Why most writing stinks

[A video that has exactly ZERO to do with this post!]

This post is #35 in a series of 50 dedicated to the art and life of writing, in support of the 50 for 50 Project to benefit WriteGirl. If you like it, or if you think it could have been improved by a better writing education for its author, please give generously. And pass it on.

I’ve been thinking about this video conversation between Patti Digh and David Robinson since I watched it last week.

It’s short and worth a watch, but in case you’re more of a reader than a watcher (like I am), the takeaway is this: you cannot do two things at one time. Specifically, you cannot make anything good while you are simultaneously, not to mention paradoxically, worrying about what people will think of what you are making.

David, you see, comes from a theater background, and as such has spent many years watching actors try to do just that. Because if there’s one thing an actor cares more about than the choice he’s making on stage at a given moment, it’s what you think of him while he’s making it. And if there’s one thing anyone who knows anything about good acting will tell you, it is impossible to be fully in the scene, to do your goddamned job as an actor, when you are doing anything besides being fully in the scene, worrying included.

I never really “got” this as an actor, which is why most of the time, I wasn’t very good as an actor. My success in commercials is easily attributable to my extensive background in TV advertising; I’d been “acting” the commercials I wrote for art directors, bosses and clients for 10 years before I made dime one really acting in them. TV, film, and theater were problematic, though, because no matter how hard I worked at the acting part, you could always smell the want coming off me.

Writing is no different. There are many rat-bastard writers whose work you love to read because they are good writers, writing their truth.

There are also some very nice writers who love their audiences: Patti Digh herself is one of them. But she will happily tell you to eat sh*t and die (my words!) if you don’t like what she’s written. She is unwavering in the courage of her convictions, which is as it should be: they’re not really values unless you’re really willing to hold onto them.

For the love of all that’s holy, and your writing had better be included in that, hew to your path. Screw the “like” buttons and pandering and other tedious bandwidth-wasting circle-jerkery. Whether you’re writing about marketing or macramé or your love of the baby Jesus, stand for what you stand for. The opinions of others have exactly zero to do with your truth. Will this make you less publishable? Less-retweetable? Possibly.

Or not. There is something about single-minded focus linked to passion that is quite compelling. Watch who you watch and learn.



  1. Hello Colleen,
    My writing is bad. I love it anyway because I put my soul into it and my tribe will soon follow. To respond to your last post and get out of this house before the temp. reaches over 100 degrees ), since 1990, I journalled by hand, pouring out my feelings when no one else was around to listen. Then, when I got my first laptop, I thought how wonderful it would be to journal on my computer. Hum. Tried it for three weeks maybe, then found the missing element—the disconnection between the thoughts in my mind and my hand moving to draw little scribbles that became my words. My personality disappeared into the tapping of the keys and when I went back to my paper journal, the “me” that went missing came back. Aaah, to write by hand is therapy, same as painting like a five-year old.
    Have a therapeutic day!

    1. My writing is bad. I love it anyway because I put my soul into it…

      I adore that you love your bad writing because it’s yours. Who knows if it’s even bad? Is it functional? Does it convey meaning? Is it true? That’s what outward-facing writing has to be.

      Actors SUCK in rehearsal. They SUCK in outtakes. Some film actors just SUCK, PERIOD—you never see it, b/c nimble editors cut around them.

      …and my tribe will soon follow.

      You know, no one is a bigger fan of Seth Godin than me, save perhaps his kids (depending on how young they are—you know teenagers!). But I’m not 100% crazy about the writing-to-gain-followers school of tribalism. I see it more as showing your colors so people know they’re in the right place.

      Now, of course, there are absolutely circumstances where leadership is required. We all take the lead on something at some point, even if it’s deciding where the group will go for dinner. But I’m increasingly wary of our need to be seen, of our need for respect and acknowledgment from external sources. And I say that as one of those with a vast and deep hole of need that I know can never be filled. (Takes one to know one, right?)

      What I guess I’m getting at here is that if you have a cause that is going to change the world *for others* and make it a better place *for others*, then lead away. Get as good at what your megaphone is so you can be heard, and hone those leadership skills.

      But without the service aspect, leadership makes me nervous. I definitely do not want to follow any leaders who are not living a life of service.

      Of course, what you may have been saying is just “I’ll finally make myself clear enough so that my people and I can find each other, and we can get done what we need to do and have a weenie roast after.” I cede a certain amount of meaning lost via the internets, not to mention our racing from one thing to the next.

  2. Okay this is one of those smack to the forehead pieces (for a visual, think “I should have had a V8”) that is being printed and stuck to the wall directly at my eye line over my computer so when I get in that shitty place of worrying about what I’m producing, I can remind myself that I’m not here to be liked (dammit), I am – we are – here to be offering what is within us, from a place of truth. And THAT is enough.
    Nicely done ms. colleen. Thanks for the forehead slap. I liked it.


  3. I agree with you to a large extent. To enjoy writing it’s best to ignore the outside influences. However, not all writing is just creative or about your values and some times you can actually be wrong *gasp*.

    So, while you should be courageous in your expressions, you should also be open to the idea that someone in your comments will open your mind to new perspectives or even correction to notions that might be wrong.

    Sure, you could play the arrogant blogger know it all if you want. That can work for some bloggers, but my favorite ones are those that are participating in a conversation where the blogger is learning as much as the reader/commenter.

  4. Hi John,
    Okay I know it’s not my blog but I wanted to respond (engage in a conversation with you) about your comment. I totally see what you’re saying and had thought about that myself but the thing is, after I read Colleen’s piece a few times and watched David and Pattie a few times, I saw more and more that it’s not that there is a suggestion of arrogance and that we don’t give a damn what others think, but rather that whatever it is we put out there, that is come from our truth – as in, whatever you write or create – that it come from the place of your truth and reasons for creating in the first place as opposed to writing (or any creation) and spending your time worrying about whether people will like what you write. Definitely conversations and learning from each other but doing it all from that place that is our own real truth rather than, “I’m going to write this piece or say this thought or love this way and hope I’m adored for it.” You dig me?

  5. Hahaha.
    Well, what you said to Grace about finding each other (which I also interpret as “getting each other”)…so, I get ya, is all. Really got what you’re saying in this post. Big time.

  6. Colleen,
    My writing is transparent and those who see through my imperfectness will follow. Thank you for pointing out that service comes first. It’s a new day and those who have real service to give the world will soon be lifted. Those who wish they could paint but feel they have no talent are members of my tribe. I’m writing to teach others how to bring painting AND writing by hand back into our lives.

    I love reading your blog. There just isn’t enough time in the day to absorb it all. Oh, and by the way, the reason I haven’t contributed yet is because I am waiting to hear from my intuition what the right amount is. And it looks as if it may be higher than the first amount that popped into my mind. Yikes!


  7. Having just come into my writerhood fo’ realz in the last year, I’m painfully bridging this gap between “LIKE ME DAMMIT!” and “I WRITE AWESOME SHIT EFF YOU!”. Having chosen to build a business that’s designed to draw in clients through my writing, it’s a tough transition. But it’s been hammered into me so much (particularly by people like you, Kyeli, and Patti) that I can’t give a shit what other people think if I’m going to be a good writer. Those people will come who find me in my writing. And screw the rest of ’em.

Comments are closed.