Wednesday, June 21, 2017

11 Things to Do When Your Writing Feels Like Rubbish

graphics mine, image via Pinterest 

What happens when you spend your week absorbed in writing and putting in your hours at work and neglect to plan ahead? The blog schedule falls by the wayside, that's what! I apologize for missing Saturday, folks. (Although you did get a bonus post last Wednesday, so you can't complain too much.) I decided to pop in this fine Wednesday as well, because I've got something important to discuss with you.

A couple days ago, a lovely young lady reached out and asked for advice on her writing dilemma.

"I've had a lot of trouble writing lately, feeling like my work is rubbish, and sounds cheap. I took a little break and want to get back to it now but I still feel like my work is not cutting it."

Her timing was uncanny, because that's similar to what I was going through last week. In fact, it's something every writer contends with. So here are some ideas to get out of that slump!*

*I'm pretty sure about 72.8% of the items on my list are things I've unconsciously pilfered from other sources, but that's neither here nor there.

1. Study other writers' work

Sometimes when you feel like your writing is junk, it's not because you've fallen out of love with your idea, your plot, or your characters, but with the very writing itself. I sporadically go through slumps where it feels like I've forgotten how to string one word after another. Every paragraph sounds the same, and I get sick of it very quickly.

One way to jumpstart your way out of that is to pick up a book by a favorite author, someone who really knows his or her craft. Copy a few pages of their book out on paper or a fresh Word doc. The physical act of retyping every word will make you pay attention to their style, voice, and sentence construction--and it may just breathe some fresh life into your own.

A slight caveat: when you return to writing your story, this may make your first chapter or two sound like Jane Austen or J.R.R. Tolkien or Maggie Stiefvater or whomever you copied. (That happens to me sometimes even when I'm just casually reading! Suddenly half a page sounds like a knockoff of somebody else before it returns to my voice.) It's pretty much the writer's version of osmosis, but it will pass, and some editing later on will get those copycat words to sound more like your own.

2. Reread the parts of your writing that you love

I wrote/edited my way to the end of The Brightest Thread recently, but it's still too short, so I'm rereading everything to see where else I can make additions. As I was reading over it, my mom pointed out that I was grinning at my laptop. The scene I'd been reading was just too wonderful not to smile!

I don't say that as a pat on the back, but merely to point out that remembering the scenes you're proud of is a great way to produce another good one. When you're deep in the drafting or editing stage, your focus is often on one scene, one sentence--goodness, even one word--at a time. You're too close to your work, especially when editing, and so it's easy to see all the flaws. But going back to refresh your memory will bring to mind the parts that really shine, which may be just the boost of confidence you need.

3. Give yourself permission to write junk

I picked this lesson up from Gail Carson Levine's lovely little book called Writing Magic: Creating Stories That Fly. Sometimes you're just in a slump, okay? That's no reason to beat yourself up, because we all have been there, and unless you find the magical elixir that allows you to transfer your brilliant stories from your mind to the page with a snap of your fingers, you'll fall into a slump again. That's not meant to be a discouragement, dear writer. Just a reminder that you've been there before, and you got out of it. You're in it now, but you'll get out of it. And you'll be there again, and once more you'll get out of it.

In the meantime, allow yourself to write junk.

Even if it means typing I AM NOW COMMENCING THE GARBAGE FEST AND ALL WORDS FOLLOWING ARE JUNK, JUNK, JUNK on the page, do it. Even if it means talking to yourself in the middle of a scene--Bartholomew drew his sword and yelled, "That's the last time you'll do anything of the sort!" Good grief, this is lame. Bart has obviously been reading cheap comic books and picking up bad habits. Gotta get him some better reading material. The dark knight chuckled darkly and replied, "The dark will always win, little hero." AYE KARUMBA, EVERYTHING IS DARK AND DASTARDLY AND UTTER GARBAGE--

Do it.

Eventually, you'll find that the junk gives way to something halfway decent. Write yourself straight through that slump! I've heard it said that done is better than perfect.

4. Write something else

Take a break from that story you're so worried is rubbish, and switch gears. Pull out a writing prompt, make up a writing exercise, write some fanfiction, whatever! Try your hand at a genre you've never attempted and scribble out a page or two. Dream up some new narrative technique and experiment. If you normally write lyrically, go for something stark. If you've been writing in first person, try omniscient. If fantasy is your gig, try out a Victorian mystery. You don't have to finish it; the point is simply to limber up those writing muscles again. Creativity feeds creativity.

