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Do You Have Sloppy Writing Habits? (And 4 Things to Do About It)

4 dos and donts of sloppy writing habitsThe question I want to ask today is whether sloppy writing habits are a deterrent to success, a natural and unavoidable part of the creative process, both, or neither.

I’ve never met the writer (myself included) who didn’t suffer from sloppy writing habits. These habits fall into a number of categories—everything from sloppy handwriting to sloppy writing processes to sloppy writing techniques.

“Sloppy” is an inherently negative word that reeks of frustrated parents cajoling unwashed teenagers to impose order on their personal batcaves. And yet—sloppiness also seems kind of inherent to all things creative. Indeed, some researchers have gone so far as to famously insist “a messy desk is a sign of genius.”

Naturally, as a neat freak, I take exception to this. I like order and schedules. I hate chaos and spontaneity.

I’ve been that way since childhood. My sister, with whom I shared a bedroom (aka battle zone) for most of our childhood, recently dug up a “Sisters’ Constitution” I created for her to sign when I was around twelve and she was around eight. This highly legal and formal document gravely promised we would both “close my drawers, put my stuff away, respect my sister’s stuff, keep my stuff on my side of the room.” (She pointed out recently that it seemed a little unfair I hadn’t balanced it with clauses promising to “be nice to my little sister, leave the door open at night when my sister is scared, and let my sister play with me.”)

As a writer, my entire journey toward improving myself and my stories has been largely geared around ideas of organization. Over the years, I have created a streamlined writing process that allows me to be as effective as I can be at any given moment. Naturally, much of what I teach on this blog reflects that. I’m a proponent of outlining, story structure, schedules, logic, and linearity.

But during one of my morning walks recently, I started pondering a comment a fellow writer had made to me that expressed his acceptance of his own sloppy writing habits. He said something along the lines of “that’s just how it is.”

That got me thinking about my preconceptions about the place of sloppiness in the life of a writer, its almost stereotypical omnipresence in the lives of writers in general, and both its relationship to and influence upon art itself.

Why Writers Can Get Away With Sloppy Writing Habits

So. Sloppy writing habits. Is that really “just how it is”?

I think, upon reflection, the obvious answer is: “Yeah, totally.”

Almost any perusal of any writer anywhere—his or her lifestyle, writing habits, creative process, even writing techniques themselves—show us that writers are, in general, almost unavoidably sloppy.

We could argue that creativity is itself a sloppy and ungovernable process. Although I ultimately disagree with this, it is true up to a certain extent. There’s a reason Legos come out of the box as a bazillion seemingly chaotic pieces and only slowly end up as the recognizable Death Star. Even more than Legos, writing is a tremendously complex and complicated art form that requires the confluence of dozens of unique skill sets.

More than that, any organization within the writing life itself—the mindset of being a writer, the overarching process of creating a novel, or the daily routine of putting words on paper—requires an organization of ourselves on a personal level much deeper than anything to do with the writing itself. And that, of course, is the vocation of a lifetime.

In short, sloppiness of one degree or another (and usually a lot of others) is inevitable.

More than that, I’m going to posit the art of storytelling on paper is possibly more forgiving of sloppiness than just about any other creative discipline.

Think about it.

Something I say over and over is, “There’s no such thing as a perfect story.” That’s not actually true, since perfection always exists, as least theoretically. When I say that, what I actually mean when I say that “nobody ever has or ever will write a perfect story.” Phew. Pressure’s off.

However, what that means by extension is that every story you’ve ever loved, you’ve loved in spite of some inevitable sloppiness on the author’s part. Maybe the plot structure was a little off; maybe it was even a lot off. Maybe the characters didn’t ring quite true. Maybe there were plot holes requiring massive suspension of disbelief on your part. Maybe it was dumb as all get out and you’re actually embarrassed to admit you liked it—but you did because it connected with you on an emotional level and made you feel something you cherish.

On the other end of the spectrum, even if the story’s end product is relatively flawless, chances are the author’s process of getting to that end product wasn’t so flawless. He spent nights pacing the floor, pulling his hair out with frustration and self-doubt. She rewrote the entire thing twelve times. He wrote only sporadically—six hours one day, not a thing for months, only fifteen minutes another day. She neglected to research important details until deep into the revision phase—and had to ditch a whole subplot when it proved unrealistic.

But readers don’t really care. The writer finally got to an end product that was good enough despite its inevitable flaws. It’s not like a dance where one wrong move throws off the entire routine. Or a painting where a smush of paint in the wrong place ruins the whole thing. As long as a story is “good enough,” readers are primed to forgive a story (and, by extension, its writer) for not being perfect.

So, yay! Long live sloppiness! Right?

4 Do’s and Don’ts of Sloppy Writing Habits

Can you be a sloppy writer—and still be a good writer? A successful writer?

Unconditionally, yes.

But does that mean you should be a sloppy writer?

There’s a balance here, as with almost all aspects of the creative life, but I still believe the optimum leans more heavily away from sloppy writing habits and toward methods and mindsets that promote effectiveness, efficiency, clarity, and even simplicity.

We seek the balance between creativity and logic, spontaneity and discipline, instinct and knowledge because we wish to optimize all aspects of the craft (and life itself, which is ever a balance between subconscious and conscious). I have no desire to discipline all the creativity out of my art. But I also have no desire to let the unpredictable wildness, and, yes, sloppiness, of raw creativity govern my life and my career.

This is a personal balance. We’re all different people. I crave order; others feel stifled by it. Naturally, my personal approach to writing, on every level, has focused on optimizing my strengths and minimizing my weaknesses. This is what we all must do in figuring out which sloppy writing habits unleash our creativity and which inhibit us by unnecessarily complicating the process.

