Learning to See the Good in Bad Writing

by Christi Craig

Eyeglasses over text

Today’s article is written by regular contributor Christi Craig.

Have you ever written a story, or an essay, or the first draft of a novel, and then let it sit in a drawer for years on end?

Have you had those writing days when you’ve thought, Surely, all that effort was a waste of time? 

I have, on both counts, and I dread hearing the committee in my head that confirms any failed project is a waste. Recently, though, when I overhead an instructor at a university talking with her dance students, I was reminded that nothing creative is ever done in vain.

Issue Pieces

This instructor described what she called “issue pieces.” For the artist, they are the early charcoal drawings or watercolors that symbolize a first heartbreak or a dark period. For the dancer, they are improv dances that interpret the loss of a friend or an event even more scarring.

These pieces are more emotional than they are artistic; they are often a sign of a beginner, and they are always a necessary step along the journey.

I understood exactly what this instructor meant. During my first few years of writing (serious writing), several of my short essays and stories retold or hinted at some disappointment or resentment or the realization that my parents and I were not that different — we were human, after all.

I even carried that angst into my first NaNoWriMo experience and wrote a 50,000 word issue piece. Much of the story was fiction, yet plenty of my real self showed up in that first draft. My novel told the story of a young woman during the year following her mother’s death, and, while my mother’s death was several years past, it still weighed heavily on my mind.

I poured my own grief onto those pages, let my emotions run raw in black and white. I’ve attempted a few rewrites of that novel, but today it sits quietly in a drawer.

It would be easy to view such pieces of writing (and a whole month’s worth of intensive noveling!) as a waste of time and energy. But as the instructor explained the importance of issue pieces for art students, I understood better how these pieces, and any kind of writing, work for the writer as well.

Nothing in Writing is Wasted

For a writer, every word we put down on paper (or onto a screen) is a lesson in technique. As K.M. Weiland said on Twitter once, “#YouKnowYouAreAWriterWhen you proofread and edit every text you send – and every one you receive.”

We constantly arrange and re-arrange words, whether we are scratching out a to-do list or crafting a masterful email to a potential client. We never think twice about those kinds of writing, so we need not criticize the work we put into those stories that rarely leave our desk or our hard drive.

Even something as simple as journaling can move a writer forward. For me, many of my personal essays begin their life in my journal and read way too personal to share with anyone else. Still, they serve an important purpose: to clear my mind’s palette.

In the early days, I couldn’t write anything until I expanded a series of journal entries into a 1000 word essay about my first real heart throb who bailed on me faster than I could squeak out three fatal words. That was/is a terrible essay, and I apologize to the other writers in my critique group who had to read it. However, that was a story I’d had to rid myself of or nothing more could come from my writer self.

T. F. Joyce speaks of the power of journaling in an article entitled, “Your Journal, Your Self,” in this month’s The Writer magazine (January 2013):

[L]ast year when I was struggling with relationships, work and family, a voice in my head would not stop nudging. It did not want a blog or a Facebook page. It wanted pen and paper and a door to discovery.

As Joyce goes on to explain in the article, “[the journaling experience] allowed me to get at truths.” Isn’t that one reason we write, to uncover and discover simple or complex truths in life?

And, as another author, Melissa Donovan, says in her book 101 Creative Writing Exercises, “Journaling…promotes observation, self-awareness, and reflection, all skills that great writers must possess.”

I’ve learned, as I’ve grown in the craft, that these kinds of essays and failed writings still surface, and I give them their time. I don’t ignore them but move through them, because, occasionally, bits and pieces of those works merge into other essays, stronger essays, and get sent out into the world of submissions.

And, if they don’t, they still have meaning to me as a writer: if I’d never been brave enough to get them onto the page, any page, in the first place, I’d never get past them and on to more – and better – stories.

Have you written an issue piece or an essay better left in a drawer? Can you see how it serves you as a writer?

  • arundebnath

    Very good advice CC – spot on. Thanks a million from me and from others who will benefit from this mind medicine – especially the writers. Arun

    • http://christicraig.com Christi Craig

      Thanks, Arundebnath!

  • surinderleen

    It is like a ladder to climb upon the tarrace. First draft is first ladder step. Second one is second ladder step. Whether you are a published author or not, it does not matter, however, every writing even a small one is like bricks of ladder steps. Continual writing pushes you up towards your final culmination. In reality, in writing career, there is not a thing like culmination. It is a continual stair case. Whenever, one sees up, similar counts of steps flash in front of eyes. Today’s article Learning to see good in bad writing by Christie Craig has sprouted these thoughts in my writering chip. It is very encouraging article. Very positive indeed!

    • http://christicraig.com Christi Craig

      That’s a great image, Surinderleen. So glad the article sparked introspection on the process!

  • https://twitter.com/krissycabeen Krissy Cabeen

    Hi Christi – This is such an important realization. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Part of growing as a writer for me has definitely been learning to accept / recognize this emotional allowance in my process (including when it’s share-able vs when it needs to stay buried DEEP in my drawer). Writing is how we writers sort things out, including ourselves, so we have to work the process. And I couldn’t agree more- no honest effort in writing, or any other art, is ever wasted. We have to keep this faith. Great piece!

    • http://christicraig.com Christi Craig

      You’re so right. I’m a writer who over-thinks at times, and that can keep me from doing what I love: writing. We serve ourselves better when we get those thoughts on paper and, as you say, let them be what they may: share-able or not! Thanks for your comment.

  • http://chantelc.com CC

    My first NaNo was like this. I tried rewriting this year thinking to take some of me out of it, but after reading this maybe it was best survived left alone.