5. Stop comparing

One of the quickest routes to feeling depressed as a writer (or as a person) is to play the comparison game. We tend to place our worst flaws alongside someone else's greatest strengths. Of course that's going to be discouraging! Put everyone else out of your mind and just write. Write your story, your way. This is especially crucial when you're on a first draft! They're never perfect.

It's also important to remember that everyone is at a different place on their journey. It isn't fair to yourself to compare your WIP with a bestselling author's thirtieth novel. I would even go so far as to say, if you've completed stories in the past, don't even compare your WIP to your polished drafts. Those two stories are at different stages. It's like complaining your apple tree is dying because the apple you just picked is green and unripe, and not at all like the beautiful red one you bought at the store.

6. Give yourself time

I can be straight with you brave souls, right? If you're sensitive to criticism, skip to the next point, but if you want the unvarnished truth, then here it is:

If you feel like your writing is rubbish, you might be right.

I refused to even think it back when I started writing seriously. I thought my stories were amazing. Some of them were amazingly awful, but I didn't realize it at the time, and that's okay. It's okay I didn't see it, and it's okay that they were awful. The beautiful thing about any skill is that it can be grown. And when it comes to something growing, time is absolutely necessary. You may not be where you want to be as a writer just yet, but you're on your way! Accept where you are right now, dream about where you're going, and then put in the work to get there.

Malcolm Gladwell said in his book Outliers that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert at anything. Whether that's scientifically accurate or not, the principle remains: you need practice and time to grow your skill set.

On another note, you need to give yourself time with this particular story. Maybe it hasn't had a chance to fully develop, and both you and the story are experiencing growing pains. Be patient, and as I said before--you can write your way through this.

7. Read voraciously

This is the more organic sibling of point number 1 (study other writers' work). When my writing is suffering, one of the frequent common denominators is that my reading is suffering too. Give yourself a few days away from your manuscript--or weeks if you're in a really bad place--and consume someone else's stories for a change!

8. Learn voraciously

As you're giving yourself time and giving yourself permission to write junk, you know you don't want to stay there. You want to improve. So if writing is something you're serious about pursuing, read some good books or blog posts about the writing craft! If you can afford it, attend a workshop or a conference. Go to book signings or author events. Ask questions.

On the topic of blog posts, by the way--you may want to be choosy. I'm totally undermining myself here, but look for the blogs/websites of people who are "ahead of you" on the writing road, so to speak. Of course, I believe you can learn from absolutely anyone, including peers and also those who may be "behind you." But you're more likely to learn something new from someone who's more experienced than you are. Many published authors provide helpful advice online. (I've actually wanted to do a post on writing resources ever since I started blogging. One of these days!)

But the main thing is that you learn.

9. Get critiqued

Alone, you can only see 180 degrees, yes? But with a friend, you can see 360 degrees. No matter how good you are at writing, you'll miss something, so it's helpful to get a few more sets of eyes on your work to help you pick out the trouble spots, inconsistencies, and snags.

Peers make great beta readers, and if you can manage to get feedback from a professional, that's golden! You might not be able to pinpoint what's wrong with your writing, you just know something feels off. But someone with more distance might be able to give you that eureka moment.

10. Recognize outside factors

I mentioned earlier that last week was rough writing-wise. Partway through, I realized it wasn't just because the actual writing was slow. So, feeling frustrated and unhappy, I examined the issue and found out that:

a) I was filling all my free time with writing, and then staying up too late doing things like reading books or blogs to relax--so I wasn't getting the rest I needed
and b) there had been a few stressful incidents at work that made my shifts more draining than usual.

Feelings are just signals! A negative feeling is like a window popping up on your computer to tell you that something is wrong. It doesn't always mean your writing is trash, and it certainly never means that you are trash.

Life isn't separated into neat little boxes. So many things can affect your writing: health, sleep, relationships, stress, finances. So when you hit an authorial slump, consider what else might be a contributing factor, and give yourself the grace to deal with that situation.

11. Pray

Everyone makes tidy lists of ten, but I couldn't leave this eleventh point out. The biggest outside factor is your relationship with God. Take this from someone struggling with her devotional life as we speak: when you're not spending time with God, whether that be reading the Bible, praying, or taking a walk while listening to worship music, everything else in life suffers. Including your writing.

