Talk Write — The “Write Garbage” Advice

If you’ve been writing for any length of time, you’ve surely gone online and read content offered by the mountain of writing advice websites and blogs; I certainly have.  There seems to be hundreds of them.  (This was one reason I did not want to use this blog as an advice column for writers because there are so many of them already.)  But, I’m trying to envision this space more as a discussion room for writers rather than an advice column.  Anyway.

One seemingly popular piece of writing advice for the would-be novelist is “Write fast!  Write lots!  It will be garbage, of course, but you can always fix it later” and presumably turn the garbage you’ve written into gold.  Well, I disagree with this advice.  In my experience, whenever I’ve written garbage—especially several pages of it—it has pigheadedly resisted revision.  For me, garbage has always manifested a Titan state of inertia.  I have spent an hour or more trying to fix a page or two of garbage in the past and have ended up throwing the whole thing out and feeling like I’ve wasted a lot of precious writing time and energy.

That’s not to say I don’t understand the theory behind the write-garbage advice because I do.  It’s based on the idea that our unconscious minds are hiding precious plot lines, scene scenarios, dialogue and so forth from us which, it does, actually, and all we have to do to pry open its treasure chest is write sentences without thinking about them.  But one thing to keep in mind is that the unconscious mind does not express itself using regular language, such as English.  Instead, it prefers pictures and symbols and metaphor and is good at solving problems but not so good at creating conflict, such as is necessary in writing an interesting story.

And there are several variations and versions of this garbage-out advice but they all have in common the idea that if you just brain dump sentences onto the page that somehow, in all of that unstructured, unintended, and discombobulated text—if you look closely enough—you will find articulate prose and an engaging story.  In logical terms, this just doesn’t make sense and I believe it is dishonest to lead others to believe that it does.  Unless, that is, you want to encourage others to write garbage novels, though I’m not so sure that even that is possible using this method.

Good writing demands intentional expression of refined thought.  What does that mean?  First let me define refined thought.  When we were children, we had the worst time speaking to adults because we knew we needed to form complete sentences in our heads before blurting them.  Otherwise, we would say something  that didn’t even make sense to ourselves, then turn red in the face and vow, afterward, never to open our mouths again.  But over time, we learned that our thoughts are flighty and jumpy and too ephemeral to catch, most of the time.  So it took mental training before we were able to corral our thoughts into sentences which made sense when spoken.  That’s what I mean by refining thought.  By intentional expression I mean organizing the sequence of refined thoughts (sentences) into an order which allows your listeners to follow the development of your ideas so that they understand them—so that your ideas make sense.  So the processes of writing and speaking are closely related.

So what’s the bottom line?  The bottom line is that we do a lot of work in our heads (evaluation, revision, reformulation, etc.) before we actually express an intelligible sentence, whether verbal or written.  And if we bypass this process and just write what jumps into our brains, then we create—perhaps interesting but generally—unstructured, unintended, and discombobulated garbage which may be very difficult to make sense of.  So I’ve come to the conclusion that I needed a better approach for putting thoughts on the page.  Perhaps, we’ll discuss that in a later post.

Until then—