Writing: You’re Not Doing It Wrong Despite What Internet Randos Might Say

If writing hurts, you need to get a better typewriter.

No, no, that’s not it . . . let’s see . . .

If writing hurts, you should probably talk to your doctor about your arthritis . . . 

Almost there . . . wait, I’ve got it:

If writing hurts, get that broken glass off of your keyboard, and buy a couple of Band-Aids to boot.

There. I’ve solved your problem.

What is this, exactly, a solution for? For a strange idea I was made aware of by my friend, the author Chris Lansdown, that writing should somehow hurt.

Chris shared this bit of Internet writing advice he came across: 

Writing Tip: If “editing” your first draft consists of fixing a few typos and changing a word here and there, you’re not doing it right. A first draft should be ripped apart, refashioned, and sewn back together. Anything less is vanity.

“Anything less is vanity.” No, sorry. That’s not how it works.

As Chris notes, some writers can bang out very good first drafts. Others can’t. It’s not a question of “vanity” or “not doing it right.” It’s a question of skill and writing method. As with most things artistic, there is no right or wrong process, because process is not a one-size-fits-all thing. There are some universal tips and techniques that usually work for most people, but to say that usually first draft should be “ripped apart,” “refashioned,” and so on, or else you’re just ego tripping, is stupid.

I was going to say “preposterous,” but that’s too kind a word.

So where does this idea that “art is pain” come from? Do artists in other media think this way? Are painters like, “Listen bro: if you’re not painting over your entire painting 47 times, you’re doing it wrong!” Does a lack of ripping apart, refashioning, and sewing back together a first draft of a painting make, say, Bob Ross a bad painter?

NB: I will not tolerate Bob Ross slander on this blog. You have been warned.

Anyway, Chris gets to the root of where this idea comes from, and I agree with his assessment:

There is of course the explanation that such a writer just cannot see beyond their own limitations, but I can’t help but wonder if this attitude isn’t tied in to the idea of the tortured genius. It was an idea that, so far as I know, became popular somewhere in the 1800s, around the time of Byron and Shelley, who were tortured not so much be genius as by their inability to control their lust. Shelley, in particular, seems to have been afflicted in this way, and his vices seem to have been excused by himself and his wife and friends as, not weaknesses, but virtues. To try to say it was not bad for Percy Bysshe Shelly to cheat on his pregnant wife, they invented a new kind of morality where artists were excused from being halfway decent human beings because of the enormous value they gave to humanity. Their art, I mean.

I’m not sure why this idea was popular, but it does seem to have had some currency through at least the 1930s—at least if golden age detective stories are anything to go by. It also seems, curiously, to be more popular with women than with men; it seems to have been female writers who wrote about it approvingly, and within their fiction it was generally only the women (and occasionally a close male friend) who bought the nonsense. Why that is, I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s related to the “bad boy” phenomenon. And for that reason, the idea that one should tear a first draft up in a passion of anger at how far it falls short, and completely rework it, may be related.

As a related side-note, actual geniuses never seem to have been tortured, except occasionally by actual problems, like Beethoven being deaf. Shakespeare was, so far as we know, as reasonably happy as a recusant Catholic could have been in England in the late 1500s. Mozart seems to have no greater troubles than having a period when he didn’t make much money because a war made it hard for musicians; summary biographies don’t mention anything which would interest modern people by similarity, such as profound depression.

Shelly’s genius, to the degree that anyone still holds that he was a genius, seems very overrated. Ozymandias is a good poem, but certainly nothing worth excusing adultery for.

Casting the mind’s eye over other examples of tortured geniuses and actual geniuses, it seems like perhaps the thing that’s really attractive about the tortured genius is not the genius part, but the torture part. And I can’t help but think that this attitude that writing should be torture—what else can throwing away something one worked long and hard at be?—is an attempt to try to find some shreds of life in pain, by people who have no idea where to find life in this world.

Ah, the “tortured genius” trope. The artist featuring their hurt and inflicting their neuroses on US as they work them out via their art. You see this in the old Boomer mentality that “drugs totally made all of those bands good, maaaaan.”

It’s a joke to think that artists have to be tortured. It’s just silly. For every tortured genius, there are dozens of normal people who made fantastic art and weren’t miserable people and awful to others.

