The REAL problem with writing

Reading time: Just over 3 minutes

The real problem with writing is not spelling or grammar. It’s persuading yourself to put enough words on the page….  

I’m gearing up to promote my next book, Your Happy First Draft. (Release date is set for next Tuesday, Sept. 24/19. I’m so excited I’m like a five-year old counting the days until Christmas!)

As a result of the upcoming launch, I’ve been spending a lot of time on the internet reading what others have to say about writing. Too many of them sound like Julie McGuire who wrote in the South China Morning Post,

I find the lack of literacy skills among young people today quite disturbing. My son, who is soon going to high school, uses the word “of” in sentences instead of “have” and “they’re” instead of “their”. He seems to be taught few of the basic language skills at school. Is he expected to pick these up? I do not mean to sound old-fashioned, but I firmly believe that grammar, spelling and punctuation should be taught properly.

Or post-secondary instructor Azadeh Aalai who wrote in Psychology Today,

Is it just me, or are student competencies like basic writing skills in serious peril today? Granted, I am about a decade in to my teaching career, but even within this fairly short span, I have noticed a startling decline in the quality of written work turned in by my students, regardless of which institution (community college, private, four-year school) the papers are coming from. 

Or high-school teacher Brian Crosby who wrote in the LA Times,

Over the years that I have been an English teacher, there has been a steady decline in students’ writing skills. Every time I assign a major piece of writing, one that is multiple pages in length, I brace myself for the avalanche of papers about to be turned in. It’s not the sheer volume of 100-plus essays submitted in one day that blows me back; it’s the poor quality that is troubling.

It might shock you to learn that these complaints about writing are nothing new. More than half of first-year students at Harvard failed an entrance exam in writing — 145 years ago.

What astonishes me, however, is not the silly little spelling or grammatical errors that people make every day. (Please don’t worry about making errors if you email me. I don’t even SEE most of those mistakes and I certainly don’t judge you for them. After all, Jane Austen, Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald were all terrible spellers.)

What gets my knickers in a knot is the way that most schools (Ivy League universities, I’m looking at you!) utterly fail to teach students about the psychology of writing. How can you take a scientist, for example, who has spent years learning the intricacies of biochemistry and expect him or her to kick out 40,000 words without a sweat?

The focus on getting grammar and spelling correct ties most people in knots. It makes writing slow and painful and leads to procrastination.

Ditto for the focus on saying something profound or meaningful. This also makes writing slow and painful and leads to procrastination.

Procrastination doesn’t mean you are lazy or poorly motivated. It means you’re avoiding doing something that’s terribly uncomfortable. In other words, it’s a natural, self-protective, life-affirming reaction that simply means you need to find another way to solve the writing problem. Here’s what I suggest:

Begin by making the work of writing more pleasant. Start by working for a short amount of time (somewhere between 5 and 30 minutes) and do it every day. Then — and this is the really important part — convince yourself that it’s perfectly okay to have a crappy first draft.

I have coached many writers in the crappy-first-draft strategy and the arguments they give me frequently make me laugh (sympathetically, not mockingly. I used to hate the idea of a crappy first draft, too.)

They tell me their supervisors won’t like the crappy first draft (why are they showing it to them?) They tell me they don’t have time to edit later (why aren’t they starting earlier?) They tell me they don’t know how to begin (try a mindmap, I suggest).

To pull that first draft out of yourself, you need to break the habit of editing WHILE you write. This will take determination and persistence but I know it can be done because I’ve done it myself and I’ve helped dozens of other writers do the same.

The real problem with writing is NOT that people don’t understand spelling or grammar. It’s not that they’re lazy or poorly motivated. And it’s not that they’re unable to engage in critical thinking.

The problem is that no one has taught them the relatively simple steps to get the ideas out of their brain and onto the page. If you want to solve this problem yourself, watch for Your Happy First Draft, arriving next week.

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If you want to solve your own writing problem, consider applying to my Get It Done program. Go here, to learn more, and if you want to apply, scroll to the very end of the page, selecting the bright green “click here to apply now” button.

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My video podcast last week aimed to help you write a better bio. Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.

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Do you figure you have a writing problem?  How have you dealt with it? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Sept. 30/19 will be put in a draw for a copy of my book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!