“I can do better than that!” (Mistake #9)

You’re reading – a book, an article. And you hate it. “I can do better than that!” you sneer, tossing it aside. That’s not the mistake. The mistake is not letting your response go. Let me explain…

Rubbish occasionally gets published. Does that surprise you? It shouldn’t. Bad songs get recorded and sung, bad art gets painted and hung, bad writing gets penned and printed.

If you read as much material as you should be reading as an aspiring writer (more on that later), then you will, not infrequently, come across some of this rubbish. An “I can do better than that!” response is understandable, fair and doubtless accurate. But taking that feeling to your keyboard, using poor work to inspire and motivate you, even basing a writing goal on it… all that is, I think, inadvisable.

Ask yourself this: do you want to write something which is good – or do you want to write something which is merely better than bad?

If you read a bad book, it’s more than likely to be by an author who has written several, possibly very good books, and has merely had an ‘off day’ with his latest. The publisher may have made the best of it, and still went ahead and printed. After all, if the writer has a track record, it’ll probably still sell.

If you read a bad article, it will certainly be by a writer or journalist who has a healthy portfolio of perfectly competent work. This time, though, something went wrong. They had other pressing deadlines demanding their attention. They were unwell and turned in half-hearted material. They couldn’t get the answers they needed and made the best of it. Why, you may wonder, did the editor print the piece regardless? Probably because there was a gap to fill and that was all that was available to fill it. It happens.

Go back to the author’s first and second books. Go find earlier examples of the journalist’s articles. Chances are they’ll all be good. Say “I can do better than that!” about all those. Aim for a higher standard, and be inspired by what you admire, not loathe. Even if you miss your loftier target, you’ll achieve more than you would’ve achieved by aiming for something merely better than bad. If you don’t already have it, begin to cultivate the attitude that you can do better than something that is good. Realise, too, that before you can get away with occasionally being average or – whisper it – bad, you first need to be good.

A lot of new writers tell me they think they could be a writer because they can do better than some of the rubbish they read. If you’re just starting out, please abandon this philosophy. Doing so will stand you in good stead.

Comments 6

  • Also, it's easy to sit around judging someone else's work without knowing what was in the brief, or how long they had to do it.

    I think not reading – or thinking you need to – should be your next mistake.

  • Hi

    Awww wow. I still lapse into the "oh I can do better than that" but less so now in my er.. twilight writing years!

    But I have realised that holding such a negative and churlish attitude never helped me with my (lack of) writing skills and this post is a timely reminder to put things in perspective.

    Thank you

    Take care

  • Anne – it's coming soon, promise!

    Kitty – glad it helped you.

  • Totally agree, Alex

    I think being able to recognise and then analyse what we think of as 'bad' or 'good' writing is an essential skill for writers.
    Thinking about why we think a piece of writing is good or bad and why it moves us can inform our own writing.

    I also agree that we should aspire to be the best we can be and aim for the standard of writing that we rate not simply do better than the writer's work we were disappointed with.

    Julie x

  • A related point – sometimes one reader might perceive a piece of writing as 'bad' simply because it is not their cup of tea. I can't count the times I've heard women's magazine stories rubbished. People sneer at chick lit, Mills and Boon, fantasy novels etc too. What one person sees as poor writing might actually be spot on for its market. New writers should bear this in mind as well.
    (sorry if I've jumped the gun on a future Mistake to Avoid!) 🙂

  • Not at all – a valid point, womagwriter. Sneering at the likes of Mills & Boon makes no sense – it's as logical as criticising children's books for not being literary. It's just not designed for you (ie the 'sneerer'!).

    Thanks for extra comments. Alex

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