Permission to stink — the art of bad writing

Usually my writers slide their assignments under the virtual door of my Facebook group/office just ahead of our next Writing Unbound class. But this week—this week they jumped on the assignment. I think they started writing before the video even finished playing. What was this compelling exercise? Create some bad writing.

bad writing

Bad writing is the thing we writers fear most, right? So I gave them permission to stink.

They came up with some creative work—clichés piled on top of each other, unsavory images rendered in such detail you would think they were composed of pixels instead of words. But I have to say, each of their pieces had some redeeming features.

We writers are always deciding that our writing sucks. But it turns out bad writing is pretty darn hard to do—even when you’re explicitly trying to do it. I hope they remember that the next time they think they’ve created it by accident.

My own bad writing

I once wrote a sentence so bad, so inappropriate for the speaker and the audience, so full of purple prose—well, maybe not exactly purple, as you’ll see. Still, I couldn’t hit delete. I didn’t want to lose such a vivid metaphor…but I also didn’t want to lose my job. So I pasted it into a document all by itself and I printed it out and tacked it to the wall behind my computer monitor.

My very macho client was speaking about the fall of Communism (it was the early ’90s) and I wrote something like:

“…and every day it seems new countries are being born. Like all births, it’s a messy process…”

He would have made history—the first Wall Street titan to deploy a placenta metaphor. Instead I got the first entry in my outtakes file.

Bad writing can be liberating. I’m sure I’ve written lots of stupid or inelegant sentences since then. But I don’t think I’ll ever again write anything quite so bad. And yet I’m still here. Still alive. Still making words appear at the mere touch of my fingers.

If you think you’re writing badly, lean into it. Write worse. Make it as god-awful as you possibly can. And then have a good, long laugh.


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Also published on Medium.