August 18th is Bad Poetry Day, a celebration of terrible verse. Take a break from your blog to check out the poetry of William McGonagall, who is widely considered to be the worst poet who ever lived. But when you get back to your own work, consider this: Is there value in bad writing?
I think so.
At first, this may seem crazy. But even the greatest writers had to start somewhere. Ira Glass, host of This American Life, told aspiring artists this harsh truth. “For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. … [T]he most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions.”
In his book How Not to Write Bad, author and educator Ben Yagoda says that for most people, the goal of writing well is aiming too high. “…[Y]ou have to crawl before you can walk, and walk before you run. And you have to be able to put together a clear and at least borderline graceful sentence, and to link that sentence with another one, before you can expect to make like David Foster Wallace.”
There’s a big difference, however, between bad writing and poor writing. What makes writing bad? Cynthia Crossen tries to figure it out over at the Wall Street Journal, but in the end she can’t define it. After all, one person’s irredeemably bad is another person’s Twilight. Poor writing is easier to pinpoint; it’s writing that’s unskilled at a technical level. According to the folks over at Daily Writing Tips, “Poor writing is lazy, careless writing, an attempt to communicate without adequate preparation or care. It is writing replete with passive construction, limp verbs, leaden clichés, mixed metaphors, dangling participles and misplaced modifiers, and other enemies of clear prose.”
Poor writing is just a matter of learning the technical skills you lack. Bad writing, on the other hand, often comes from trying too hard to please or impress your reader. Steve Almond once encouraged the students in his workshop to write the worst prose possible for twenty minutes. The results surprised everybody: somewhere, in the midst of trying to write badly, they managed to produce something great. According to Almond, that’s because “nearly all genuinely bad writing arises from a self-conscious and overweening desire to write well. That’s why we muck up our sentences with self-regarding metaphors, leap into scenes before orienting our readers, and choose words that sound good but are imprecise.”
College professor David Starkey, in his book Genre By Example, praises the virtues of writing badly, staying that “giving myself permission to write badly makes it much more likely that I will write what I don’t expect to write, and that from those surprises will come some of my best writing.”
“Writing badly is also a convenient alternative to staring off into space waiting for inspiration,” Starkey adds.
So if you find yourself wondering what to write today, or worrying about whether your readers will like your post, or staring at the screen for an hour in an effort to come up with the perfect adverb to dazzle your readers, try this exercise: Write as badly as you can for ten minutes. Be as over-the-top terrible as you possibly can, and get it out of your system. You may be surprised at the results!