Lessons in Bad Writing

September 17, 2023 6 min read

Showing your work means showing your work.

I am afraid to be so unguarded that you’ll find my ignorance, cowardice, laziness, and bad judgment.

I want you to know what I’ve been thoughtful about, what I know I’ve been wrong about so you can see how I’ve learned from it, and what I have doubts or mixed feelings about so you can see I’m a person trying to be conscientious and evolve.

What I really, really don’t want is for you to identify my dumb shit before I’m aware of it. That’s embarrassing.

So I’m timid about sharing the things I write and rewrite for myself, like the first short piece I posted to Critique Circle for feedback:

I wasn’t alive when planes slammed into warships in Honolulu, but my heart was fully formed and racing as planes slammed into those New York skyscrapers.

It’s different to wander in that helpless panic, before interviews and investigations yield the first drafts of history and explain unfolding events. Despite the sixty intervening years, people rose together in response. Terrified again, unified again, resolved to persevere.

The toxic fog that rolled into late 2019 was different. It did not clear to reveal a united country or a united world, but one fractured and burning. My country does not model democracy for the world, but a cancer of mass shootings.

Ukraine is united fiercely against the brutality of war brought by a larger force. We are divided against each other into shouting mobs and competing censorships. We yell. We shelter against bullets and hate and breathless anger that says it’s not okay to be who we are, to have the values that guide us.

It’s like we forgot, collectively, how to listen. How to pull up a chair for the other, make room for their stories and their fears and their humanity. We have that in common, that humanity. We forget that when we pretend people are demons.

It takes a certain courage to listen with a sense of humor, not to judge or sneer or mock or outwit, but to hear another person that’s brave enough to speak from their heart.

I don’t know whether the winds will shift and part the fog, and I don’t think I can do much about it. I can be small and scared and angry, but as long as I can listen I’ll have hope because we all have that choice.

Is it possible to commit an act of mass listening? To be guilty of compassion in the face of anger?

We can rise together before we too are dust in the dark. Will we?

It came out of a ball of frustration about a lot of things. From a soft, squishy, little place that mattered. I needed to write it.

Some people liked it and offered specific suggestions for improvement.

I intended to incorporate their feedback and publish a revised version somewhere, but two discussions led me to abandon that plan.

Both were kind, unexpected, and deeply critical.

The first was a Russian woman who encouraged me to look beyond my Western take on the war in Ukraine. She liked the spirit of what I wrote, and we sort of exchanged points of view—no yelling or article links or accusations—until the conversation tapered into silence. I was dumfounded but grateful for the brief personal discussion despite considerably different points of view. Would I have been able to have this discussion anywhere else?

Did I completely fail to make a stand for people that are needlessly suffering, from the relative bliss of an Aeron chair in a quiet house on a quiet street without war or violence or scarce resources?

The new wave of violence and suffering in the Middle East has me raking over this again. The internet’s not starving for another unqualified white guy take, but dread and silence aren’t helping anyone either.

The second critical response hit harder.

Again gently and sincerely, this person pointed out how the piece takes a selective and privileged view of history. Japanese Americans would have something to say about righteous American unity during World War II, for example. Arab Americans surely have thoughts about our righteous, “collective” resolve after 9/11. (Along with the rest of the world watching the U.S. swing a fist around the world in search of vengeance.)

Worst of all, this person asserted that without personal experience the whole thing felt flat.

This stung. It was frustrating feedback to get, and at first I was annoyed.

I had been satisfied enough with the little blurb to share it, but once I saw it this way my words evaporated into a cloud of “meh.” Felt kind of cringe, even.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized what a gift it was that the person bothered reading what I wrote and took the time to offer honest criticism.

I like writing because it can only exist as a result of thinking.1

My thinking here sucked for two important reasons: a view of history without nuance, and a lack of any shared personal experience that would have at least made it a story.

That feedback was humiliating to receive, and also invaluable.

I could shelter under the praise and ignore the critical feedback, but as much as I want to be liked and feel good I want to write things that matter and resonate.

If I want to write things I’m proud of, I think I have to let go of the fear that I’ll say something dumb and embrace that it’s inevitable. That someone may see an idiot and move on. If sharing means I have even a faint hope of receiving the gift of honest feedback from someone that sees the world differently, I need to be writing more and sharing more and getting over myself.

In a way, that’s what I wrote about looking for in the first place.

Instead of wondering about the things that are outside my control, what am I willing to risk in order to have the kind of conversation I want to have and be a part of the kind of world I want to live in?

You may know this already. I know this already in theory, but I’ve continually wavered at the point of practice.

I write and don’t post so many things it’s absurd. I’m learning to reign in reply guy tendencies, but publishing my own words in my own corner should be something I lean into. That’s distinctly my place, where my writing is only inflicted upon those who choose to read it.

I don’t decide whether or how anyone responds, but I have to share anyway for that magic to even have a chance.

I’m going to do this more.

I hope you’ll follow along, I’m terrified that you’ll hate it, and that’s why I’ve got to keep going.


  1. I don’t want to get into artificial intelligence on this one.