Writing With A Monkey On Your Back: The Fear Of Bad Writing

Stop expecting perfection. You'll write more, and you'll write better.

For a long time, I wrote with a monkey on my back.

You may think that means I had some type of iron-claw drug addiction, which is understandable. But although the problem was iron-claw, it was not related to drugs.

My monkey was an imaginary critic. It was a loony, mocking little beast that seemed to be always peeking over my shoulder giggling and clapping and dancing around to make fun of my writing.

And in my mind, he didn’t clown me alone. Somehow, it seemed that once that little bastard got wind of my bad writing, it was written in the stars. Everybody could see it.

Living with that imaginary critic was torment. It’s probably the closest thing to schizophrenia I’ve ever experienced. It was completely made up, but the effects were real.

I would polish everything in my head before I dared put it onto paper. If there was going to be evidence of what I had done, I was determined to that it would be good.

The fear of writing badly kept me from writing a lot things that could, but do not, exist today.

I’m not the only person who has dealt with this. I know I’m not. I know there are people who are going through it right now, although they may not admit it.

If you are currently trying to write with a monkey on your back, be strong and carry on. The struggle is real, I know. But strive to overcome it. Dig and grab wherever you have to to find sanity and logical thinking so that you can write.

When you’re getting the words out, it’s not about good or bad. It’s about doing versus not doing. What you write isn’t as important as the fact that you need to write something.

Before you start obsessing and perfecting, you need to do the writing. It’s natural to want to see things done right from the very beginning, especially when you are the one doing those things. But perfection on-demand is not realistic.

Pages filled with errors and unpolished thoughts are an ugly scene. I have notebooks with and files with writing that literally makes me cringe. But the truth is, the creation process, more often than not, will be ugly, sloppy, raw and plagued with errors.

If you can remember rules from your English classes about punctuation and conjugations and all that good stuff, certainly you can remember the process of writing rough drafts then second drafts then final drafts.

If you forgot that’s how writing is done, it’s kind of understandable. We are at a stage where editors and editing are becoming rarer. And at this stage, publications are asking writers to submit “flawless copy” with a “quick turnaround,” as if being professional means writing perfectly at a rapid

But that’s not the case.

Legend has it that Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road in twenty days stop, typing on a continuous roll of teletype paper. What most people don’t know, however, is that the original manuscript was practically unreadable; it took five years to get it into shape.

~Joel Saltzman~

Writing is supposed to begin as a rough product. It’s supposed to be polished to greatness. There’s supposed to be a process involved. No matter how talented you are, no matter how much you sharpen your skills, you don’t outgrow the process.

Your mind is not a mill for perfectly polished thoughts. Fighting procrastination is a battle many of us are already struggling with. Expecting immediate perfection will only lead to more delay.

In some cases, that delay becomes a permanent obstacle. Some people convince themselves that they write so bad they have no business writing at all.

Don’t become a victim of irrational expectations.  There’s no monkey. There are no critics who can see what you write as soon as you write it. There’s no judge or judgment for laying down imperfect copy.

Allow yourself to write badly at the start if that’s how the words flow. Go back and fix it later. You’ll get a lot more done, and in the end, you’ll probably approve of a lot more of it than you expect.

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  1. 1

    Yes, I try hard to keep the monkey traps out, but for some reason they keep swinging past the trap door, only to taunt my self-conficence by putting their hands under their arms and sticking their big lips outward along with their white tongues and making a tremendous racket. So much so, that I just have to lay down my pen until the noise plays out. It is only then that I can start again, while thinking I’m totally out of my league. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and words on self confidence. As soon you figure out how to get those monkeys into the trap, I would like a copy of your notes. Until then, I will keep tapping random thoughts without a purpose and justifying it as personal expression, and calling it art.

    • 2

      Hi Mary,

      Thanks for your comment.

      What I’ve figured out is you DON’T put the pen down. You keep going whether the monkeys are in the trap or not. You decide that if you’re out of your league, then so be it, you’re just going to be out of your league because you’re determined to get things done. Once you’ve finished, you may find that what you wrote isn’t so bad after all. Or even if it’s crappy, you’ll be living proof that crappy writing doesn’t kill you. Then you can proceed to step 2, fixing it up. The key is just to keep going no matter what.