There’s another idea at play here, one we see with “aspiring writers” and other internet folks who look to other internet folks for validation that they’re doing this writing thing the right way: the idea of discipline.

“How do you handle writer’s block? What do you do if you don’t feel like writing?”

Just write, dammit. If you write or produce anything based upon the mercurial whims of your personal feelings, you’ll get nothing done. Hunker down and do it. You don’t perform your best at your day job based upon your feelings. At least, I sincerely hope you don’t; if you do, then God help your clients or anybody else who’s relying on you. Why would you rely on your feelings when it comes to doing something you ostensibly love to do, and would do for free?

I don’t understand it. 

Finding the energy to do stuff will be the focus of another post, but it’s still an important issue to talk about now. I understand full well that the original poster didn’t say anything about a lack of motivation, and in fact the idea that a first draft should basically be destroyed and rewritten or else you’re doing it wrong might speak to the writer in question having a lot of discipline. It’s just that it’s dumb.

Also, what’s the point of writing Moby Dick just to tear it up and write Don Quixote instead. Where do you stop? When you tear up Don Quixote and write Harry Potter instead?

I’m being ridiculous to prove a point here. Everybody has their own writing process–outlining versus winging it is but one obvious example–and they’re all equally valid as long as they work for you. If your process allows you to produce good writing, then that process is successful. How that process looks doesn’t matter. Maybe it matters to Mr. or Mrs. “Anything less is vanity,” but it sure doesn’t matter to me. And it shouldn’t matter to you either.

You’re not doing it wrong, and you shouldn’t listen to random internet people who tell you that you are (but totally feel free to listen to random internet people who tell you that you’re not). 


This story is fantastic. Great setting, interesting worldbuilding, and solid characters. I loved it!

30 comments

  1. Ha! I love it. My love affair with higher education ended when I was forced to write an outline, a rough draft, a revised rough draft, and a complete edit showing all your work before presenting a final paper. Allegedly if you didn’t have 15 pages of chicken scratch splattered with blood, you obviously didn’t put much effort into this assignment. If that works for you, great, but it is not a one size fits all world.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s hysterical! “If you’re not losing blood over you’re writing, you’re not a REAL writer!”

      What a joke. Yes, revise and edit. That’s good advice. But it doesn’t have to always be a TOTAL rewrite.

      Like

  2. I’m glad you brought this up.

    At one point, about two years ago, I wasn’t finishing any book I purchased or picked up at the library. I wasn’t yet aware of the Pulp Revolution. I was only aware that the state of sci-fi/fantasy was that it was churning out USDA Choice Grade ‘A’ Crap. And then giving the crap meaningless awards. My wife got tired of me complaining about the state of books, particularly science fiction and fantasy books, she told me to put up or shut up: write something you want to read. She knew I had dabbled in it for a decade or so, never really taking it seriously. I decided she was correct and that I should start writing, for real.

    A lot of the advice I have come across the past couple of years has been of the kind you write about here. All the talk of endless rewrites and drafts…man. It’s very demoralizing, if you let it be.

    Part of me thinks it’s supposed to be demoralizing.

    The Pulp Rev folks work together, support each other, push each other, sell each other. The writers outside the Pulp Rev, mainstream or not, remind me of the “Crabs in a Bucket’ analogy. They pretend to support each other but we’ve seen they wait for a chance to tear each other down for the smallest infraction against their shifting, changing mockery of morality. All while finding a way to stand out on Social Media for more publicity and climb over the competition to escape the bucket.

    I guess that’s a long way of saying I have a suspicion they give crappy, demoralizing advice on purpose. They view the writing world as a Zero-Sum game and they don’t want competition.

    Anyway, thanks for the advice and encouragement!

    P.S.- Bob Ross..man, that guy was a master! No one but a master makes it look that easy. He was quietly, unceasingly positive. And he was mesmerizing! I think my blood pressure dropped significantly while I was watching him.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Maybe it IS meant to be demoralizing. The thing I’ve found with lots of advice, especially internet advice, and especially when it relates to writing and, oddly enough, man/woman relations, is this: THE PERSON GIVING THE ADVICE BASES IT ON THEIR OWN INCREDIBLY NARROW PERSPECTIVE, AND EXTRAPOLATES AND PROJECTS IT ONTO THE WORLD AT LARGE. So it must be taken with a whole lot of salt.

