Embrace the Trash

In When Dialogue Gets Stuck, one of my tips for getting dialogue out on the page when the only thing in your head is a gif of a tumble weed was: ‘Write some trash. Just grit your teeth, get through the scene, and edit later. Nobody has to read it.’

This doesn’t apply just to dialogue. Plenty of times, the difference between blank space and words to fill it is a willingness to embrace the trash.

Sometimes an idea feels really good but the first words that come to mind to actually write it are an embarrassing, shambling mess in comparison. So after typing half a sentence and deleting it repeatedly, re-caffeinating, and looking at memes, the end result is a great title in a really swanky font. Other times there isn’t an idea, and writing something non-specific seems less interesting than doing something else.

If you don’t have an idea and you’re hoping to stumble across one as you write, or you’re just trying to habitually write regularly, a helpful approach is to have some clear purpose to what you’re doing. Treat it as an exercise to work on some aspect of the craft – description, character, dialogue, subtext, etc. Brush up on a weakness in your writing, try a style very different from your own, or try adapting another work into your own style and see what happens. Starting something with a purpose can be easier than starting aimlessly.

If you do have an idea, but what you start off writing isn’t to your liking, remember that a first draft is meant to be a loose starting point, a scaffold to build from. You aren’t harming the sanctity of your great story and dazzling characters by starting off with a lacklustre line. The unborn story may be great, but it’s useless, abstract. Other people can’t read it. It won’t get born unless you’re willing for it to begin its life as a bawling mess coated in amniotic gunk.

Resist the urge to delete the first awkward lines. Get through the first paragraph, scene, and draft, keeping your critical instincts at bay as much as possible until the second draft. The perfect is the enemy of the good. The job of the first draft isn’t to be a finished product ready for shipping, so none of its flaws matter. What matters is that you have something which you can trim, expand, and refine into something better.

When you’re trying to get the thing written, don’t sabotage it by insisting it has to be good. Even if it’s a steaming pile of garbage, that doesn’t make it bad writing or you a bad writer. If you think that, you’re judging your unfinished rough sketch by the standards of a completed artwork. Don’t do that.

The worth of a first draft isn’t in what’s there, but in its potential. You make your pile of rubbish so that you have something you can rummage through for hidden treasures. It is worth however much they are. Just write the thing, one word at a time, without worrying about whether this is the right adjective or that is a cliché.

Good comes later. First, embrace the trash.

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