You Have Permission to Suck

by Ruthanne Reid | 44 comments

It's NaNoWriMo, and around here, that's also known as “your inner critic just drank a Red Bull and came after you with claws” month.

Learn to Write / You Have Permission to Suck

The goal of this post is to help you shut him up.

Yes, You Do Have Permission to Suck

We all feel like we should be writing well right off the bat. That what we create should be ready now, tomorrow, or maybe even yesterday. And when it isn't, we beat ourselves up.

Here's the thing: sucking as a writer is the only way to learn to write well.

You read that sentence, and you're already making excuses, aren't you?

You have permission to suck. (“No, I don't. I have to be good at this.”)

You have permission to suck. (“No,  I don't. If I suck, then I have no business being a writer.”)

You have permission to suck. (“Says who?!”)

It's about time you asked that. Here's my answer: every writer who's ever made their mark.

Permission From the Greats… to Suck

We all know what it's like to write things that suck. I do it. You do it. Anyone who's ever tried to transfer their imagination and dreams and wisdom to paper has experienced mighty suckage.

In order to capture the stuff of your imagination on paper the way you want it to appear, you have to learn to write. And in fact, a large part of learning to write is sucking for the first enormous portion of it. But don't take my word for it.

A writer’s apprenticeship involves a million discarded words before he’s almost ready to begin.
—David Eddings

That's not a million excellent words. They're words not worth keeping. And that's a lot of suck.

If it were good the first time, it wouldn't need to be rewritten. It's almost like Michener, an award-winning author of more than 40 books, has a pretty good idea of what it means to give himself permission to suck.

In fact, C. J. Cherryh, author of more than sixty books, says much the same thing:

She says that because she—like the rest of us—has a lot of experience writing garbage.

Solidarity in Sucking

I know how hard it is to write garbage, especially when you want so much more for the story in your head. You know what you want your writing to be; you know how good books and stories move you. When what comes out of you isn't as good as you want, it's very, very easy to grow discouraged.

There are times, in fact, when what you write just . . . isn't even salvageable. News flash: that is also normal.

If you are willing to do something that might not work, you’re closer to being an artist.
—Seth Godin

In other words, in order to learn to write, you have to be willing to write stuff that won't work. Why? Well, Vonnegut actually answers that:

If you give up writing because what you wrote sucks, then you're just abandoning the path every writer before you has already taken.

In other words, here is your new mantra: My writing sucks? Good! I'm on the right path.

Yes, This Means You

No, you don't have to apply a standard of perfectionism to yourself that the greats don't. They've already walked this path; to become a writer, to learn to write well, you have to write and write and write and write.

Kind of like becoming a musician. Have you played an instrument, or do you know anyone who has? When they started, they sucked, didn't they? (It's okay; you can admit it. I won't tell.)

Learning any art takes time. And if you hold yourself to high standards from moment one, you are likely to give up.

But if you give yourself permission to suck, then when you do suck, instead of being thrown, you'll go, “Oh, there it is. Well, I knew suckage was coming,” and you'll be able to keep going.

NaNoWriMo is a really special time for combating that inner critic (who is, as I've often said, a jerk). Your inner critic's goal is to keep you from writing no matter what. That means your own goal must be to keep writing—no matter what.

You can do this, fellow writer. Don't give up. Write.

Have you been tripped up by your inner critic lately? Let us know in the comments!

PRACTICE

Take fifteen minutes and write. Just write. Don't worry if it sucks. Give yourself permission to suck, and in the process, knock your inner critic on the head. Don't forget to respond to other writers in the comments and give them a hand beating up that inner critic!

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Best-Selling author Ruthanne Reid has led a convention panel on world-building, taught courses on plot and character development, and was keynote speaker for The Write Practice 2021 Spring Retreat.

Author of two series with five books and fifty short stories, Ruthanne has lived in her head since childhood, when she wrote her first story about a pony princess and a genocidal snake-kingdom, using up her mom’s red typewriter ribbon.

When she isn’t reading, writing, or reading about writing, Ruthanne enjoys old cartoons with her husband and two cats, and dreams of living on an island beach far, far away.

P.S. Red is still her favorite color.

44 Comments

  1. Claudia Peel

    Love this!

    Reply
    • Ruthanne Reid

      Thank you, Claudia! Write and don’t be afraid. You can do this!

  2. Sally Spratt

    As usual another great post.

    Reply
    • Ruthanne Reid

      Thank you, Sally! I hope it helps you write bravely. 🙂

  3. Jason Bougger

    Nice post. It’s a good reminder to stick with a story, even when you feel like it’s no good. I pulled out a couple of stories I never finished a few years ago…wow, suck they did. They also reminded me of how much I’ve improved in the last couple of years.

