Writing Advice #2: How to Tell When It’s Not Crap

A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog on MySpace devoted to writing advice for teens. Over time, it evolved into a general blog on writing advice for everyone. I blathered on and on, answered questions, etc. Since then, I’ve pointed people to that blog when they’ve sent me questions on writing, but I know that MySpace isn’t always the most, uh, reliable repository for such things. Plus, if you’re not on MySpace, you can read the blogs, but you can’t comment on them.

So once a week (probably on Wednesdays), I’ll be reprinting my writing advice blogs here on barrylyga.com. I’ll go through and edit them a little bit, too, and I might make some merges/changes, so they won’t be exactly like they were on MySpace, but they’ll hopefully still be helpful to people who are interested.

Here we go!

OK, if you were here for the last blog, you know what I’m talking about. If not, go read it right here.

Back? Great.

So, the question you probably have is: If I’m writing a million bad words, how do I know when I’m done? I don’t have to count every single one, do I?

The answer is actually really simple, but it takes some explanation and some detours. At the end, there’s even a tiny bit of magic involved, which is always nice.

First of all, look, let’s be honest — if you’re reading this blog then odds are you’re still deep, DEEP in the thick of those million bad words. You’re not going to be writing anything decent for a while, so just don’t worry about it. Just keep churning out the crap day in and day out. It’ll all pay off eventually.

But let’s say you’re getting towards the end of those million bad words. How do you know? Because remember what I said in the previous blog: There will come a time when you think you’ve written something good, but you’re probably wrong. So how the hell can you tell?

Well, you need some friends.

You need to find one or two people whose opinions you trust. And I don’t mean your mom, who always loves everything you write. I mean people who will flat-out tell you when you’ve written a piece of shit.

You test them this way: You take that story you wrote a few months ago. You know it — the one you THOUGHT was terrific, but now you realize isn’t all that good. You give it to someone who’s willing to read your work and you say, “Give me your honest opinion.”

Most people will recognize it for the crap it is. They’ll hesitate and then they’ll say very noncommittal things like, “It was pretty good!” or “I liked it” or “Not bad, man!” They’ll avoid specifics. They’re trying not to hurt your feelings and that’s fine. No one likes having their feelings hurt, right?

Put those people on your Christmas card list — they’re nice and we like nice, but they’re not going to help your writing.

No, what you need is one or two people who look at that piece of crap and say things like, “It’s not working for me,” or “I know what you’re trying to do, but it’s not coming across.”

Despite what I said a few paragraphs ago, you don’t want someone just to say, “This is a piece of shit.” You need someone who can articulate WHY it’s a piece of shit. “Your characters don’t make any sense.” “Your dialogue is all messed up.” “You keep shifting tenses on me and it’s got me all confused.”

Stuff like that. They may even, on occasion, say something like, “Hey, this line here — it’s pretty good.” Or “The story is weak, but I loved the sister character. She cracked me up.”

See how that works? That’s called constructive criticism. And people who can give it to you are as good as gold.

You want people who can steer you in the right direction. Now, don’t get me wrong — it’s not their job to fix your story! That’s YOUR job and you can’t wuss out on it. It’s just their job to tell you that you’ve screwed up; then you can keep fixing it until they tell you it’s NOT screwed up any more.

Most writers who make a living at it (like me) have one or two people like this in their lives, people they trust. In my case, I have a good friend who is a terrific writer. She sees everything I write before I send it to my agent and she tells me if it’s shit or not. If she says it’s shit, guess what? I don’t send it to my agent. I keep working on it.

Best part? I do the same for her.

And that’s REALLY cool. Because when you have a give-and-take like that, you learn a lot. It’s tough to spot flaws in your own writing, but it’s EASY to spot them in someone else’s. And then…

And THEN magic happens. Because one day you’re reading your friend’s story and you think, “Jesus, why does he always use that terrible cliche…?” And then you realize that YOU DO THE SAME THING!

Reading and improving someone else’s work has just helped you improve your own.

It’s pretty damn awesome when it happens.

This back-and-forth makes it possible for you to power through those million bad words. And it makes it possible for you to see the flaws in your own writing and figure out how to fix them.


Where do you find these magical people to help you? It’s not tough.

You find them in your writing class at school. At the local bookstore. In the local writer’s group. (Don’t ask me how to find a writer’s group! Just go to your local library or bookstore and look for fliers — trust me, someone’s advertising!) You go to a writer’s conference and meet people there. (Again, don’t ask me “which conference and where?” Just Google “writer’s conference” and start looking for stuff in your area.) You find ’em in coffee shops and at the local community college.

It might take some time to find the RIGHT person. But once you do, it can be a great relationship. I’ve had my “writing buddy” for seven years now. We both landed our agents at the same conference. We signed book deals eight months apart. Writing is a solitary profession, so it’s great to have a friend who understands what you’re going through.

OK, one final secret about detecting crap…

Hemingway once said that every writer needed a foolproof internal bullshit detector. Here’s the thing: Keep writing, keep plugging away, and keep BEING HONEST WITH YOURSELF and you’ll develop that detector. Once you get to the point where you realize and admit that what you’re writing is crap, something magical happens: You begin to notice when something ISN’T crap. A word, a sentence, a paragraph at a time. You start to detect these things. At first it’s just little bits here and there. Eventually it’s entire stories that aren’t crap.

I’ve mentioned in the previous post that I wrote a lot of really bad garbage before I wrote The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl. But almost the MINUTE I started writing that book, I could tell something was different. It was like all those years, I had been writing with weights attached to my fingers…and now those weights were off and my fingers were just FLYING over the keyboard.

It was the difference between playing the piano with your teacher looking over your shoulder…and improvising with a jazz band.

Keep at it. It can take YEARS, but eventually… Eventually, the weights come off. And even though you’ll still need to show your work to a trusted friend/confidant before you go any further with it, you’ll know. You’ll KNOW when you’ve exorcised those million bad words.

It’s like magic. It’s amazing.

NEXT: Next time, we’ll talk about inspiration. “Where do you get your ideas?” people ask. Well, we’ll talk about it.


  1. Hi I’m Emily.

    This has already happened to me. I submitted a story to my teacher this past school year and she told me that is was great! She was my Language Arts teacher so she knows a lot about this. On that note do you believe I could become a writer?

    • Well, that’s great. You’re on your way.

      I can’t say if you could be a writer or not — I’ve never met you and I’ve never read your work. It’s impossible to say. But you have some good feedback and you should keep at it.

  2. Oh BTW I’m a freshmen this year and about to turn 15. Also I’ve been writing for two years. Also I’ve written about 15-25 chapter stories. With at least 2-4 chapters.

  3. I didn’t think you could determine that. But thanks anyway. 🙂

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