How Bad Writing Helps You Get Better
Lives cut short, so short.
And then she had to deal with me, a young reporter who had telephoned to do an interview about this news event for a story to run in the paper the next day. My question? “How do you feel?”
Her answer? A quick, biting, “How do you think I feel?”
Amazingly, she didn’t hang up on me.
I somehow managed to stumble all over myself, my words pouring out of my mouth like wild children racing from the schoolhouse at the end of the day. They had no direction, no focus, probably very little understanding of the moment.
That was at the start of my career and was one of the worst interviews I’ve ever done. I can’t remember if I was an intern or if I had just started working full-time at my first professional newspaper job. But what I do remember is how awful I felt after that interview and how terribly I messed it up. Who asks a woman on the day she is burying her sister and niece, “How do you feel?!”
But it’s the only way I knew to get the answer. That it was the worst way just never occurred to me.
I share this experience to make a point: Anything worth doing is worth doing badly until you get better. That goes for writing. Your writing career might start off poorly. You might ask ridiculous questions, write plodding stories, even screw up what you mean to say. But if you keep at it, you will get better.
I kept at it. I was a full-time newspaper reporter for seven years before leaving to run my own writing business full-time. I’ve been a professional writer since 1997, and wrote even before that, as a student reporter for my college’s paper, as an intern for the city’s daily paper, and as an employee at weekly community papers while in school. I’ve covered flash floods, wading through brown water that came up past my knees. I’ve interviewed hurricane evacuees at shelters. I’ve talked with homeowners after their houses have been ripped apart by tornadoes. I’ve spent hours walking to and from a command post outside of a hostage situation, hoping the cops would give me some information so I could go back and write my story. I’ve interviewed celebrities. I’ve made school board meetings sound interesting. I’ve written investigative pieces and light, fun vignettes. I’ve written books and I’ve written sales material. I’ve even won some awards along the way.
This all came because I kept at it.
I’ve said it here before and it stands repeating: You don’t have to be great to get started, but you do have to get started to be great. That’s something I learned from motivational speaker Les Brown, and I believe it holds true for your writing career. When I started out, all I had was talent and desire. I didn’t have all the things that come with experience: Skills, wisdom, judgment, technique. But I learned all that, by doing.
I didn’t let a few awkward interviews or clumsy stories dissuade me. I wrote and wrote and wrote. And I grew and grew and grew.
Writing is one thing you can’t learn simply by reading about it. Reading is great, of course. You have to read to be a writer. But you can’t be a writer without writing. The more you do it, the better you become. I didn’t know there were other questions I could have asked that woman to get a heartfelt response for my story. Other less offensive — and dumb — questions. But it’s only by going through that experience and others that I was able to learn better interviewing skills.
Today, I can conduct an interview even with little preparation, simply because of the sheer amount of experience I have. And I can make any interview subject feel comfortable.
Whether you are just starting out as a writer or you’ve been at it a while, know that writing is something you can learn. And that means even if you think you are bad at it now, you can become better. Your bad writing can pave the way for your great writing.
Three ways bad writing helps you get better
You can learn …
1. How to conduct an interview. Interviewing is a skill. You don’t have to be born with the ability. You can learn how to research your subject, think through what your reader would want to know and needs to know, and how to craft your questions. You can learn how to be comfortable with the thing many people are afraid of — silence. Don’t be afraid to let silence sit between you and your source. Ask a question. If silence follows your question, it’s OK. Let your source fill it with an answer you might not have gotten if you had rushed to fill the quiet with your unnecessary words.
2. How to structure a story, article, or other piece. The more writing you do, the better you get at pacing, structure, and story flow. At first you may make the rookie mistakes of trying too hard. You’ll use big words where smaller ones will do. You’ll try to force similes and metaphors. You’ll try too darn hard to show off how smart you are. But if you read enough and write enough — and put your writing out there for review enough — you’ll begin to shed those dreadful habits.
3. How to connect with your reader. You have to touch something in your reader that makes her want to keep reading what you’ve written. It doesn’t matter if it’s a sexy subject or one that seems awfully boring. You can find an interesting angle or an interesting way to write about even the most boring subject. After all, that’s your job as the writer. If you can’t make it interesting, then start over. It has to be interesting to its intended audience. Write enough pieces and you’ll find that you can make even paint sound interesting. That’s your experience talking.
I am forever sorry I made that woman feel so bad at such a difficult time, as she buried her loved ones following a senseless crime. But I am grateful for the experience of a bad start to help me get better.