I know, I know how it feels. Not all of you are task-driven people, but for those of you who are: I understand that putting off writing to pray or even to relax with a good book feels like . . . well, not necessarily time wasted, but time not spent writing.

But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. -Matthew 6:33 NIV

The thing is, you can't afford not to pursue God. And when it comes down to it, isn't He the most creative being to ever exist? Didn't He hang the stars and fashion chimpanzees and create thunderstorms with just a word? You, dear writer, dear soul, are created in the image of the Creator! You are a creative being--that's part of your very nature--but your creativity flourishes best when it is fed by a thriving bond with your Creator.

And that's all the advice I have today, my friends. I'm off to go practice what I just preached (The Brightest Thread, here I come!), but before I go . . .

Stay tuned for Saturday, because I have a very special guest joining us!


  1. Wow! That was beyond amazing! Thank you for this =) -Aislyn

  2. This be so helpful. Thank you, Tracey ;D

  3. So awesome, okay? Just seriously awesome post and advice. And fun. I am not in a slump right now but maybe I will go write junk just for the fun :D

    1. Haha, thanks, Lisa! :D Go have fun with that junk. Even when I'm not in a slump, sometimes it's fun to just throw some words on a page and see what comes of it. XD

  4. Oh yeah. Ultimately, I think you just have to write. The reading part is very important, but even then, you're probably not going to be writing something exactly like an existing novel, and if you are, that's probably not good. I suppose you could mention that writing out some notes could help you write better in your first draft, but that's an option based upon taste. I'm currently 9,402 words into a novel that's looking pretty rough, but I don't think I can expect much better as a writer with very little experience in novel-writing and a specialty in short short fiction. If I don't go on to a new book immediately after I finish, I think a rewrite would be able to make it a lot better.

    1. Absolutely, "JUST WRITE" is the most succinct (and often most effective) advice.

      The point of reading lots and studying other authors isn't to sound like them, though I do believe that all art begins with imitation. It's to start picking up a writer's intuition. I learned grammar from reading copiously as a child, and only when I hit high school did I start to connect my "but this just sounds right" to actual grammatical terms and rules. Same thing with story arcs, dialogue, plot, etc.!

      For some writers, myself included, writing out notes is very helpful too! Thanks for mentioning that one.

      9k is a great start. And don't worry, everyone's first draft is rough, particularly if you haven't written very many longer stories yet. Have patience with yourself!

  5. I'm not very good at #3, but I often use #2 to get my back into the mood.

    Thank you for that lovely last tip- such a key element to writing as well as everything else!

    1. Ah yes, giving yourself permission to write junk isn't easy. (Especially for recovering perfectionists like myself, lol!) Rereading definitely helps me get back into the mood too! I know some writing coaches advise no rereading or editing when you're writing the first draft, but I find that rereading a few pages of the previous day's work helps me better pick up where I left off.

      You're welcome! Preaching at myself here, honestly!

  6. All excellent tips! Thank you!

    I have found that outlining, even loose outlining that I'm perfectly willing to kick to the curb should a better idea pop into my head in the moment of writing (or if the characters take off in a different direction... always let your characters have their heads when this happens, they know best) helps a lot with getting through these sorts of slumps. I used to hate outlining, but I have come to appreciate its usefulness of late.

    1. Thank YOU, Jenelle!

      So much yes to loose outlining! I still haven't figured out what method of outlining works best for me (I know I'm not a full-on pantser, though), but even just a casual list helps me out of plot knots. In the past, I've made rigid outlines and forced my characters to follow it, which ends up being a very dissatisfying way to write! Thanks for the tip!

  7. *huggles post and never lets it go* You give the BEST writing advice! THE BEST. I always get soooo excited when I see you've done a writing advice post. It's always a well of writing knowledge!

    Each one of these points are brilliant, and many of them things I've had to learn through the years...and am still learning. #1 REALLY struck me. It has never occurred to me to write out some paragraphs of someone else's writing to get a feel for their words and writing structure. :O THAT IS BRILLIANT. I do notice when I'm reading a book, my writing will often turn into the style of that book. Which sometimes...I love. Not plagiarize, obviously! Just to get a feel of well done writing and learn how to do it myself, you know? So actually writing out their words, not just reading them, takes it to a whole new level. I LOVE THIS. I need to try this sometime!

