Bad Draft or Bad Writing Day?

The last time I sat down to work on my novel, the words read pale and lifeless. I’m only on chapter two. This can’t be a good sign.

I wrote a lot last week,on other pieces. My brain was too tired to rework any more stories. I decided I needed a break from writing, a chance to refuel. I dove into a book about writing instead: Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones.

I’ve read bits and pieces of her book before, but this time one passage struck me.

“If every time you sat down, you expected something great, writing would always be a great disappointment.”

My writing experience lies in short pieces: blog posts, articles under 1000 words, or short stories no more than five pages. In such a compact writing space, I easily devote time and energy to edit and re-edit a whole piece to the point of satisfaction, sometimes even pride.

Now I look at a novel and its end goal of 80,000 words or 100+ pages. Subconsciously, I expect myself to sit down and write a great second draft. When I couldn’t rework even one good chapter the other day, I did feel disappointed. And, discouraged.

Time is of the essence, I thought, this story is going to get old, and fast.

If I want to rush through a re-write just to get the story out, before it becomes a bore (before I lose my confidence), maybe the story should be shelved for a while. Perhaps even for good.

How do you know when the masterpiece you poured onto paper isn’t such a masterpiece after all? Sure, elements of the story show promise, but the story as a whole reads average, not great. And, how do you know the diffference between a weak premise and a bad writing day?


Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones (Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc, 1986), p. 11.


13 responses to “Bad Draft or Bad Writing Day?

  1. I think you would know the answer to your question just like Gertrude Stein, who also didn’t know. She found the one reader who was able to read and understand and even criticize her writing: Alice. Most writers I talk to have found or are looking for the one person they can trust, and that keeps them going. Often, nothing more is needed. I wish you good luck and fun finding your Alice!

  2. I can’t always tell the difference any more between problems in the writing and a bad writing day. I read my work one day and hate it and three days later and think it’s pretty good. (Not very helpful, am I.) 😉

    At this point, I’ve lost all perspective on my novel. I think you just keep re-working until you can’t figure out how to fix it and then rely on other readers.

    • Great advice as well. I think I’m looking for an easy out, mostly from fear of tackling a novel. So, your tip, re-work it until I can’t fix it any more, means – for me – face the fear and do it anyway.

  3. I’m not sure it’s possible to know so soon. Most of my writing actually occurs in my head while I’m showering or walking the dog or doing the dishes – those kinds of solitary endeavors that nobody actually wants to interrupt the mother during. It’s when I put the pencil to the paper or my fingers to the keyboard that I can sometimes tell how far this theme will go, and other times I write for a while and think it’s all crap.

    I, too am good at short blurbs which is why I use my blog for that activity. Only when I’ve gotten that out of my system do I feel that I can sit down and write on my book. I forced myself to write the whole thing and then go back and cut the crap out, feeling as though I was performing surgery on myself without anesthetic in some cases. I guess what I’m saying is, keep writing. Sometimes momentum is all you’ve got. Don’t worry about how good it is until later.

    • Thanks for the encouragement. You’re right, it is soon in the process. It’s a novel I started almost a year ago, so my other lesson learned here is: don’t wait too long to get into a rewrite!

  4. This is such a tough question to answer, particularly because we’re so close to our own work. The suggestion to find readers is a good one. Your point about being used to writing shorter pieces and then editing and re-editing them reminds me of Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird: she advises to think of the novel as a series of short assignments. I suppose she’s talking about writing the first draft, but I think this could apply to editing the draft, too. If you’ve read her book before, forgive me for quoting from it here, but I love the moment when she explains the title of her book:
    “Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table closer to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird'” (Lamott, Bird by Bird, 19).

    I also think it’s great to turn to reading (as you did) when writing/revising doesn’t seem possible. Not just reading about writing, but also reading fiction because I look at the published words and start to see the craft behind putting them together. Although I sometimes discourage myself (oh, I’ll never write like so-and-so!), more often than not, I’m able to see these great writers as people who, like me, sat down with a bunch of words and tried to make some sense out of them.

    Best of luck as you work on your revisions!

    • Thanks for the advice, Christina. I have read Anne Lamott’s book, and that quote is a great reminder. Plus, the tip to remember that the author of the book I’m reading now was faced with the same challenges (if not more). I’m reading Alice Sebold’s, The Lovely Bones. She seamlessly weaves a story full of intricate details and creates a believable image of heaven.

  5. Thanks for your comments on my blog, Christi. It looks like we’re in much the same place. I guess we just need to have faith in ourselves and realize that we’re learning from the process.

  6. One more comment, I forgot to mention this … and it ties somewhat to “Bird By Bird”.

    I read/heard somewhere that one re-writing approach is to focus on one or two things for each pass through the manuscript. I’ve recently tried this and it worked very well. I have 3 POV characters, and was struggling a lot with the flow of each story thread. In one of my revisions, I pulled out all the chapter from a character’s POV and just worked on those sections.

    Figure out what is the most troublesome (structure, character?) and work through just focusing on fixing that. First, you’ll be amazed what else gets “fixed” in the process, second, it’s not as overwhelming. I definitely encourage you not to worry too much about the words, the writing until you get structural and character and scene pieces in decent shape. (At least, doing that set me back, not sure about others.)

    Have fun. I’ve grown to enjoy re-writing once I stopped feeling completely overwhelmed and discouraged and and and … 😉

    • I like that tip, Cathryn, thanks. I’ve been stuck in thinking a rewrite has to go from beginning to end and back again. Break it up, I definitely like that. From all the great advice and encouragement I’ve gotten in these comments, the excitement of diving back into the story is slowly resurfacing.

  7. So happy to find this blog and looking forward to spending more time here.
    The writing process is endlessly fascinating, isn’t it? And Bird by Bird has got to up there with one of the top two or three books on writing, don’t you think?
    Have you read Annie Dillard’s book on writing? I think it is called, The Writing Life. Also excellent.
    And I loved Writing Down the Bones, too. Thanks for the reminder of that great teacher…

    • Rebecca, thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. I haven’t read Annie Dillard’s book, yet, so thanks too for the recommendation. Hope to see you around the site again soon!

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