      Even mine!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m not sure why the “all writing is rewriting” crowd is so adamant about it. My personal process is to write straight through a story until reach the end, and then go back and read for typos. I don’t rewrite unless I find a specific problem to be fixed, and then I only do as much rewriting as needed to fix the problem. Experience has taught me that my first creative impulse is usually the best and when I rewrite the result is–with very few exceptions–less powerful and more artificial than the original version.

    However, I don’t insist that my method is the only one that works. Some people do add more to subsequent drafts and their work gets better as they revise it. Knowing this, I don’t go around announcing that writing must be done in one take and that any time you rewrite you are creating crap.

    So why do people who work in a series of drafts and revise their work multiple times spend so much time telling everyone that it’s the only way that quality writing can be done? I don’t get it. I’m not threatened by their process, why do they get so upset with mine?

    Liked by 2 people

    • I don’t get it either Misha. Your method sounds cool, and it works FOR YOU, and you are not trying to claim it’s the ONLY way to write.

      People who DO claim it’s their way or the highway are either just fishing for attention and clicks, or are deeply insecure.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I wonder if casting doubt on your own processes because they’re different from some arbitrary third party’s is exasperated by over-schooling. I remember in school, I’d teach myself something, say how to read a map, only to have a teacher “correct” me later because I didn’t do things the prescribed way.

    Like you said Alexander, after a certain point, you’ve just got to do it, course-correct as needed, and seek specific advice when you hit roadblocks. I find that reading too much about someone else’s *process*, whether writing or fitness or whatever, only leads to self-doubt, procrastination, and worse results than if I had just done things myself.

    Liked by 2 people

    • That’s a really good theory—too much education is often counterproductive. Look at me, for example…

      And yes to obsessing over other’s processes! We all know that guy—or maybe we’ve BEEN that guy—who plans and plans and reads up and researches and doesn’t want to start ANYTHING until the time is “right”—and then five years pass and they never started anything. It’s sad.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Alexander

        I’m reading about how to outline a novel by a well known writer.
        She categorically states outline is both objective and subjective.
        Objective you need a hook, conflict and a resolution in a 3 act story.
        Subjective: find an outline method that works for YOU. And don’t fight the natural evolution as a writer.

        So I’m experimenting. But what I learnt: I need structure for my creative writing.

        Finally any artist whining about suffering needs Mike Rowe to hire him for a dirty job. Then the artist will inderstandcreal suffering

        xavier

        Liked by 2 people

  5. Looking at my experience, this is just cope. My first work needed more than one single draft because I didn’t really know what I was doing.
    We should just accept that. We had to learn the hard way.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Giuseppe

      Did you make an outline or notes before writing?

      That’s the problem. Everyone’s accepted the idea that art just comes naturally. It doesn’t. The CREATIVE impulse comes naturally but to create you need a plan/outline/drawing to channel the impulse into something concrete

      xavier

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Alexander

    Katie Welland.

    Adam recommended her via his writing course. Her free books and website are quite helpful and have helped orient me how I should approach outlining that’ll work for me.

    xavier

    Liked by 1 person

      • Alexander

        I read it through. Hey somebody’s gotta suffer:) what whiny sniveling petty scribbler. Wait til she discovers that in the Romance languages a face in feminine even for men and a nose is masculine even for women
        My reaction was yeah so what? You’rre so weak willed you let a totally fictional character dictate your hairstyle. Geez you’re pathetic or just maybe you don’t know how to care for your beautiful curly hair.
        xavier

        Liked by 1 person

      • You are made of stern stuff, my friend.

        These people are just losers at everything and want to feel important, so they meddle in and ruin other stuff that normal people used to produce and enjoy. It’s absurd.

        Thank God for NewPub.

        Like

  7. “Are painters like, “Listen bro: if you’re not painting over your entire painting 47 times, you’re doing it wrong!”

    Yes, yes, several are. Generally the ones whose paintings are nothing but textural gradients and splatters.

    Liked by 1 person

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