We’re writers. We’re supposed to love writing.
But sometimes, love isn’t even in the picture.
You look back over those pages full of the words you’ve written and become overwhelmed with the urge to light a huge bonfire.
“Twenty thousand words and a good handful of chapters in,” says author J. M. Frey, “and I hated my novel. I thought it was trite. It was clichéd. It was boring. There was nothing compelling about it and I should just stop and save everyone in the world the pain of having to even know the book ever existed!”
I think most of us have gone through periods when we’ve felt like this. The question is, how do you get past these ugly feelings so you can do what really matters: keep writing?
First things first—if you hate your writing, you’re not alone.
“I’ve met only a few narcissistic writers who never questioned the dazzling brilliance of their work,” says novelist and writing coach Randy Ingermanson. “About half of them were extraordinary geniuses and the other half were irretrievably awful.”
So questioning your own work is normal. But in those moments when you’re worried the writing might be really awful, that probably doesn’t help much.
Still, if you talk to most seasoned writers, they’ll tell you all writers (and artists, for that matter) go through periods where they feel that what they’re producing is crap. There are two times when this type of feeling is likely to come up, and it’s up to you as a writer to determine which time you’re in:
- You’re a new writer, and you’ve only been at this for a few years. Even if you’ve spent longer than that, perhaps you haven’t had the time to really focus on your craft to the point that you can practice purposefully and improve it.
- You’re an experienced writer with some success under your belt, but now you’re in the middle of a particular work, and you’re questioning it.
We’ll look at number one first.
When you first start out, it’s perfectly normal and even healthy to feel the work is not living up to what you want it to be. Ira Glass, host and producer of This American Life, famously stated:
“All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you.”
In other words, you are enough of a writer already to recognize the flaws in your work, or at least to know there are flaws. You know something’s not right, but your skills or your ability to craft a novel have not yet reached the level of your artistic sensibilities.
How long you spend in this “beginning” period depends on a lot of things, but mainly on how much time you get to devote to your writing, and how much you’re working with an editor or other mentor to get feedback and improve it. Writing, completing each story, and then writing again is the only real way to graduate from novice to pro, and that takes a significant investment of energy and time.
The good news is, as long as you don’t give up, it will eventually work—you will get better.
“We all go through this,” Glass says. “And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions.”
That means you have to fall back on your discipline. Have a scheduled writing time each day and stick with it. If it discourages you to read what you wrote the day before, don’t do it. Just start with the next scene and keep going.
It’s incredibly important to finish each project you start, as that’s the only way you’ll improve your skills. If you get to the tough parts and quit and then start over on a new project, you’ll stagnate right where you are. Instead, power through. Find mentors or editors to help. Read books about plotting, setting, and characterization. Immerse yourself into your own writing course as if you were getting a college degree in it.
Realize that most people (minus the exceptional geniuses) require years of concentrated practice to become good writers and storytellers. Give yourself the gift of your patience, accept your own failings, and keep trying. Have faith that you will improve, and one day you’ll look back and find that you have.
More experienced writers who have already been through the beginning period, improved their skills, and reached a certain level of success, can still go through times of hating their work.
For some, those times come up during just about every novel. When you reach the dreaded middle, for example, or when you’ve gone through several revisions and still the story isn’t living up to the vision you had for it, you can begin to have fantasies of deleting the files and starting over.
“I put off my fifth revision for months,” said freelance writer Alison Murphy. “Every time I went near my manuscript, I recoiled from it in horror. I couldn’t believe that I had spent so much time producing such boring, unreadable crap.”
Here we’re talking about that gap again—the one that exists between the vision you had for the story and the reality of it staring back at you on the page or the computer screen. The larger that gap is, the more frustrated you’re bound to feel. If you haven’t finished the story yet, those feelings can be even worse.
“It’s a bizarre phenomena the way writers see-saw between a love/hate relationship with their own writing,” says blogger David Stehle. “You’re in the throes of a story or an article. You feel inspired. The creative juices begin to flow. It’s all blooming before you and you’re experiencing that writer’s high….Then the angst sets in. The writing you thought was superb suddenly seems clunky and inadequate. The phrases you particularly liked now seem awkward and ill-formed. The metaphors lack depth and the imagery is weak. The writing is awful…or at least to you it is.”
Feeling like this can mean a number of different things. We’ll review the three most common below.
If you’re feeling like you hate your writing right now and you’re an experienced writer, most likely it’s because of one of the three reasons below.
