To Get Good You Have to Write Dirty

Have you ever taken some time off writing? Maybe it was six months or maybe it was…six years? I’ve gone through unhappy periods in my life when I wasn’t writing at all, and every time I tried to start again it seemed impossible. Even if I only wrote two sentences they were the worst two sentences I had ever seen. And what if you’ve never even really started writing?

How do you begin?

It’s helpful to think about the beginning of any writing practice like you would think about turning the water on after the pipes have been shut down. At first the water will spurt out, then stop, then spurt again. The pipes groan with awful noises. The water has a weird color and flecks of rust in it, or dirt. It might even smell funny.

It’s definitely not something you should drink.

Too many writers see these first spurts of rusty water coming out them and give up right then and there. Part of this comes from the fact that since we’re writers, we read a lot. So even if our writing skill isn’t at a certain level yet, we still have the discerning eye that can easily identify good writing from bad. That means we look at our own first efforts and immediately judge it as bad. And then approximately two seconds later we fall into the intense drama pit of despair that only the highly creative can fall into with such tortured grace.

Wait—back up. Get out of the pit! All is not lost.

If you haven’t written in a long time, or ever, when you start writing it is going to suck at first. It just is. Your sentences will be clumsy, your adjectives will be overblown, and your story will be utterly confusing. When you read over your pages you will cringe. You might even consider taking a vow to put everything you write in a locked safety deposit box so that no one will ever see it.

The important thing is that you realize this phase is perfectly natural.

The essential thing is that you keep writing through it.

One of my favorite writers and idols, Brenda Ueland, wrote about how the creative muscle is like a fountain. If you’ve let it go dry for a while, the first gushes of water have to clear away all the debris that has collected at the mouth of the fountain before the stream can run clear again. Whether you choose to imagine your writing as a set of pipes or a fountain, it’s all the same thing.

Give yourself patience to write through the gunk because it’s the only way you’ll get to the good stuff.

And the only way to write through the gunk is to keep on writing as much as you can. The more regularly you write, the clearer and cleaner your stream will be.

If you liked this article you might be interested in:

Beginning Your Book

Writing Your First Novel? Watch What You Consume.

Want to Be a Better Writer? Watch More Movies.

How to (Finally) Finish Your Novel

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  • Reply Kara 24 February, 2014 at 9:47 am

    Thanks for the inspiration and encouragement.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 24 February, 2014 at 12:40 pm

      Thanks for reading Kara, I always appreciate your comments. They encourage me!

  • Reply Setsu 24 February, 2014 at 10:35 am

    The MS I’m working on now is unbearably ugly. The last paragraph of chapter twelve contradicts the first paragraph of chapter thirteen — kinda thing… It’s a fight to keep going sometimes. Thank you so much for speaking on this process. I can’t wait to have clean water again.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 24 February, 2014 at 12:40 pm

      “Unbearably ugly.” That is EXACTLY how I feel about every one of my manuscripts at one point or another.

      Let’s keep fighting the good fight together 🙂

  • Reply Phillip McCollum 24 February, 2014 at 9:36 pm

    Thanks for the kick in the pants, Lauren. After my recent foray in moving, I’m anxious in both a good and bad way to get back to writing. I need to just hop back in and worry later!

  • Reply Jon 25 February, 2014 at 4:49 am

    Not to mention that the “intense drama pit of despair” (LOVE that phrase :D) is always there waiting and you’ll fall into it time and time again. I’ve put some rungs in the side of mine to help me out.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 25 February, 2014 at 9:01 am

      I’m with you Jon. As I’ve gotten older I’ve realized the value of building a ladder up the side of the intense drama pit of despair 😉

  • Reply Justin Meckes 25 February, 2014 at 5:19 pm

    Hey Lauren,

    The clear stream makes it all worth it, doesn’t it?

  • Reply Glynis Jolly 25 February, 2014 at 8:17 pm

    Yes, I’ve gone through long periods of time without writing a word except for what is put in greeting cards. I can’t see them being counted as writing really. When whoever it was who came out with the idea of blogging, it opened me right up. I found people whose writing ability was worse than mine and they didn’t care. They were still getting their words out there for the whole world to read. It sparked inspiration and motivation in me. Thank you to whoever it was way back when.

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