How to Write Badly to Write Better
By Gene Perret
In a previous column, I noted that the magic bullet for writing success is to Be Good At What You Do. If you want to be a writer, learn to write. That earlier article practically guaranteed that if you became a good writer and continued to become a better writer that the profession could not ignore you.
The question you might be asking, then, is 'How do I become a good writer?' It sounds simple on paper, but in reality, is it? How do we learn? How do we improve? How do we learn to do what we don't know how to do?
You already know that answer. How do I know you already know it? Because I know that you've already done whatever it takes to be a success.
'Wait a minute,' you say. 'I haven't accomplished anything. How could I have done what it takes to be a success when I haven't succeeded at anything yet?'
But you have succeeded.
You have plenty of accomplishments under your belt already. I assume you type. That's something you do now that you didn't do a few years ago. You drive a car probably. There was a time when you didn't drive a car. Even if you are one of those few writers who can't type and doesn't drive, you know how to walk. Even that you didn't always know how to do.
Take any of your many achievements and review the steps you took to learn them. The same steps will apply to improving your writing.
The first step is to do it. Do it badly. Phyllis Diller says that there is no such thing as a good beginning comedian. 'They're all terrible,' she says. That's not a putdown at all, nor is it meant to be discouraging. Phyllis will admit that she was terrible the first time she attempted a stand-up routine.
Why do it badly, though? Well, first of all, you have no choice. The first time you tried to walk, you fell on your bottom. Your first attempt at driving was probably tentative. My brother taught me to drive, and the first time I hit the brake, he almost went through the windshield. Remember how shaky you were when you first started peddling a two-wheeler? You can't be an expert on your first try.
I guarantee that Pete Sampras's first swing at a tennis ball was awful. But he swung at it again and again until he became a champion. Nevertheless, there had to be that first swing so that there could be other swings after that. He had to make that first attempt, and it had to be bad. That's why you must write badly at first -- so that you can get the process started.
There's another advantage to doing it badly. You learn very quickly what you don't know or what you can't do. Let's assume you want to play golf. It looks so easy on television. They swing the club, they hit the ball, it goes where they aim it, and they score in the 60s. In your mind, you can swing a club, you can hit a ball, it should go where you aim it, therefore, there's no reason why you can't score in the 60s too.
Then you grab a club and swing at a ball.
Aha! It's not as easy as it looks on TV, is it? You may miss the ball totally. If you do hit it, it might dribble just a few feet in front of you. It might rocket off into the woods. It might even go backwards. You've swung very badly at a golf ball.
BUT, you have learned something. You've learned that you have an awful lot to learn about swinging a club and hitting a golf ball.
That's what Phyllis Diller was talking about when she said that all beginning comics are terrible. They go onstage and learn immediately that they have an awful lot to learn about being onstage.
The benefit of this experience is that now you can focus on learning what you have to learn.
You know where you need improvement. The comedian may learn that her material is not funny enough. So she works on getting a stronger act. Maybe her delivery feels unnatural. She experiments until she finds her voice.
Doing something badly teaches you (or should teach you if you pay attention) what you must do to do it well.
The first step in being good at what you do is to start doing it.
But then, how do you know when you're doing something well? Let's say you write a sitcom script or a page of jokes. Is it any good or do you still have more to learn? That's the next step in the process -- grading your development.
Here you have to be fiercely honest in evaluating your own skills, and you must set your own criteria for judging. Let's say, for example, that you want to learn to ride a bike. If every time you start peddling, you fall over and scrape your knees or you ride into a pole, you're probably not good enough yet. If you stay up and can steer the thing, you're a bicycle rider. That's simple enough.
BUT, suppose you want to be a competitor in the X-games, where kids ride those bikes up and down slopes, spin the bike around, and do all those unbelievable tricks. Now simply staying upright and avoiding poles is not enough.
In that case, you have to be aware of the others in the field. What tricks are they doing? Can you do them? Can you do them as well as the others? Can you do them better?
How does Pete Sampras know he's a good tennis player? He can consistently beat most of the other good tennis players.
How can you know you're a good writer? First of all, you are aware of what writing is being done. You listen to stand-up comics. You watch television sitcoms. If you want to write novels, you read good fiction. Then, you honestly compare your writing to that writing. Is your writing as good as that? Is it, or can it be, better than that?
If it's as good as or better, then you get to work selling and promoting it. If it's not, you've still got some work to do.
Again, let's go back to sports. If a person has worked hard on his golf swing and practiced for years, yet still finishes in the middle of the pack at professional tournament after tournament, that person knows that he has to improve somewhere. He has to learn to hit farther, or straighter, or putt better. Something has to be done to bring him up with the top scorers. He's good at what he's doing, but he obviously has to keep getting better.
So most of the pros will resort to a coach or a trainer in that situation. They'll work with someone who will improve their swing or their mental approach to the game.
That's another part of the process of improving your skills: study.
How did you learn to ride a bike? To drive? You probably got somebody to teach you or to help you learn. Maybe your dad held the seat of the two-wheeler until you learned to control it. A friend may have sat in the passenger seat of your car and guided you through your first hesitant efforts on the road.
This doesn't apply to only raw beginners either. All of the great tennis players have coaches that are constantly fine-tuning their game. The golf pros have coaches that alter their swings. Boxers have trainers, skating champs have instructors. It's part of being good and getting better.
These learning opportunities are available to writers at all stages of their development. You can have 'personal trainers' at a very reasonable cost. All you need do is buy a book and read it. Read all you can about your craft, and then do some exercises to start applying what you learn.
The greatest writing instructor you can imagine probably sits in a corner of your living room. Watch the well-written shows on television. Study and analyze them. Listen to the top comedians and learn what types of jokes they're doing and which ones work best. Then try to duplicate this material. Write a spec sitcom script. Do a page or two of jokes for a favorite comedian. They don't necessarily have to sell. They're part of your training program.
When a top boxer signs for a 12-round fight, he doesn't fight 12 rounds. He fights hundreds of rounds in the gym. That's how he gets ready for the 12 rounds in the auditorium.
Take classes and attend seminars. There are good computer programs that can teach you to write better, there are college courses and adult school programs devoted to writing, and there are many seminars that can help your learning process.
Once again, this learning process is not reserved for beginners. It's an ongoing process. You watch the pros in almost any profession, and they'll teach you that lesson. To be successful in almost any effort, you have to be good at what you do and keep getting better. This learning process is part of that 'getting better.'
So, you see, you already know how to succeed. You've done it many times. Now apply it to your writing.
Meet the Author: Gene Perret
During his 50-year career as a comedy writer, Gene Perret has written for some of the greatest comedians and television shows in history. Perret started writing stand-up material in the early 1960s, working for greats like Phyllis Diller and Slappy Writer. Perret joined Bob Hope’s writing staff in 1969 and was Hope’s head writer for the last 12 years of Hope’s career.
Perret started working in television in 1968 on “The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show.” He was head writer and producer for “Welcome Back, Kotter” and “Three’s Company”; he was a staff writer for “The Jim Nabors Show,” “Laugh-In,” “The New Bill Cosby Show,” “The Helen Reddy Show,” “Th...