1. The Writer is Tired
Fatigue shows up in funny ways, and hating your work can be one of them. If you’ve been going at it steadily for awhile now, you can find out if this is the cause by simply taking a break. Take a step back from the story. Work on something else for awhile, or take a few days off of writing completely.
Go do something else you enjoy so you can get your mind off the story and how you feel about it. Get involved in some of your other hobbies, or spend some time with your friends and/or family. It could be that when you’ve rested up and refreshed your brain a little, your writing will look much better to you.
2. The Writer Knows Something Isn’t Working
You’ve been working on this piece for awhile, and something just isn’t right. You can feel it. It sits there in the back of your head and keeps banging away on the door. You continue to write, but it’s like you’re trying to squeeze through a space that’s too small for you.
Go back and review what you know about good story structure. Is it clear what the hero wants? Is it clear how the antagonist is standing in his way? Are the stakes high? Does the hero have both internal and external motivation going on? Is the antagonist making things tough enough?
There are a number of books and courses out there that can help you pinpoint what might be going wrong in your story. Don’t be afraid to step back and do some research to see if you can find out.
I’ve used Blueprint Your Bestseller by Stuart Horowitz many times to help myself out of this sort of bind. He has a cool way of guiding you through your manuscript to find its key components, so you can see if they’re measuring up like they need to. His method gives you a way to work with what you have to find out its weak spots, and then you can figure out how to fix them and move forward again.
3. The Writer is Allowing Self-Doubt to Rule
Self-doubt is a constant companion for most writers. It tends to lie dormant for long periods of time, and then out of the blue it can raise its ugly head to cause problems.
What have you been been thinking about lately? If you’re in the dreaded middle of the story and you’re struggling, it’s natural for self-doubt to take advantage of that momentary weakness to wear you down.
It could also be that you’ve fallen into the trap of comparing yourself with other writers. Maybe you heard about another writer’s success or read another writer’s material, and suddenly your work seemed amateurish by comparison.
Or maybe you recently received yet another rejection, or your story didn’t place in that contest you entered. If you can go back in time and trace your thoughts, you may find that somewhere along the line, something entered your mind that started you down the path of doubting yourself.
If this is what’s causing you to look at your own work with a jaded eye, try to remind yourself of your accomplishments so far. Go back and re-read the positive comments and reviews, then return your focus to what you enjoy about writing. Give yourself the time you need to simply create, without fear of judgment.
Allow writing to be the true form of expression it’s meant to be, and your self-doubt will likely recede into the background.
No matter why you may be hating your writing right now, the important thing is to keep working. Don’t let it stop you.
“Keep going,” says writer Jessica Flory. “Finish that novel, no matter what. Even if you never publish it, practicing writing a whole novel is crucial. You need practice blending everything that makes a story into a whole. If you give up in the middle that will never happen. You’ll never get to practice writing an ending, and you’ll never get to see what the complete story would’ve looked like. So finish, no matter what.”
Murphy agrees, stating that when she went through her hating phase, her friend asked her one question that helped her persevere: “Can you hate it and work on it at the same time?” She went on to print the manuscript out and mark it up with a red pen, and then she was able to get back to work fixing all the problems she found.
Finally, realize that emotions come and go. They are passing things. So don’t let them be the last word on this piece you’re creating. Find a way to keep going, and finish the project. That is your job as a writer.
Besides, we all know that there’s a thin line between love and hate, which means you may just be hours away from loving your writing once again.
What do you do when you hate your writing?
Flory, J. (2013, June 30). What to Do If You Hate Your Novel – A Guest Post – Storyfix.com [Video file]. Retrieved from http://storyfix.com/what-to-do-if-you-hate-your-novel-a-guest-post
Frey, J. M. (2017, May 2). Words for Writers: My Writing Sucks and I Hate Everything Or, Being A Writer While Human. Retrieved from http://jmfrey.net/2014/11/my-writing-sucks-and-i-hate-everything-or-being-a-writer-while-human/
Glass, I. (2016, August 5). The Gap by Ira Glass [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=91FQKciKfHI
Ingermanson, R. (2016, January 30). What If You Hate Your Own Writing? | Advanced Fiction Writing. Retrieved from https://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/blog/2012/11/14/what-if-you-hate-your-own-writing/
Murphy, A. (2015, August 25). The Importance of Hating Your Own Writing [Video file]. Retrieved from http://deaddarlings.com/importance-hating-writing/
Stehle, D. (n.d.). When You Hate Your Own Writing [Video file]. Retrieved from http://diamondkt.blogspot.com/2010/07/when-you-hate-your-own-writing.html