The value of sloppy work

I write this blog post on the final day of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). This November, over 300 000 people attempted to hammer out a 50 000-word piece of writing — which is long enough to be a novel in the strictest technical sense.

I got my 50k written!

I got my 50k written!

Now, NaNoWriMo gets some flack for encouraging people to write poorly. It’s about producing a quantity of work, not agonizing over the poignance of every word. Most of those bad first drafts go straight into drawers, although there are always few poor fools who email their 50 000 raw words to literary agents on December 1st, causing the resounding slap of palms against foreheads.

But, you know, there are worse things than a terrible first draft. For example, a blank page. A bad draft can be edited and fixed, unlike a blank page. Even if someone’s NaNo novel is the most awful prose ever given form, it’s better than nothing by the sheer fact that it is something. Think of it like pottery: you can start with some gross mud and, through experimentation, make it into an actual, useful piece of dishware.


That’s actually how I wrote Ravel, the novelette-length story of Aligare. I wrote the first rough draft as my 2009 NaNoWriMo project. At the time, the story was named Rhythm instead. Aster was a cranky teenager instead of a soul-searching young mother. Llarez the bard had a village mystery to solve for some reason (and the plot twist was visible from space, it was so obvious). My 50 000 words involved a lot of crummy paragraphs that I didn’t enjoy writing. But it became clear to me that the core of this story was Aster and Llarez’s bond, and the way they help each other explore the world. I ended up cutting away everything that didn’t work, and developing what was left into a 14 000-word story. I needed to fiddle with the idea and write in wrong directions before I figured out what to do.

A terrible first effort is a step along a path. It’s easy to be embarrassed at your poor first showing, but really, now. When you first got on a bicycle as a child, were you Tour de France material? When you first put crayons to paper, did a museum-worthy piece spring forth? Of course not. And even as adults, mistakes must be made as part of the learning process. It’s easy to succumb to self-consciousness and fear, and not recognize that failure leads to later success.

Ten thousand ways a light bulb won't work, and so on.

Ten thousand ways a light bulb won’t work, and so on.

This is the ultimate principle of NaNoWriMo. Don’t worry if what you write isn’t objectively good. Just go for it. You can fix it later. NaNoWriMo is an exercise in making your inner editor shut up, so that you can start something you might not otherwise start — or finish something you might not otherwise finish.

And the principle works even if you’re not a writer. Go ahead and knit that uneven scarf, or compose a simple song, or build that shoddy first attempt at a birdhouse. No one has a right to tell you that your flawed first efforts are worthless.

5 Comments on “The value of sloppy work”

  1. I love the way you word that last line! Very inspiring– congrats!

  2. OkayChrista says:

    An excellent summary of what NaNoWrIMo is about. :)

  3. […] The value of sloppy work ( […]

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