    You totally made me laugh at #3 with your example of writing junk. "AYE KARUMBA, EVERYTHING IS DARK AND DASTARDLY AND UTTER GARBAGE--" XDDDD I'll admit...I've totally done that before. I usually erase it right afterwards, but some days I can't help but just make sarcastic comments about my own novel while typing. It's the little things that keep us writers sane. ( Depends on how you look at it. XD)

    You are sooo right with #10. Sometimes, when life is hard, I think my writing is AWFUL. But then I go back and read it and realize it's fine, it's just life is dragging m down and it makes me FEEL like everything I write is garbage. Or my writing isn't fine at all and I need to take a break to deal with my life, just like you said. I think it's kind of fascinating how our outside life affects our writing. But it definitely does! And it's something we have to remember and give ourselves grace over. *nods*

    Your final point touched my heart so much. And it's SO true. When I started turning Burning Thorns into a novel, I decided to pray before each writing session. And I think that book came out better and easier than any other novel I've written. I'm so glad you mentioned praying, because I actually forgot I was making a habit of praying before working on my stories! You're such a blessing, Tracey. <3 And isn't it so beautiful how interested God is in our writing, and how His presence helps our creativity flow? Just thinking about it makes me nearly choke up. :')

    Thank you sooo much for sharing with us! Such wonderful tips!

    (Also, did you say you wrote the ending of TBT???? AAAAHHHHHH!!!! CONGRATS! So are you just making tweaks now? How are things going??? I hope the last bit of it flows wonderfully! *makes you more inspirational cookies*)

    1. *the post huggles you back* XD Wow, I'm kind of amazed to hear that, actually! I usually hesitate to do writing posts because I feel like most of what I have to say has all been said before, and by more competent folk than myself. But I'm honored to hear that you see it differently! <3

      I can't say I've done #1 all that often, but even just rereading a well-written book and pausing now and then to examine a paragraph helps.
      Exactly, it's not to plagiarize, but imitation is where we begin, right? An artist learns by studying their subject matter AND by imitating other artists. A songwriter begins by learning other people's songs. Same with writing, I would think. :)

      LOL, leaving yourself sassy comments is a lot of fun! I find it helps get my inner editor off my back when I'm writing. Usually I use the comment function on Word (because I still have a tidy side that dislikes random gibberish altering my wordcount!), but that's where I let the sarcasm loose. It manages to address the problems in a way that lets me laugh at myself, remember it for later, AND continue to move forward despite the junk. XD (Hehehe...probably keeps us insanse, tbh...)

      Same here! I read this quote somewhere--can't remember who said it or what the exact wording was, just that it was along the lines of "writers are simultaneously convinced of their staggering genius and their..." I forget what it was... foolishness? Ineptitude? Something like that! I'm totally butchering it, and should really comb through my writer's board on Pinterest to find it, but anyway! XD
      Giving ourselves grace is usually easier said than done, huh?

      That's so great, Christine! I've fallen in and out of that habit myself. Thank YOU for reminding ME! I need to get back to doing that whenever I sit down to work on The brightest Thread. I know, I'm so amazed that God cares about what we care about, writing and all! ^_^

      (Well, I wrote myself TO the ending, but it doesn't mean I'm finished! My first pass brought the novel up to 55k, which is decent, but not yet a proper novel size. I still want to hit 80k at least. :P Thank you for the fresh batch of inspirational cookies, my dear!!!)

  8. I'm going to need this post in the coming months, because my writing always feels like rubbish. I think the hardest thing for me is to give myself time. I want to write like a bestselling author, but I'm not a that skill level. I am going to bookmark this.

    1. For your Snow White retelling, am I right? :D Aww, self-doubt is so crippling. But you can do this, Skye! Give yourself grace and time, and just enjoy the whole journey. You've got a fantastic imagination fueling your writing, dear. <333

  9. Great tips! I really have to watch myself with the comparison game. That's my biggest stumble point. ^ ^'

    1. Thanks, Tori! I struggle with that on and off as well. It's easy to become jealous of talented, published authors, but they all had to start somewhere too! ^.^

  10. YES TO ALL OF THESE!!! :D I've been in a bit of a writing slump too, feeling like my writing isn't very good and not feeling motivated to move forward with it.

