Have you ever seen an expert do something so brilliantly that they made it look easy?
Writing is like that.
Here’s the thing: when our favorite authors write, they sit down and they write and they make it look easy. We see (or imagine) their facile skill with words and phrases, and we think, I want to do that. For a while, we even feel like we can do that.
But when we put words down . . . well, they just don’t come out like that.
A Million Words to Competency
Writing is one of those skills that looks easy but isn’t.
A writer’s apprenticeship usually involves writing a million words (which are then discarded) before he’s almost ready to begin.
Writing requires the same kind of practice and hard work as Olympic sports. It’s not a sport like gymnastics, which is obviously challenging. You probably don’t watch Simone Biles perform her signature floor routine and think you could flip and tumble better.
Writing is more like diving. Yes, anyone could jump in the water, and yes, those medalists make it look easy. But the truth is, it takes years to learn how to dive the way those pros do.
It’s not easy. It takes an incredible amount of practice, concentration, and self-awareness to pull that off. Writing may not generate the same low resting heart-rate as practicing a sport (*ahem* quite the opposite, if you’re not careful), but it requires the same amount of practice, concentration, and self-awareness.
Every Word Counts
Here’s what this quote means: your writing isn’t wasted.
Yes, what you wrote yesterday might be crap, fit only for the recycle bin. Yes, you may have a trunk novel or two which will never see the light of day, and which your last will and testament instructs to burn in a dark cave at midnight.
That writing still wasn’t wasted.
Your favorite work-in-progress may have started and stopped, gotten stuck and unstuck, required a rewrite, or never gotten past chapter one (draft 161 version 2).
That writing still wasn’t wasted.
Aim for the Right Goal
You might find it hard to believe your worst words weren’t wasted. But this makes sense once you realize what the goal truly is:
The goal isn’t to have written good stuff. The goal is to be a good writer who creates good stuff.
One is a product, done and in the past. The other is an identity, a state of being.
This is a really important difference.
The reason your writing isn’t wasted is because ANY writing you do leads you toward the goal of becoming a better writer.
One of my favorite quotes right now is from author and poet Erin Bow:
No writing is wasted. Did you know that sourdough from San Francisco is leavened partly by a bacteria called lactobacillus sanfrancisensis? It is native to the soil there, and does not do well elsewhere. But any kitchen can become an ecosystem. If you bake a lot, your kitchen will become a happy home to wild yeasts, and all your bread will taste better. Even a failed loaf is not wasted. Likewise, cheese makers wash the dairy floor with whey. Tomato gardeners compost with rotten tomatoes. No writing is wasted: the words you can’t put in your book can wash the floor, live in the soil, lurk around in the air. They will make the next words better.
Your Writing is Never Wasted
I know sometimes it feels like the words you worked so hard on were a waste because they weren’t good (or as good as you want them to be). But they weren’t wasted. They are a product, and they’re in the past—and by writing them, you’ve edged yourself close to the state of being a better writer.
It’s okay if you had to delete them (or do that last will and testament thing). Don’t hate them and don’t regret them. They were one more step toward making you a good writer.
What do you do on those days when it feels like your writing was a waste of time? Let me know in the comments.
Today, I have some simple but challenging practice for you: I want you to write the next part of your work in progress for fifteen minutes. If you don’t have a WIP, use one of our story ideas to start something new.
Yes, even if you don’t really know where it’s going.
Yes, even if you aren’t sure what it’s doing.
It isn’t wasted. Even if you don’t end up using it, it’s gotten your brain going, and carried you in the direction you want to go.
When you’re done, post your practice in the comments, and take some time to comment on someone else’s not-wasted words.
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.