    Reply
    • Ruthanne Reid

      That is great, Jason! And you’ve hit on one of the primary reasons to push through sucky writing: as we improve, we can actually look back and see how we’ve improved. that’s a priceless thing, in my opinion. Keep writing and keep improving!

    • I'm determined

      That gives me hope. Thanks Jason, RuthAnne

  4. ERIC ONGERI

    Recently, I found a manuscript that I had written two years ago. It really was a good story, but it lacked ‘flavour’ thus it sucked, a lot. However, from what I have learned in this post, I have gained the courage to rewrite it based on the much I have learned since then to date.

    Reply
    • Ruthanne Reid

      I am SO glad to hear that, Eric! That’s the right spirit to have. A bad page can always be fixed.

      You can do this. Don’t give up. I’m so glad that you’re willing to try again!

  5. Serena

    Thank you so much for post like these. I didn’t even know locking away the inner critic was something people did, I’ve always struggled with perfectionism in everything, all the way from grade 9 art class for goodness sake. And it’s carried over into university life, where perfectionism has become procrastination. But now it’s like I’m going through a sort of revelation, I never used to have an imagination but nanowrimo seems to have brought it to life. I never used to be able to accept anything less than perfect first try, but it’s getting better. It’s strange, and brilliant, it’s like everything is being seen new, it’s a strange kind of freedom to not be dogged by hatred for the things I try and make, and it’s exciting all the possibilties that open.

    I play an instrument, as well. Guitar can be hard, and believe me you won’t be good first off. Getting used to chords and switching between them, it’s pretty sucky. But over time you develop muscle memory, and it becomes so easy. But even then, when you know them backwards, you screw up a lot. Stop paying attention and suddenly, some how, you’re playing the wrong chords.

    Reply
    • Ruthanne Reid

      I hear you, Serena! Wow, what a wonderful experience; it sounds like you’re learning to really enjoy the beauty you’re creating rather than getting stuck in the details. I am SO happy for you.

      I don’t play Guitar, but I do play piano, so I know that perfectionism, as well. Let’s quit it together. 🙂

  6. Marcy Mason McKay

    I soooo needed to hear your words today, Ruthanne. I published my first novel back in December. It’s selling well and I have over 200 Amazon reviews today. YAY!

    I’m working on the sequel, and well, my sucketh runneth over. I’m working on it everyday. I take 10 – 30 new pages each week to my critique group (whom I adore), but my inner critique is KILLING ME. You’ve help me some, so I’ll go face that blank page again. TY.

    Reply
    • Ruthanne Reid

      CONGRATS, Marcy!! That is so great! Congratulations – amazing job! 🙂

      And oh, I know that feeling, too; it’s super-difficult when you also add on the fear of disappointing people, too. 🙂

      You can do this. Face that blank page. Once you’ve filled it, you can always fix it.

    • I'm determined

      Definitely. Fill that page. You’ve got readers waiting on you. Well done!

    • Marcy Mason McKay

      Awww, thanks so much. I’m WRITING!

    • Marcy Mason McKay

      Many thanks, Ruthanne. You’ve helped re-energize me. TY!

  7. bernadette

    So funny. I’m doing Nano, lurching through it, and laughing at this post because my Muse ! Was Just saying to me: just keep writing, don’t worry, get through this first draft. I’m putting an asterisk next to things (not TOO! Many) that I know need fixing, and pushing on. Thanks for these words today!

    Reply
    • Ruthanne Reid

      So glad they helped you, Bernadette! They were words I needed to tell myself, and I figured I wasn’t alone. 🙂

    • bernadette

      ;~D @ Ruthanne!

    • I'm determined

      Great. Keep going. What I’m doing, instead of an asterisk, I copy that sentence into my Research file. Intention being that I can – December? – do the research, then copy the problem sentence into the Find at the top of my Word page. Should make finding and updating the problem easier. Of course, now that I’ve given myself this easy cop out, I’m gathering up more entries for my Research file. You might like to give it a try. But – Keep writing!

    • bernadette

      Thank you! that’s brilliant, and much better than just the plain *!!

    • I'm determined

      Thanks. Glad you like it. Anything that makes editing easier! ;}

    • Aspholessaria

      Good idea, I’m determined. I must try that.

    • I'm determined

      You sent that you have over 11,000 w/c. Well done! I meanwhile (tuck head down in shame) have w/c 6.584. But I have rewritten the beginning, and I think it is better. Keep writing.

    • I'm determined

      Keep going. I copy the relevant sentence, paste it into my research page, with the intent of coming back later – December? – to correct then us the Word Find function to find the pale in the original file to correct. please use my method if it makes sense to you.

