Monday, July 8, 2019

Writer's Block: Lowering Standards?

I just finished Sandra Tsing Loh's review of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (Amy Chua, Penguin) (about which I may write a completely separate blog post) in the April 2011 Atlantic. Loh writes:

I follow the old writer's chestnut: "When you face writer's block, just lower your standards and keep going."

Cute, I suppose, and encouraging in its own way, but I'm not sure I agree with the mindset. I had never heard such a thing, and I've been publishing professionally for over 30 years. Maybe it's the difference between mainstream writing (and the expectation of peerless prose?) and genre writing. Or that the mentors I've have and and the pros I hang out with have a more organic approach to writing, an appreciation for story-telling over meticulously "beautiful" language? Or has this writer never been truly blocked, only impatient and self-critical?

Whatever the reason for my not hearing this before, I find its underlying premise destructive: that writing (i.e., composing a first draft) must somehow embody one's highest literary standards. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is nonsense! If you can just "carry on", what's going on isn't writer's block. It's elitist self-indulgent pifflebunk. If worrying about your "standards" interferes with the flow of your writing, then maybe you're trying to write and to critique yourself at the same time, and it might be better to get out of your own way and just write!

You can always edit and polish to your heart's content, but get the story down first.

For a long time in my early career, I wrote perfectly awful first drafts. I mean really bad in almost every sense -- except the passion I brought to them. Grammar, plot, characterization, prose style, you name it, I butchered it. As a consequence, I learned to revise with a vengeance. I learned that all of these things, these "literary standards" things, are fixable. The only thing that can't be changed is inserting "heart" into a story when it isn't there to begin with. (Or maybe some writers can do that, but I can't.) I'd a thousand times rather write--or read--a story with that core of fiery truth than with the most sophisticated technique in the world.


  1. Thanks for the great blog. Yes i believe as long as from the heart and i write it for me. There is always a reason behind the idea coming to me in the first place, so now i will re-read my chapter again with a different set of eyes. And think about the underlying important info.

    If it is meant to be it will be hey! It doesn't have to glide along the normal plot of other romance novels.

  2. @ Melissa, I applaud your commitment to the truth and depth of your own creative vision. That's really what it's all about, finding our voices, telling those stories that are uniquely ours to tell. Chasing the market or trying to shoehorn our souls into sales pigeonholes not only does ourselves a grave disservice but deprives our readers of what only we can offer.