To that end, here are several do’s and don’ts to consider in refining your own balance.

1. Don’t Make Excuses for Your Sloppy Writing Habits

The first step is calling a spade a spade. Saying “oh I’m just a pantser” or “oh I’m just a plotter” like they’re psychological conditions is not specific or helpful. Dig a little deeper and identify the habits you’re clinging to that are perhaps causing excesses on one side or the other of the writing balance.

Correcting sloppy habits—of any stripe—is difficult. Sometimes it’s easier to keep doing what we’re doing rather than trying to figure out what the problem is and how to fix it. But muddy thinking is never helpful to a writer, of all people.

If your desk is a mess, own it (after all, maybe it means you’re a genius). Don’t make excuses. Dig down and figure out why you have a hard time keeping it clean. Maybe it’s a good reason; maybe it’s not. But it’s important to know which it is, in order to optimize your response.

2. Do Identify the Parts of Writing That Are Most Difficult for You—And Do Something About It

Most sloppy writing habits—even ones we aren’t consciously aware of as sloppy—are the result of aspects of the writing life that are difficult for us.

One sloppy habit I’m currently working on conquering is my inherent laziness with certain aspects of causality within my plots. Oh, that character motivation doesn’t totally make sense? Or that battle choreography isn’t realistic? Or that plot hole got deeper because the fantasy physics didn’t quite work? Oh, well.

As a writer, I get almost claustrophobically bored with this stuff. I just want to race on to the good bits—character relationships, epic imagery, thematic grist. But, of course, as a reader, I’m much less likely to appreciate these ragged loose ends in someone else’s story. I recognize that, and I’m gritting my teeth and working to improve these difficult parts of my writing.

For you, the difficult bits might be understanding story structure, creating coherent POVs, maintaining a consistent writing schedule, avoiding procrastination temptations, or organizing research notes.

Whatever the case, dig around to identify what aspects of your writing you’ve currently got chained down in your mental dungeons where you don’t have to look them in the eye. Maybe it’s time to let them into the sunlight and start doing some rehabilitation.

3. Do View Writing as a Discipline—With Its Own Guidelines

Here’s a truth: A writer can remain in total ignorance of all higher concepts of theory and technique. This writer can ignore every good writing habit every known, throw onto the page a story that is strictly speaking a sloppy mess, and still connect with writers. (I’m sure you can think of a few popular authors today who might very well fit this description.)

You don’t have to view writing as a discipline in order to be a writer, or even to be a good(-ish) writer. But if you want to write to your potential—if you want to conquer your demons—if you want to get consistently and predictably better as both the art of writing and the process of writing—then viewing and treating writing as a discipline is your surest bet.

As a discipline, writing provides certain evident principles for slowly straightening up your mental desk and finding your best balance between the sloppiness of creativity and the structure of discipline. Somewhere in there, I guarantee there’s a sweet spot where everything sings together.

4. Don’t Ban Sloppiness Entirely

If we equate sloppiness, to a certain degree, with creativity, then we surely don’t want to entirely ban sloppiness from our lives. However much we may be able to learn to a harness a predictable flow of creativity, creativity itself will never be linear, logical, or even neat.

Diminishing the negative effects of sloppy writing habits is about clearing away unnecessary clutter so we can tap in as directly and powerfully as possible to the raw creativity itself. But we never want to block or even structure that initial creativity.

Most people view the concept of outlining as one of the most structured of writing techniques. So it may seem ironic to suggest that a free-form outlining style (aka stream-of-conscious brainstorming) is actually incredibly adept at channeling raw creativity. It does this by separating and protecting baby creativity from the most technical and precise of all writing techniques—the creation of the word-by-word narrative of the story itself. This is why I do all my story creation in an in-depth outlining phase, which then leaves the structured and disciplined aspects to stand on their own feet during the first draft.

Whatever your arrangement of the foundational aspects of creating, organizing, and getting your story down on paper, always check your balance. Discipline should optimize creativity. It should never inhibit it.

***

As always, conquering sloppy writing habits is really just the discipline of knowing ourselves—recognizing what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, how we work best, and how to create life choices that find and optimize our best balance.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What are some sloppy writing habits you’re currently struggling with? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Casandra Merritt says:

    Thanks for the answer. And by the way, I have the Structuring Your Novel and Creating Character Arcs workbooks, and just love them! Haven’t been able to use them yet though, because I am still in the outlining stage.

  2. I don’t know if my writing is sloppy vs my editing before I hit the publish button. Is it sloppy or lazy? I don’t know but I enjoyed your article because it is true we have to work our writer’s muscles be organized and disciplined!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I think there’s definitely a distinction between sloppy and lazy. Sloppy just kinda happens. Lazy is when it keeps on happening.

  3. Great post! One with a ton of info I need as I get back to writing after almost three years of pain and recovery. Thanks for the tips and especially the reference to Madeleine L’Engle’s memoir about her writing. Just ordered from Abe Books and can’t wait to read.

  4. Over the past few years, I’ve struggled with my writing. I had to step back and reevaluate. Recognize , change them, realize what does work and improve on it, and put it all into practice. I’ve always liked organization and order, but for some reason I didn’t apply it to my writing. Now that I’ve

  5. Spent the last two years unable to be productive. Couldn’t finish a book. Spent my time wallowing in self-pity. Finally I took a step back. Started paying attention to things that worked for me, admitted things that were a hindrance, and looked for solutions. Being more organized keeps me from being frustrated and gives me direction.

  6. Sophia Ellen says:

    Very interesting post! My sloppy writing habits… Probably just doing things like not keeping up with characters and not being organized with my story as a whole. ( Like having the character have blue eyes in chapter one, blue eyes in chapter three, and hazel eyes in chapter six) 🙂

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