  8. Ruthanne Reid

    I don’t blame you at all. It IS scary; but it’s a good kind of fear – the kind that keeps you going instead of making you quit. You can do this!

    Reply
    • TerriblyTerrific

      Thank you for the support!

  9. I'm determined

    Thank you! I’m so relieved. Signed up for NaNoWriMo this month and hate to confess that I simply haven’t got very far. First there was the ongoing hassle at trying to get registered with my preferred user name – Amazingrace – turns out that was with my ‘writing’ email address. Which is why last year’s entry ended up as Pen Happy just so that I could write!
    Still doing it, though.
    Of course – never rains but it pours – so many doctors visits, Outpatient x 2, other health related appointments – can’t they give a girl a break?
    Then I LOST the beginning of my novel. A really great beginning! I’ve found other files relating to my novel tucked away in a different Trilogy folder. But not the opening. Now it’s half way through and I’m simply NOT. But still trying,
    My characters were living in Melbourne in Book 1. Now they’ve moved into Echuca, because Joe’s father (Scilian crime) made professional life impossible, even though Joel was cleared of the charge of murder. But that doesn’t help an accountant. and Helen’s a teacher – a really good one – but seeing how her Principal was so quick to dump her BECAUSE HER MEDIA PROFILE WAS DISTRACTING. Well, the decision to relocate was a no brainer. Only, just moved in, Joel out looking for an office to set up accountancy, plus his new interest in spreading the word about Permaculture, Helen and the boys head off for grocery shopping. A family’s got to eat. Get home, get the groceries inside, she sent Scott out to collect the any mail from the leter box. A young guy rides his bike past. Stops. Calls out, ‘Catch this!’ and throws to Scott. Who catches – even as Helen is racing out, yelling ‘No!’ But Scott has already caught, and bowled it back to the guy. Who is stunned to see the hand grenade coming back at him. so stunned that he is unable to move. Well, he won’t be bothered about getting a new hair style anymore. The police gather up pieces of him across the road.
    Helen, Joel, their sons have certainly made a hit in their new location.

    Reply
    • bernadette

      Wow! this sound so exciting, I wasn’t sure if it was still part of your Life you were describing , or your book :~O !!! Please find your folder!

    • I'm determined

      From this point – My characters were living in Melbourne in Book 1 – onwards, it’s my novel. Actually glad you missed the segue: my writing must be realistic, in this scene. What a relief!

  10. Joe Volkel

    She looked at me like I was a giant bug or something.
    “You really suck!”, she yelled, flipping me off with a tomato sauce stained finger.
    “Oh yeah – well, you are one too”, I wittily replied.
    Can’t get much suckier than that, can I?

    Reply
    • bernadette

      Have you read the Joe Bunting article that goes something like: the therapist who tells the writer to kneel before the computer every day and pray to write the Worst sentence in the world, before he starts writing for the day…..

    • Alyssa Elwood

      I don’t know, this made me laugh so it can’t be all that bad!

  11. I'm determined

    I did write, then somehow lost the lot. Basically – despite the struggle to sign in to NaNoWriMo 2016 – using the wrong email address – then many inconvenient doctors, Outpatient clinics, etc, I’m so far behind that I’m too chicken to confess the actual w/c. And at some early point – before I actually got to sign in for 2016 – lost those early chapters, notes, didn’t I? Eventually found some of them lurking in the folder for a different Trilogy, but not that really great opening, of course.
    The Baxbys – in Hold This! – found Melbourne too difficult to live in.Even though Joel was shown to be innocent of the murder charge – problem was that the special ops guys wanted him to stay in custody, give his (Sicilian crime) father’s henchmen the delusion of safety so they could catch them. Just being tainted with murder was the death knell for an up and coming accountant. For Helen, brilliant and highly respected teacher as she was, schools are a hot bed of rumour, students to protect. Her Principal is more concerned about her media presence than her valuable skills. So they move to Echuca, a small country town on the River Murray. The choice was a no brainer.
    Just moved in. Joel’s out, looking for office space. Helen and the boys grocery shop. They decant the groceries into the house. Helen sends Scott out to check the letter box. a young guy rides past. Stops his bike a couple of doors up. Calls out to Scott, ‘Catch This!’. And throws. Helen – her instincts fine tuned from the trauma in Book One, runs out, yells, ‘Nooooo!’ Scott meanwhile catches and return throws what turns ut to be a live grenade. The guy who threw it stands, stunned. The grenade blows up in his face. I’m going to have to rewrite this opening. Certainly remember it.
    Thanks for this post, Ruthanne. Never say never!

    Reply
  12. Aspholessaria

    I signed up to nano this year but I don’t know why. I did it the last 2years, so it was probably habit. Anyway, I knew I was going on holiday between 3rd November and 11th, so that was a week out. I’m so far behind that I need to write over 2500 words each day to finish on time. Can I do it? I doubt it. I did just over 2000 yesterday.

