The Most Important Writing Lesson I Ever Learned

By Jenny Hansen

Based on the title of this post, you might think I’m going to talk about plotting or character arcs or 3-Act structure… That’s a big fat “Nope!” to all three. There’s a lesson that comes before all those things and it has taken me a long time to get it through my head.

Here it is: When it comes to writing, “Done” is better than “Good.”

Now, some of you might disagree with me, so let me share a conversation I had with one of my tweeps, Natalie Hartford, who’s just getting started on the writing road. Like me, she enrolled in Round 4 of ROW80 – the writing challenge that knows you have a life – and her goals were a flurry of planning, studying, reading…and not WRITING.

The other day, we had this chat on Facebook:

Me: Oh, one last thing…OF COURSE you’re going to write a great book. But you’re stalling with all this prep. Just start writing all willy-nilly and see what comes out. Pretty please? I KNOW you have an awesome book inside of you. But we all have to write like 3,000 lines of crap before our book comes out.

Natalie: I know eh?!?! What’s with the stalling?!?!? It’s getting a wee bit frustrating. So you say “just start writing” – but what?!?!?

Me: Start writing a conversation between your character and someone. Or start writing an interview with your character that includes YOUR voice interviewing and THEIR voice answering.

Natalie: LOVE THAT!!! That’s perfect!! I will….thank you for the push Jenny – I need it!!

I was up till nearly 1 am last night brainstorming. (I am driving MYSELF batty with all this brainstorming…) I will definitely just start playing around with my character…interview, background…I decided last night that maybe that’s the missing piece to the plot issues.

Me: No one has a masterpiece on the first run. The key is to start writing. Remember, done is better than good. You can make your “done” into “very good” MUCH easier than you can make a little bit of good stuff into a finished novel.

We went on a bit longer, but I’ll just sum things up and say this conversation was really about fear. Like all writers, Natalie was floundering out of the gate because she felt like she had to get some “BIG IDEA” to run with.

There’s only like six story ideas on the planet so we all need to chill and just write. And never, ever forget that “done is better than good.”

My favorite quote from Nora Roberts, Goddess of the Bestseller list is:

I can fix a bad page but I can’t fix a blank one.

Here are some other recommendations I gave Natalie for getting started:

  • Quit dinking around and just write some scenes.
  • Describe your character’s office/bedroom/kitchen and figure out what they do there.
  • Ask simple questions in the interview, like: Does your character have a dog? What kind? What is the dog’s name? Does the dog do any tricks?
  • Enjoy yourself.

If you’re looking for more brainstorming ideas, you might also enjoy this post.

If you don’t believe me that it’s all about putting one word after another on the page, listen to the late great Stephen Cannell, creator of The Rockford Files, Baretta, The A-Team, and a myriad of other shows (plus you might recognize him from the poker table in Castle).If you look at his IMDb Bio, you’ll be amazed at how much this dyslexic man accomplished:


Do you agree that “done” is better than “good?” Which one is a bigger writing challenge for you?

About Jenny Hansen

Jenny fills her nights with humor: writing memoir, women’s fiction, chick lit, short stories (and chasing after the newly walking Baby Girl). By day, she provides training and social media marketing for an accounting firm. After 15 years as a corporate software trainer, she’s digging this sit down and write thing.

When she’s not at her blog, More Cowbell, Jenny can be found on Twitter at jhansenwrites and here at Writers In The Storm. Every Saturday, she writes the Risky Baby Business posts at More Cowbell, a series that focuses on babies, new parents and high-risk pregnancy.

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36 Responses to The Most Important Writing Lesson I Ever Learned

  1. adamdickson says:

    Yes, Jenny, I agree. One of my favourite sayings is ‘Don’t get it right get it written!’ After that, it’s down to the editing process and numerous cups of strong coffee. Keep writing.

  2. Laura Drake says:

    Brilliant post, Jenny, and a timely one, as we all come back from Christmas, and start to think about those New Year’s Writing Resolutions!

  3. olderwriter says:

    I totally agree with your latest blog, Jenny. Writing should be fun. It’s something we as writers all feel a need to do. Let’s remember that and let the studying our craft take its proper place and the writing itself fill more of our precious time.

  4. Yes! Yes! Yes! Done is better than Good. Good is something more than PERFECT–which is where my inner editor (Gracie) takes me. For me, it’s all about fear of failure. With two unsold ms (800 pages with umpty-ump words), I hold myself back because I DON’T WANT TO FAIL this time.

    But, guess what? I studied the craft of writing a novel since I wrote those two ms. (Yeah. I know. I hear the “duh’s,”) I have bad pages that can be fixed. I need to get the first draft of this WIP completed and polished. There are 800 pages with umpty-ump words begging to be dressed for the launch party.

    I’m putting this in my keepers file so I can link back on a super-secret article I have planned.

    Thanks for your wisdom, Jenny.

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Gloria,

      You haven’t “failed” just because those two manuscripts aren’t sold. You’ll sell them later. Or maybe they were just practice for the BIG ONE. We all look forward to that launch party…a thousand baby steps of “done” are what get you there.🙂

  5. derekd says:

    Oh so good, Jenny. Thanks for the post Christmas kick in the pants. I have a chapter I’ve been stalling on because I don’t see it clearly. No doubt it will clear up much faster once it’s on the page. I can’t tell you how much I look forward to your posts.