    Great point you bring up I hadn’t considered. I was just wondering if the things (half finished, or things I can’t edit) were wasted effort since they are rotting in my draft box. They are. Nothing is a wasted effort then because one way or the other it’s important. Either helping emotional or improving writing. Thanks for the great read.

    • http://christicraig.com Christi Craig

      Glad the article was helpful. It’s tough to decide whether or not a piece is worth rewriting. I think, the more we write, our insight into making those decisions becomes clearer.

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  • http://guilie-castillo-oriard.blogspot.com/ Guilie

    You have given me a lot to think about. I just finished the first draft of my 3rd novel, but I’m still working on editing the first (with the help of a marvelous professional editor). That first one I wrote in 3 months, and have since spent over a year on it, first to clean up–echoes, verbosity, purple prose, yadda yadda–and then, this year (and courtesy of that fantastic editor who will go to Nirvana for it) a near-full rewrite that includes a new timeline and a whole new source of tension. Because, yes, that first draft was an issue piece. Since the rewrite, it’s felt more independent and less issue-y, but now I’m thinking that perhaps… Perhaps it still is. And perhaps I should leave it behind.

  • http://pamwrites.net Pam Parker

    What a great piece, Christi. I have found journaling – or something akin to Julia Cameron’s morning pages – to be important for me both as a writer, and as a sometimes-addle-brained person. I think, for me, they are critical for my mental health as well as my writing. And, yes, things burble up in there that sometimes make their way into essays, and sometimes not. Emotional words – issue pieces – are necessary steps. Thanks again!

    • http://christicraig.com Christi Craig

      I haven’t been as diligent lately with morning pages, but I still use them as an outlet and as a creative space. But, even if I don’t do them every day, you’re right — they’re necessary for my mental health!

  • http://bizziwriter.com Carrie Schmeck

    Good points here and so true. My early work was all angst-y and tended toward the negative feelings but hey, it got me writing, and writing a lot.

    • http://christicraig.com Christi Craig

      Oh yes, and that’s just it — to get us writing & keep us writing! Thanks for your comment, Carrie.

  • http://christicraig.com Christi Craig

    Like I was writing to CC, these are tough decisions. Not every issue piece has to stay in the drawer. I’ve gone back to a couple (after much distance – time and space), and been able to cut and rework them into something that still focuses on those life truths I wanted to write about in the first place and also reads with better structure and more audience relatability. Sounds like you’ve got a great editor on the case. A fresh set of eyes can make all the difference! Good luck!

  • http://annerallen.blogspot.com Anne R. Allen

    “Nothing in writing is wasted”. So true. I think the need to hang onto early drafts is one of the biggest problems with new writers. It takes so much courage to get those words on paper that we forget it’s just a sketch, not the finished product. But that doesn’t mean the sketch doesn’t have value.

    • http://christicraig.com Christi Craig

      Boy, looking at writing as a sketch (instead of draft 1,2, 3, etc.) gives me more flexibility to let go of some & keep other pieces. Thanks for commenting, Anne!

  • http://manwritingaromance.blogspot.com/ Dave Thome

    Good post, Christi. In a way, all fiction is journaling. We take stuff we know or have felt or have experienced and filter it through our imaginations to come up with something that means something to us–and hopefully, to our readers. Sometimes, though, the “issue pieces” aren’t whole essays or novels, but chapters or scenes or paragraphs or even single words that just don’t belong. Realizing that the don’t–and why–is key.

    • http://christicraig.com Christi Craig

      Great points, Dave. Thanks for stopping by!

  • http://cerrissakim.com Cerrissa Kim

    Thanks Christi-I found your website via Therese Walsh’s post on Writer Unboxed. Great words of wisdom and perfect timing as I am throwing out chunks of my first draft and replacing them with more poignant words in my second draft.

    • http://christicraig.com Christi Craig

      So glad you popped over! I’m just one of a great team of writers here, working under Suzannah’s leadership. There’s always plenty of great articles & resources here. Glad you found this one helpful & I hope you’ll stop by again.

      Also, good luck on your second draft. Doesn’t it feel good to keep moving forward?

  • Bernadette Phipps-Lincke

    Love this article. Most writers I would wager, have more discarded pieces of writing than finished projects. I have a wrecking yard full. Sometimes, i go there to salvage bits and pieces for new projects.

    I have also come to believe that whatever tumult consumes us from the beginning, never leaves–that it is the essence of all our art–evolving as we evolve as artists.

    • http://christicraig.com Christi Craig

      A wrecking yard full and a place of salvage, yep. That’s a great image, Bernadette :)

  • http://mkinnel.com Melissa Kinnel

    This was such a great post and I really loved “Nothing in Writing is Wasted”. I think some pieces are a form of therapy and it’s easier to put your feelings to pen and paper. I’ve written some poetry that is very personal and reflected some really deep issues that I was going through at that particular time in my life. I really don’t share those pieces with the public.

    I think your experiences in life always tend to come through your writing, even in writing fiction.

  • http://christicraig.com Christi Craig

    So glad you enjoyed the article, Melissa. Thanks so much for your comment.

  • http://ninabadzin.com Nina

    Oh YES I’ve had those days. Great article, Christi. I agree that no writing is ever really wasted or a waste of time.

  • shishir kumar

    thanks, for this article, very helpful, inspiring.

  • http://johnhenrybeck.wordpress.com John

    This was very good article that is a big help. I have notebooks full of stories that may or may not see the light of day. I think it helps just to write it all down and trust that the best stuff will bubble up.

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