Do You Really Need To Write A Million Words of Cr@p Before You Write Anything Worth Publishing?

Raymond Chandler used to claim that a writer had to get a million words of crap out of their system before they got to the good stuff. That’s probably not always true, but he has a point. Writing is a profession, and a demanding one. Very few people can sit down and pilot a plane or write a working computer program with no previous experience or training. It’s unlikely that they’ll be able to do better writing a novel or a short story without training or experience.

At the same time, the million words of crap meme is a rule of thumb, not a law. There are people who will never write something worthy of publication because they don’t have life experiences or insights that would lead them to writing publication-worthy material. Others will fail because they perceive constructive criticism as personal attacks. There are other people who are natural storytellers or have exciting and unique experiences that let them overcome lack of experience much earlier than most. Writing is never going to be easy, but a few people take to it easier than most.

I think it’s almost inevitable that a writer will write stories that they later consider crap. That’s part of growing as a writer. If ten years later you still think your first novel is wonderful, you probably haven’t grown much. If you look back at with a mix of nostalgia and ‘did I really think this was worth publishing’, then you probably have grown.

How do you get through the crap-producing section of your writing more quickly? Part of improving as a writer is consistently applying seat of pants to seat of chair for prolonged periods of time and writing. The more you write, generally the better you get. If you stop writing for a prolonged period–months or years, you won’t be as good of a writer as you were when you stopped, though you will get back in the flow after a few weeks.

Another key to improving as a writer is to read. I don’t know of many writers worth reading who aren’t also avid readers. Not all reading is created equal, of course. I find that my spelling and grammatical skills actually decline if I read enough stuff on Internet forums. Generally, quality reading helps, but there is powerful writing in unexpected places. Also, it’s hard to motivate yourself to read if you don’t like what you’re reading, so if the ‘great novels everyone should read’ stuff bores you to tears but you like westerns, or science fiction, read westerns or science fiction.

Writers groups can be helpful in getting you through your crap-producing era more quickly, as long as there is at least one person in the group who is both helpful and a somewhat better writer than you. Groups where you’re by far the best writer may be ego-satisfying, but it’s difficult to learn much there. The same is true of writers groups where you are too far below the general level, and groups with members who are out to boost their own egos rather than helping other members of the group.

Seeking out and accepting criticism is vital, as is the ability to distinguish between helpful comments and unhelpful ones. Most feedback is going to be of some value, even if it is wrong. However, you’ll probably run into a few people who persist in trying to push you into writing the story they would have written or people with ego-driven agendas. Spotting and avoiding or defanging that kind of feedback is also important if you encounter it.

So how am I doing on getting through my crap-producing period? I’ve been writing fiction since middle school. I got serious about it and started finishing a substantial proportion of the stories I started about fifteen years ago.

I recently did an incomplete survey of what I’ve written so far, and come up with 757,302 words of fiction written as of today. That doesn’t count rewrites or words written and then cut. If I included words written, and then edited out I’m probably very close to the million words. It also doesn’t include a very large body of non-fiction I’ve written over the years. My back of the envelope calculations say that the nonfiction adds up to roughly 900,000 words, not counting writing on forums and social networking sites.

Here is a summary of my fiction writing so far:

Novels:

4 written

3 with more than 75,000 words written

1 with more than 50,000 words written

6 fragments (All but one from before I got serious)

Shorter fiction

19 finished

24 unfinished

Most of the fragments and unfinished stories are from my early years of writing, though I still start an occasional short story that bogs down. I hope to finish three out of the four unfinished novels and at least a couple of the novel fragments.

Have I finished writing my million words of crap? I hope so. There is more than enough crap out there without me contributing to it. Have I stopped improving as a writer? No. Not even close.

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About the author

Dale lives near Chicago with his wife, daughter, three cats, and a lot of books. Dale is a computer programmer and teacher as well as a long-time science fiction fan. He has a huge and diverse range of interests, ranging from computers and history to martial arts. He loves animals and did a stint as a foster home for orphan Samoyeds. He has spent his last two summers improving his writing under instructors like science fiction grand master James Gunn and Nebula winner Kij Johnson.

»» 7 Responses to “Do You Really Need To Write A Million Words of Cr@p Before You Write Anything Worth Publishing?” »»
  1. Ken says:

    I think part of it is to get past all the self-indulgent stuff and just get busy with the storytelling. After a while, we’re not trying to prove anything to anyone–we’re just trying to drag the stories out of our heads as cleanly and efficiently as possible, using every tough lesson learned along the way. Or not, what do I know? I’m working on novel #9 and it can be a hard frickin’ slog, man.

  2. Beth says:

    Good points to ponder, Dale. I’m of the opinion that everything we write adds to those million words and to our experience. Crafting a solid non-ficiton article is just as important as perfecting an action scene from a novel. And we need the writing skills to do both.

    I’m with you on the reading advice. Words are our most basic tool. The more we see them in use—correctly or incorrectly—the more we see that they can do, the more likely we’ll be to put them to use in novel ways.

    To your last line—here’s hoping we never stop improving.

  3. Dale, writing is a craft and we can get better as we do more of it. I think life experience is also important. So, I believe the combination of writing and experience can help us climb the writing ladder and produce work that readers will enjoy. Is it tied to 1 Million words? My take is that’s an arbitrary metric, but it feels like the prose I’m writing this year is much stronger than what I wrote five years ago, so I’ll measure that as progress.

  4. […] the popular notions of how long it takes to get good at something – 10,000 hours of practice or one million words are two of the more popular ideas – writing boils down to making yourself write, whether you […]

  5. […] the popular notions of how long it takes to get good at something – 10,000 hours of practice or one million words are two of the more popular ideas – writing boils down to making yourself write, whether you […]

  6. […] Creativity is hard and it takes time to develop. Someone may be inspired and prodigies appear but the reality is: one-hit wonders do not a creative career make. It requires focus, time, effort and constant pushing of the limits. Becoming an artist is not like becoming an engineer or an accountant. Nobody really wants a ‘creative’ engineer or, unless they’re in the Mob, a ‘creative’ accountant. I’d like that bridge to stay standing and my tax audit to go smoothly. To produce artists, we need a combination of individual support for artists to master their skills and develop their creative genius and we need to support institutions like orchestras, art galleries, theatres and publishing houses where they can practice their trade and eventually reach their audience. […]

  7. Joyce says:

    Hello colleagues, good paragraph and good arguments commented here,
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