scourges that, bizarrely, we writers can have at the same time (an example of arrogance: “this editor doesn’t understand my genius, that’s the only reason they’re making these dumb changes.” Yes, that was me, once upon a time). Stop paying so much attention to whether you’re good—just write. It’s OK to write badly. Even if you already write really, really well, it’s OK to write badly.
But perhaps the most important reason to give yourself permission to write badly is to understand that there is no such thing as being “good enough” to write. Good enough to publish? Yes, that’s a thing. Good enough to successfully communicate your ideas and advance your career? Yeah, that’s a thing, too. So is not being able to do those things. Not everybody is good at everything It’s not that anything goes and skill doesn’t matter. It’s that you don’t need to be good to write. All you need is to want to write.
Excellence is not rent you owe for existing in the world.
Sing, dance, cook, write, whatever brings you joy, whether you’re good at it or not. Celebrate and thrill with friends of yours who do the same, just because that’s part of being alive. It’s part of being human.
There are certain paradoxes in this world, things that don’t seem like they could be both true, and yet they both are. One of these paradoxes is the simultaneous importance of writing as well as you possibly can and of writing badly—that is, writing without caring whether you’re writing well.
It is possible to do both at once, to work hard for excellence—and to meet certain academic or professional standards—and to ditch the concept of “good enough” entirely. But you probably have to start with writing badly first.
If you want to write, write. If you want to write better, write better (while still giving yourself permission to write badly). If you want to publish your work and have others read it and enjoy it and benefit from it, give it a shot. I can’t promise you success, but you have nothing to lose by trying.
I’ll help you, if I can.
An Entrepreneur Perspectives podcast episode featuring Caroline & Eric on giving yourself permission to write badly.