Use what you have, even if you have doubts

The process of writing often raises doubts. For example, I often write a sentence and then ask myself “how do I explain/support/defend this statement?” or, more negatively, “isn’t that obvious or unimportant or both?”  Such questions are often coupled with the disconcerting sense that what I have written is not good enough, and can’t possibly be good enough without adding material.

The sense that what I have written isn’t good enough—perhaps that I can’t defend it or that no one will care about my bland blather—can bring the writing process to a halt.  If my critical view of my own work leads me to think that that what I have is uninteresting, it slows or stops my writing, because, after all, who wants to write something that will be dull?

Sometimes it’s no problem to write something boring: I write as a practice and don’t expect things to always come out well.  Part of the practice is to keep writing when material isn’t working so that the material can be improved. Writing a draft that gets deleted isn’t a big deal. But sometimes, it’s not enough to just practice. Sometimes it’s important to have something to share with others. Today, for example, I want to produce a blog post, and there’s no blog post without something written.  I could blow off posting—it’s not as if I’ve never missed posting before.  In other situations, it’s not useful to simply blow off creating a work.  In some cases, there are serious repercussions from a failure to submit work. Currently, for example, I am contractually obligated to submit a full manuscript to my publisher by July 15; failure to submit violates the contract and would, at the very least, damage my chances of getting my book published. Or, for example, a student seeking a degree might have a deadline to submit a thesis, with, at least, the danger of having to enroll for an additional term, if not the greater danger of losing a place in the program.

In such cases, letting a project fall by the wayside, isn’t really an effective solution. Sometimes, it’s necessary to produce something, even if the something seems weak.

It is very frustrating to work on a piece of writing that seems like it will be uninteresting and unimportant. The attempt to produce good work from an idea that currently seems uninteresting and unimportant is one of the most difficult tasks a writer can face, because working on a project that you don’t believe is important is a good way to feel bad about yourself.

But if a significant deadline looms, it’s valuable to keep writing through the frustration and fears.  For myself, and most other writers, I think, the thought of getting a bad response is at the forefront of their attention. Certainly a writer worrying that work isn’t interesting enough or important enough is focused on how people will respond, because ideas like “interesting” and “important” are only really meaningful with respect to people (or other thinking creatures): for something to be interesting, there must be someone interested.  I don’t want to discount the danger of writing something that your readers deem uninteresting or unimportant, because that’s a difficult outcome to work past.  But that focus actually obscures a potentially greater danger: that of not submitting anything at all.

I have seen this dynamic and lived it myself: being self-critical, I see weaknesses in my work, and fearing the response of others, I then put that work away, letting it die, rather than taking a chance with it.  Many students I’ve worked with worry so much about the negative feedback they have received from their professors that they stop writing at all, fearing more negative feedback.  But holding back work may allow you to avoid negative critiques of your work, it also guarantees that you will not receive any positive credit.  For me, with my contractual obligation, and for students with their academic requirements, the failure to produce any work at all is far the worse outcome. Getting your work roundly criticized is difficult. Failing to meet a deadline, however, can lead to even more difficulty, including dismissal from a graduate program.

This is, I think, a variety of the well-known trope that bad publicity is better than no publicity at all. There may be times when it’s better to avoid notice entirely, but if you want to meet your obligations as a student or writer, it’s better to risk the negative feedback from a weak work than face the certain consequences of submitting nothing.

The greater the significance of the deadline, the greater the value in focusing on what you do have and on working to improve that. It may not be the most interesting thing ever (in the eyes of your viewer), but using what you do have to meet a deadline is a valuable practice.

Beyond the simple benefit of fulfilling an obligation, working through that frustration can be very valuable, because if you can get through the emotional difficulty related to fearing feedback and thinking your work is weak, you can often come out the other side with a greater conviction in the value of your work.  One thing about ideas that seem uninteresting as you write about them is that they weren’t always uninteresting to you.  I never arrive at a point where I’m writing something I think uninteresting without there having been some earlier moment when I thought it would be interesting.  There was something that I thought interesting that got me started, even if I have lost sight of that original interest.  Recovering that interest is often possible, and can help me get back on track. Of course, sometimes, I can’t recover that original interest, but I still need to produce something. In such cases, it is important to do the best I can with what I do have on the basic principle that writing something is better than writing nothing.