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The Good of Bad Writing

By Patrick Kirkland · December 8, 2011

"…At least Lindbergh had the stars to guide him. I didn't even know how to change the typewriter ribbon. Nevertheless, I pushed on."

– Neil Simon, Rewrites: A Memoir

I make it a habit to write every single day. When I have ideas, the writing flows and I feel productive. When I don't, I would rather have my fingernails pulled out. Still, I fill them up, and after a few days separation, I'll read them.

And they are really. REALLY. Bad.

Pages that I'd never let a soul read. Pages I'd rather burn, and hope that no one finds the ashes. Pages that in no way will get my script sold.

Or will they?

When you're reading through your finished work, cringing from bad dialogue, generic action sequences and clichéd slug lines, your first instinct is probably to throw it in the trash, delete it off your hard drive, and dance on its grave. But wait– don't do it. Not yet.

How on Earth is this crap positive for your writing? Because while you may be looking at terrible, generic, clichéd pages, you're still looking at pages, and that's what makes you a writer.

Stephen King, in his book On Writing, says that he writes 2000 words per day. Do we really assume that because he is Stephen King that his 2000 words are all brilliant? Do we think that Carrie came out of his head exactly as it is now? All the storylines, all the character descriptions– are we to assume that his first draft was the one that went to print? I doubt it. And I doubt his second draft was much better.

The trick is no secret; it's simply, as Simon says, "to push on.” I've already written a Script Tips… In Action on the importance of a schedule, how to maintain routine, how to live as a freer writer, and how to be more aware of your surroundings. But this is one tip (and fear) that I keep coming up against myself: the ability to write badly.

I've heard some writers call for 5 pages a day, or even ten pages. Make a pledge to yourself, they say, that you'll get through it no matter what. Some recommend starting off with just 1 page a day. While it may not seem like much, even 1 page a day, good or bad, will give you a full screenplay in only four months time. And that's exactly the point: to get a full screenplay in your hands, no matter whether it's pure brilliance or pure drivel, and to get over the fear of bad writing.

At that point, you probably have a bad screenplay in your hands, but you still have a screenplay. And that is a feat, because your ideas, for the first time, are real. And all of us, every single one of us who call ourselves screenwriters, have written a terrible screenplay. Now you're ready for the real art. Now comes the rewrites.

There's great writing. There's good writing. And then there's just writing. No one does great writing right out of the box. I don't think anyone realistically sits down and writes brilliance against a white page. The blank page both scares and excites the writer. When asked what I wanted for Christmas one year, I requested a blank ream of paper, imagining all the ideas that I could put on it. The stories I could tell. I got the ream. I put it in the corner. I stared at it for a month. It's now the leftover printing paper. What a crappy gift.

A writer needs the ability, the excuse, and the leverage to write badly– terribly, horrendously. You really need to be allowed to look at your pages and think, "This is pure shit,” and then accept it. Your draft may actually be the worst screenplay of all time, but when compared to most, you’ll still be ahead of the game. While you're holding that freshly printed screenplay in your hand, think of all the other writers out there that are still saying, "Someday, I should write a screenplay."