Last night, I hit 11,300 words in my new novel. (Asking yourself what happened to Eleanor? See this post).

Writing a first draft is always a weird process for me. On one hand, the first draft is probably my most exhilarating draft. It is raw ideas splashed across a page. It is something created from nothing. How cool is that?

On the other hand, I haven’t had time to revise any of my writing, and I know that there are clumsy scenes and character inconsistencies and blah sentences. I jot these problems down on a notepad, grit my teeth, and keep moving forward—meanwhile all those problems are coalescing into a monster in the back of my brain. By the time I’ve finished the first draft, I am convinced that it is trash.

Recently, I interviewed three other writers, and they described similar feelings towards their first drafts, so I know I’m not alone.

But why? Why the vehemence? Why do we dislike our own writing so much?

1) The story is real to us.

In his Newbery medal acceptance speech, Neil Gaiman said, “I wrote [books] because I was interested in the stories, because there was a maggot in my head, a small squirming idea that I needed to pin to paper…”

All writers, I think, share that quality. We have vivid, squirming ideas in our head, and we want to bring them to life. But at the end of the day, no matter how rich our writing is, we have to be satisfied with ink and paper.

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It’s sort of like that feeling when you see a sunset, and your heart swells, and you try to take a picture of it to show all your friends… but the picture pales in comparison to the real thing.

There’s part of every story that readers never see, and it is that elusive, inexpressible depth which frustrates writers.

2) We have good taste.

Kate Dicamillo (who just won her third Newbery medal) cautions us that, “You have no business wanting to be a writer unless you are a reader.”

Fortunately, most writers are readers. Avid readers. Worshipful readers, even. Of course, all that reading teaches us what we like, what we don’t like, what’s expected of a book, what’s unexpected and delightful…

But it can also become an impediment, especially when we try to compare ourselves to our idols. Our good taste means that we have high standards, and sometimes, especially as beginners, we just can’t live up to those standards.

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Check out singer-songwriter Tessa Violet’s video about art and inadequacy for more on this idea.

Maybe it’s because we couldn’t afford a professional editor. Maybe it’s because we didn’t have as much time to pour into our book as we wanted. Maybe it’s because this is our first book, and we are just cutting our teeth on pacing and dialogue and the beauty of a creative analogy.

Whatever the reason, our good taste makes us wrinkle our noses at our own amateur writing–and instead of seeing potential, we see failure.

3) We are our own worst critics.

In a NaNoWriMo pep-talk, John Green informs us that he keeps a folder on his hard drive called “follies.” Inside that folder are the final drafts of Looking for Alaska, Paper Towns, and An Abundance of Katherines, all three of which are bestselling novels.

I think the idea that “we are our own worst critics” puts a finger on the narcissism that lies at the center of most human existence. In a universe full of beauty and horror, we pay a hugely disproportionate amount of attention to ourselves.

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Let’s put this into perspective. In 2016, I spent more time in turmoil over Eleanor than I did the expansion of Isis. On the day of the Miami shootings, I spent just as much time fretting over a tricky mother-daughter relationship in my book as I did grieving over the senseless human carnage 900 miles away. (I spent a lot of time doing both).

We magnify our mistakes and our errors. Often, we put them on the same scale as global events. So it’s no wonder, really, that a problem-riddled first draft fills us with revulsion.


All that said, it’s a beautiful thing to see a writer who is happy with her book. And many writers do reach that point, maybe not with a first draft, maybe not even with a first book, but with patience and determination, yes. We’ll get there.

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11 thoughts on “Why do writers dislike their own writing?

  1. I think we also fear that once we start really looking at our draft, plotting revision and trying to fix the flaws, that we will lose the cohesive subtext of the story that we were trying to capture, making nonsense of a poorly executed but passionately birthed idea…leaving a corpse where personality had once lain.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Wow! That’s a very new perspective to me. I am usually chomping at the bit to start revising. I have to stop myself with the reminder that “perfectionism is the enemy of progress.”

      So neat to hear an alternative opinion. Thanks for sharing!

      Liked by 2 people

    1. My husband (a literal clown) once told me that “behind every joke, there is a small truth.” Food for thought! In this case, I am in total agreement with the small truth. I nicknamed my manuscript Eleanor after the main character, but I intend to find a less drab title before I publish.

      Yes, I think fear of judgment definitely plays into our dislike of our own work. Writers usually have very active imaginations, and nothing feeds insecurity like a runaway imagination!

      Thanks for chiming in!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I am not a published author yet but every time I write something, even something small I am mostly unhappy with it, even after posting it or submitting it. But when you say “We’ll get there” its way inspiring.
    I like the perspective that one day it could happen.

    Like

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