A Million Bad Words

by | Mar 11, 2013 | Writing | 6 comments

You better get a-clickety-clacking.

You better get a-clickety-clacking.
Image via ilikeinnovation.com

This week, as I prepare to dig deep in order to revise my recently completed novel, I’ve been thinking a lot about craft. A writer’s craft, to be precise. I’ve read so many books and blogs and articles that all essentially say the same thing: to become a better writer, you must simply write. And write. And write some more.

The iterations on this conventional wisdom are endless. They say (whoever ‘they’ are) that all writers have one million bads words inside them, and only once they’ve all been written can true quality pour forth. In his book On Writing Stephen King states that ‘Writing equals ass in chair.’ Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers famously posits that everyone must spend ten thousand hours in practice of any given skill before they can reach excellence. But is that all it takes? Time and practice?

Like this...but not this. Image via Bill Watterson.

Like this…but not this.
Image via Bill Watterson.

Yes, I think that to be a writer, one must write. And write. And write. But I’m not sure that just setting down mediocre words on paper in the hopes that they will eventually transform into words of beauty is necessarily enough. Without the intention and the desire to improve, that metamorphosis will never happen. Our words are not caterpillars, destined to magically transmogrify into beautiful butterflies. No–as writers we must not only write, and practice, but also envision the change within ourselves, and manifest it in our actions.

Improving your craft isn’t sexy, and you can’t write it on any resume or list of accomplishments. Craft is reading middle grade books that bore you to tears in order to identify voice and its relationship to diction. Craft is reciting aloud your characters’ dialogue to hear cadence and pinpoint subtext. Craft is writing backstories and character studies for your protagonists that no one will ever read but you.

As Molly O’Neill says,

Because strong craft? It speaks for itself. It wows its readers. It elevates a story to something even greater than itself. Craft is like meditation, or prayer, or exercising. It’s mostly silent, and somewhat hidden, and deeply personal. Few people will notice that you’re working on it unless you tell them. But your self will be enriched by it, and your work will be strengthened by it.

Everyone will be equally amazed. Image via icanhazcheezburger.com

Everyone will be equally amazed.
Image via icanhazcheezburger.com

So I don’t think it’s enough to simply plant your ass in a chair and write. Sure, that’s a major part of it. But more important is that awareness, that self-consciousness that drives you to not only do, but to do better. And better. And better still. To not only write a million words, or practice 10,000 hours, but to focus on the thousandth word being better than the hundredth word and the five thousandth word being better still. Honing your craft with all the intention and clarity of mind you can muster.

Then only will writer you become, young padawan.

How do you hone your craft? Do you think it’s enough to simply writer, or do you agree that improving craft requires intention? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below!


  1. Mannofiron

    I think it’s a mix of both. You can’t possibly improve your writing if you’re not intention about both volume and quality. I can’t think of any skill where countless repetition is simply enough to move to the next level. I feel the majority of people who want to write either think that they will suddenly break through after writing enough stuff or that they can write one perfect short story, poem, novel, etc. if they just keep revising/improving. It’s got to be both.


    • Lyra Selene

      I completely agree, Ben. Volume is necessary, but not sufficient, and great writing isn’t something most people are born with. It must be learned, and honed, and polished, just like any other skill.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Aja

    I think the dedication and patience it takes to make writing a workable habit naturally betters the craft. If you know what you want your writing to be, I believe you will bend and evolve to write that way if you keep on keepin’ on. The intention to become a better writer is built-in. I don’t think it can in any way be evaluated as separate from “the act.” “To speak of God is God.” I don’t know where I heard that but I think I just understood it a little bit more.

    Anyway, lots of people probably write with the intention to get “better” but then they just pad the shelves of the YA section with bafflingly crappy stories. Read as: Lots of people write with the intention to get “better” but they don’t really know what I like, so they’ve just wasted everybody’s time. Ha ha …

    Also, I think artists who are driven to ceaselessly create always like their newest creations the most, no matter what the critics feel!

    • Lyra Selene

      I’m sure the process differs for the individual, but if I’ve learned anything from practicing yoga it’s that mindful practice is always better than simply doing something and hoping it improves. But you’re right–do something enough and it’s bound to get a bit better.

      Thanks for commenting!

  3. Kourtney Heintz

    Great post Lyra! I agree with you. I also think craft involves never settling. Writing hits plateaus. You can stay good enough or you can push through. You can challenge yourself. If you hate third person, force yourself to write in it. If you aren’t good at setting, make yourself add a few lines to each chapter/scene. I am a big fan of taking writing workshops and reading writing magazines and studying books on the craft. There are always new things to learn and apply–that’s what I think makes a great writer.

    • Lyra Selene

      So true–there is always more to learn when it comes to writing! I agree that being a great writer means never settling and always looking for ways to improve, although sometimes that’s harder than it sounds…

      Thanks for commenting! 🙂