    What I’ve written sucks! I know that, but hope I can edit it into something reasonable, if not good. There are inaccuracies in the historical parts. I need to research them more. I thought I’d covered everything, but things come up during the writing I’d not considered. Still, I intend to keep going. Wish me luck!

    Reply
    • I'm determined

      Crossed fingers, good luck wishes heading your way.
      Keep going. Read my idea to Bernadette about saving to research file to later edit, if you find it helpful.
      I also – for different reasons – am so far behind my NaNoWriMo word count. But I’m writing. I challenge you to keep up with me. NB = you are guaranteed to pass me!

    • Aspholessaria

      You’re on, I’m determined! I’m currently on 11,053. What is you current count?

  13. Hervey Copeland

    Writing is like any other craft; you get better at it the more you practice. The same thing goes for manuscripts; they get gradually better the more you edit them, and in the end you’re left with something that is actually worth publishing.

    Reply
  14. Louise Foerster

    Thank you, Ruthanne! Exactly what I needed to read today when I’m preparing a morass of stuff to send to a panel of early readers (it’s so early that I can’t even call it “alpha,” never mind “beta)) — and thanks to everyone who has shared their own experiences — I’ve done NANOWRIMO for ten years now — and am stunned when I go back over the early manuscripts which I was convinced were total garbage and found some bright, sparkly bits! Louise

    Reply
  15. Alyssa Elwood

    I recently came across this idea of being allowed to suck at writing. That it is being fine to write poorly. Weird that it came up again today from a different source. It has actually spurred me into writing a bit more lately.
    I am the “writer” for a local podcast. I write up the bios, do episode notes, and whatever else the director wants me to write. I feel like a fraud. I feel like my writing sucks and everyone is just being polite about it. They could probably do better, if they had the time. I am the writer because I have time. And I was interested in the position.
    One of the projects my executive producer wants is:
    “3, 140 character or less descriptions of the show. What to expect etc.”
    I assume for twitter.
    I don’t use twitter, but I know a lot of writers use it for short and creative tweets, so this has been giving me major anxiety. But, today I am going to work on it. Right now, even! So 15 minutes, first drafts.

    Early Afternoon Tonight A Podcast takes local community members and musicians and brings them together in an interview-style podcast.

    EAT showcases our Omaha leaders and artists in comedic interviews right from your device.

    EAT brings Omaha leaders and musicians together for a unique and uncensored view into what our guests do to make our city better.

    Want to learn about Omaha? Check out Early Afternoon Tonight! Do it this morning! Or this afternoon. Or tonight!

    The radio hurting your ears? Get educated about Omaha community members by tuning into Early Afternoon Tonight – a podcast!

    Got an hour? Meet Omaha on the new podcast, Early Afternoon Tonight! Karl Houser delves into what makes our community members extraordinary.

    EAT takes a look at Omaha leaders and artists. EAT brings together people that would not normally meet in a hilarious and lighthearted style

    Reply
    • Tina

      “EAT brings Omaha leaders and musicians together for a unique and uncensored view into what our guests do to make our city better.”

      “The radio hurting your ears? Get educated about Omaha community members by tuning into Early Afternoon Tonight – a podcast!”

      Those two are gorgeous!
      I know nothing about Twitter. I know there is such a thing as an iPhone. I can barely write a text message. But you seem to be on track to the high-tech haiku that social media needs 🙂

  16. Tina

    I am finding that comic writing requires so much work, that sucking is expected. It’s kind of like you have to put disparate elements together in as many combinations as you could muster, and then hit upon something you think may work; but stop and move forward with your story. So sucking is meticulously sewn into the fabric of the work.

    Takes faith to know that somebody equally perverse or subject to being so, may actually like the words you lay down.

    Reply
  17. william straw

    thank god I do not have to be a perfectionist.

    Reply
  18. Mr. G

    Oo man..where do i start? I used to be a good writer in school, at least in my class, or so I thought. I won an English essay writing competition when I was in grade 6. But what nobody knows is that I won that competition by memorizing an entire essay, as the topics were already given to us beforehand. Anyway, in spite of that, I was generally known to be a good writer and I felt pretty confident about myself when it came to writing. But, as time went on, and I entered high school and then onto my Bachelors, I lost touch of my “writer” side. These days, I feel terribly uncomfortable writing stuff, and I feel like I shadow of what I used to be. Ah, but its okay to suck, so let me just keep sucking in the meantime.

    Reply

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  6. How to (Actually) Cure Writer’s Block - P.S. Hoffman - […] yourself permission to write a hot, steaming, asphalt-melting pile of trash... and good things will […]

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