    I tend to do the same thing when I'm reading another author I really like, my own writing starts to sound like them. XD It's kind of funny, but editing does help with that.

    YES, rereading your favorite parts helps soooo much! I've been so encouraged by just looking over my writing and thinking 'you know, that was pretty good. Maybe this story isn't so bad after all.' ^_^

    Praying, of course, helps a lot. Letting Him work out the mess for you through prayer and time is sometimes the best thing you can do. <3

    Thank you for sharing this, Tracey! I'm definitely going to save this post in my bookmarks!

    1. YOU CAN DO THIS, MADELINE! *waves pompoms* We all go through those times. The important thing is to learn from it and write yourself out of it!

      Funny how that works, isn't it? It's like, "Ooookay, then, so-and-so just hijacked my manuscript." o.O

      Oh, me too! It's also great when you reread a funny part and still manage to make yourself laugh! XD

      Mmhmm, amen to that. It's amazing how after giving the problem to God, something will just click in place.

      Glad it was helpful! <333

  11. Awesome tips! They're so helpful; I especially love number 11! God is amazingly creative, and there is so much inspiration we can get from his wondrous work. Thanks for sharing! <3

    1. Thank you, Melissa! :D I definitely agree. He IS the greatest storyteller ever, so I think He's got a lot to share with us when it comes to writing our own stories. :)

  12. I needed this. You're so right about #11. Lately I've wondered why I haven't had the heart to write, but why would one go to all the trouble of writing if they've lost sight of the greater purpose? I just need to refocus.

    1. Well, I'm glad it came at an opportune time for you! Very true. Refocusing on the big purpose will breathe new life into our writing AND into ourselves. <3

  13. GREAT list. I especially like #1... I've never thought to copy out another writer's words before! I'm going to have to try that. I like #4, too. It's hard for me to switch gears because I feel that if I start a story, I need to finish it. If I can allow myself the freedom to try out different genres without having to finish a story, I might be pleasantly surprised with what happens with my writing. And #11 is ultimately important, yes, yes, yes.

    1. Thank you so much, Abbey! :D Let me know how #1 works for you. Oh goodness, I am the exact same way--when I start something, I MUST FINISH OR THE WORLD WILL END. Maybe not that bad, get the picture. XD But yes, when you give yourself the freedom to just try something without having to finish it, fun stuff happens. <3

  14. Lovely post! I hope TBT is going well. I'm not exactly in a slump at the moment, but I feel a bit ... unfocussed. Like I'm in this weird in between where I'm not on a TCATT break, but I'm not working on it every day in a linear finish. I "finished" the fifth draft over a week ago, and then I was on holiday, but today I returned it to polish some scenes I rewrote in Draft 5. And that's weird, jumping from chapter to chapter without reading the whole thing. Maybe if I was a better human being I would read the whole thing again, but I literally canNOT face it. Now I have quite a large change I want to make near the end (there! is! a! plot hole!), so I'm gearing up for that, but it's annoying because I'm going on camp this Saturday, then back for a week, then off on another camp, so .... when? GAHH you might say. So I feel like I'm not really "in" the book, more like I'm chipping away at it in a halfhearted fashion. This is not conducive to good writing / loving the book.

    I'm also plotting a new book/series????


    Anyway, this was a helpful post, and the very last paragraph gave me goosebumps! Lots of love <3

    1. Thanks, Em! <3 TBT is nearing completion (!), though I'm stumped on one or two editing issues at the moment.

      Yuck, that unfocused feeling is not fun. I've been doing a lot of piecemeal work on TBT myself, and it just feels odd. I tend to be a linear writer too. But oh nooo, the dreaded plot hole! I hope that your on-again-off-again work ends up being in your favor and gives you a great idea for how to fix it. *sends inspirational cookies*


      Awww, thank you! Lots of love right back atcha! <3

  15. I had NEVER though of Number 1 before!!! Like the whole writing out a page of another author's writing???? BRILLIANT!!! I am going to have to try that!

    Number 3 is also fabulous advice and I need to do it more when I'm stuck. Also HUGE YES to 7 and 8!!!

    1. Go for it! I hope it helps you! It's not a technique I've intentionally used a lot yet, but I'd like to give it another go sometime. :)

      Aww, I'm glad the tips were helpful! Happy writing, Kate! <3