Write Start: P.J. Brackston on Allowing Yourself to Write Badly

Editor's Note: P.J. Brackston is the New York Times bestselling author of The Witch's Daughter; The Winter Witch; and Nutters. Her latest book is Gretel and the Case of the Frog Prints, out this month. For Signature's Write Start series, in which authors share advice about how to start writing, P.J. reminds aspiring writers to get over that illusory idea of perfection. It doesn't exist. Write down what you have, then polish it over time. 

The best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave me was "Allow yourself to write badly." There’s nothing that petrifies a writer more than the pursuit of perfection. You have this idea of a story in your head, glowing and golden and wonderful, and as soon as you try to set it down on the page, it turns into something plodding, grey, and feeble. Disappointment and despair come to sit at your side, shaking their heads at your woeful work. You waste valuable writing time beating yourself up about not producing anything special, so eventually you produce nothing at all.

So what I say is: Just write! Get something down. Later on you can tweak and polish and fiddle about (I believe this is called editing) as much as you like, but before you can make changes, it’s vital that you at least have something to work with.

Chances are, those first faltering paragraphs will be a bit clunky, perhaps even downright bad, but they are the raw material you can shape and hone into something closer to that original, shining idea you had. In those early stages, you are creating sketches for what will one day be the finished masterpiece. The version of War and Peace published is not a first draft, any more than the Mona Lisa is the work of one inspiration-fuelled afternoon. I bet it took Leonardo ages to get that nose right.

The second gem of advice I was given when I started out was “Trust the process.” A bit of a threadbare expression, I know, but a truly helpful one for the writer. This must be your mantra at the halfway stage, when the enormity of the gap between what you have and what you want becomes apparent. It is not the hop, skip and jump you had hoped for; it is a Grand Canyon, a Mariana Trench of a chasm, and you can’t see how you will ever cross it.

What kept me going early in my career (and what keeps me going still) was the unshakeable belief that it would all come good in the end. That if I kept writing -- kept working through the story, putting words on the page, letting the characters and the plot ferment in my mind, following where they led, and allowing myself to be surprised and be brave -- that answers to seemingly impossible quandaries would present themselves. Admittedly, this belief was born of a combination of stubbornness and terror, but it was propped up by those three little words, and trusting the process always got me to the other side.

To these two nuggets of wisdom, I would add my own: Develop a healthy relationship with your muse. Through the centuries there has been a lot of guff talked about the elusive goddess of inspiration who must be gently wooed and monstrously pandered to if we are to get the best from her. The writer must be in the right mood, in the right place, in the right condition, with the right brand of tea, the right type of biscuits, dammit the right pen/pencil/notebook/software/talisman/blah blah blah.

I think not.

It helps me to picture my muse as a sulky-but-talented teenager, who responds to a combination of no-nonsense plain speaking and gentle affection. I have half an hour in which to write. Now. Here. I ignore my headache, and I try to forget about that sinkful of dirty dishes, and I tune out the accompaniment of next door’s lawnmower. I might still be smarting from that argument with my partner, and I may not not have a clue what I’m going to do about the unpaid electricity bill, and I don’t know where I’m going with this chapter or why my character has decided to dye her hair green. But let’s do it. You and me, Muse. Let’s get something onto the virtual paper, with my desire and determination, and your pipkin of magic, and let’s see what we can produce.

Which is pretty much how I wrote this piece.

Check out more in Signature's Write Start series.