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Thanks, Derek!!! I have Laura and the gals here at WITS to give me my Christmas kick so I try to pay it forward.

      I hope you come back and tell us how the chapter went. You know enquiring minds like to know.🙂

  6. Melinda VanLone says:

    I have to keep telling myself this…it’s great advice as I sit floundering with a scene I don’t like. Just write it and move on, I can fix it later, right?

  7. I agree to just start writing, but just putting crap on the page to fix later doesn’t work for me. It gets in my way and I can’t fix it, I just have to throw it out. I have to keep starting with this or that until I find the thing that really grabs me and then I’m on a marathon run to the end. I wrote 50,000 words of “just get it down on the page” for NaNoWriMo a few years ago and I’ve never been able to fix it. I actually need to start that book over. But yes – JUST GO WRITE is the best advice! 🙂

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Thanks, Kitty! Since most of my stuff starts out somewhat high on the Crap-o-Meter, I don’t have much of a choice. Soooo, I just keep swimming…er, writing.

  8. Best frikkin advice on the planet. You’ll never sell a book if you don’t write it. Butt in chair and write.

    Great advice, great timing.

  9. Jann says:

    Great post Jen. Just what I needed to read this morning as I start setting my writing goals for 2012.

  10. If I ever start my novel, can I name one of my characters after you to pay homage?

  11. I need to have some sort of plan worked out for my story, otherwise Iend up in the same boat as Kitty … with a mess I can’t fix. But you’re right, Jenny. At some point, the planning must stop and the writing must begin. The writer who loves pre-planning needs to set a hard and fast rule that allows them a week or two of planning before they MUST dive into the actual writing.

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      I have a friend who has finished 15 manuscripts by writing extensive 50 page outlines. When her outline begins to look like chapters, she moves to the next phase.🙂

  12. K.C.Otenti says:

    Great advice. I am guilty of brainstorming until I have the “perfect idea,” and all that gets me is frustrated! There is no PERFECT idea, but if I have AN idea, I can always make it better. Thank you!

  13. Kathleen Harrington says:

    Great advice, Jenny. I remember hearing Nora Roberts say just that quote and how it made such an impression on me, as well. Two other bits of advice that made a great impression: Dennis Columbo in his talk to writers at the Orange County Chapter of RWA: “You are enough.” We can spend all our time plotting, doing research, making character sketches—or we can write. It’s just that simple and that hard. And I don’t know who said it, but I frequently repeat to myself another bit of wisdom. “Writers write.”

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Thanks, Kathleen. Many people say “Writers write” but the two who’ve stood out to me are Bob Mayer and Stephen Cannell. God, I loved that talk with Dennis Palumbo…he so inspired me that day! You have prompted me to go dig out those notes…bless you.🙂

  14. FAB shout out Jenny and I LOVE it! I am glad if our conversation can help anyone else see the light that to be a writer, one must write. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your advice and your honesty. It was exactly what I needed to hear and I’ll be putting that advice to good work this coming 2012!
    Woot woot….

  15. Enjoyed your post, Jenny. I’m the kind of writer who likes to throw the whole story onto the computer page–and, yes, finish the draft–then go back and edit, edit and edit some more. Finishing is definitely key to me.

  16. K.B. Owen says:

    Natalie, I know exactly what you’re going through, and I’m sure a ton of other folks can relate to it, too. Jenny, terrific post, and SO TRUE! Thanks for the clip on Cannell, too.

    All the best for your work in the coming year! You guys are gonna ROCK!

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      You’re welcome, Kathy! Trust me, I’m guilty. The gals here at WITS kick me around if I’m not writing something that will further my book or my brand. You have all of us at myWANA and ROW80 to kick you around. (p.s. Check out tomorrow’s post…it talks about ROW80. :-))

  17. Ruby Barnes says:

    Have to agree with you, Jenny. I have a published author friend who releases one work every eight years or so. They agonise for a week over every paragraph. The end result is undoubtedly incredibly litereray and clever but indigestible to all but PhDs in literature.
    Life is too short and we have to get on. Get done. Good enough is good enough.

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Oh my God, Ruby. I think I’d want to stop writing if I had to agonize for a week over a paragraph. That sounds so, so very painful. But…it obviously makes your friend happy or he/she wouldn’t keep doing it. Hats off to them for finishing, and THANK GOD I don’t have to do it their way.

  18. Pingback: Are You Looking For A Doable Writing Challenge? | Writers In The Storm Blog

  19. Absolutely true, that piece of advice! I meet a lot of people who insist they are “writers”, except they haven’t got around to “writing their book”, still less finishing it. Writing is about doing. I actually HAVE to finish what I write, most times, because I’m contracted to do it – to get a manuscript in to the publisher by a particular time, or have a deadline for the book review, or whatever. That deadline is a great motivator. But even before I’d got to the point of ‘making it’, there was that important and urgent need to get that blank page filled up – on the basis that a bad first draft is better than no first draft.

    Matthew Wright
    http://mjwrightnz.wordpress.com
    http://www.matthewwright.net

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