How do you know if something is a bad idea? — Frequent Questions

Q: How do you know if something is a bad idea?
A: Have you tried asking it?

bad ideaSome days I think the definition of a bad idea must be any idea that originated in my head. I’ll bet you’ve had days like that too. Especially if you’re a writer.

But my answer above isn’t 100% snark. If the idea that seemed so promising when you wrote it down last night (last week, last year) seems somewhere between clichéd and imbecilic today—well, it might be. You could be seeing it clearly and objectively for the first time. Or maybe the moment of clarity happened when you created the idea, and you’ve just stopped trusting yourself in the interim.

So take that idea out for a spin. Spend 15 minutes writing about it. Outfit it with the best words you know how to create. Then wait. Close the file or put the papers in a drawer overnight. Look at it again in the morning. That old idea just might surprise you.

The way-ay-ting is the hardest part

Please notice that sentence in the previous paragraph—two words right about in the middle:

Then wait.

Whether you start with a bad idea or good idea, do not judge your first draft immediately after writing it.

That’s one of the key principles I talk about when I teach revision techniques. And even though my writers have heard me say it a million times, they still succumb to temptation.

Especially if you’re the kind of person who judges your work harshly—yes, I’m talking to you, Dear Writer-Who-Thinks-All-Your-Ideas-are-Bad—you need to get some distance from your work before you make any decisions about it.

You need to trust your instincts, but if your instincts tell you to trash every idea you come up with, you might need to recalibrate. Find a trusted friend, a teacher, someone whose writing you admire, and run the idea by them. Chances are, you’ll have a glint of a good idea in there somewhere. Just keep looking for it, as objectively as possible.

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  • 2 comments on “How do you know if something is a bad idea? — Frequent Questions

    1. Anne H on

      Wonderful, Elaine! This really resonated with me. Here’s the story:

      A couple of weeks ago I wrote up an idea for how to solve a problem in my department. Before I wrote it, I said to some colleagues that I would write it but to beware because I can be very persuasive. Evidently, I did not listen to myself and I didn’t wait and sleep on what I wrote. Before I knew it, my idea became The Memo and was presented to the Dean, our boss, who reportedly loved it. During the time I would have done better to be sleeping on it, people in my department became angry and it seemed the whole discussion might be going off the rails. I felt guilty! But then, as it turned out, my ill-conceived memo had broadened my colleagues’ thinking to the point where a good solution became obvious. So, in the end, I learned a lesson in helping folks solve a problem, precisely by not waiting to rock the boat! Don’t try this at work unless you really do stop and think about it, though.

      • Elaine Bennett on

        Thanks Anne! Glad it all worked out in the end. All paths to a solution are good, right?

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