What’s your real problem?

Word count: 756 words

Reading time: About 3 minutes

We all have writing troubles. But how deeply do you understand your own problems?….

The US Department of Transportation has proposed that all new cars be required to have a brake override. The purpose? To disable the accelerator when the brake pedal is pressed. This is supposed to prevent the type of accident where the driver claims to be braking, but the car keeps going faster.

But here’s the irony. Investigations have shown that the common cause of such accidents has nothing to do with the brake pedal. The issue is, drivers think they’re braking, but in fact have their foot on the accelerator.

“The real problem is a human factors issue, not an engineering issue,” says web usability expert Jacob Nielsen, who told this story in a newsletter last year. “When people are in a panic, they often don’t realize what they are doing.”

I think a similar sort of panic often affects writers. Sitting and staring at the blank screen, late with a report the boss wanted three days ago, or feeling as though we can’t pry the words out of our brains with a crowbar, we often make a panicked analysis about our writing problem. We conclude:

  • My boss (or, if you’re a student, make that “professor”) doesn’t give me enough time to write properly.
  • I made the mistake of procrastinating; I won’t ever do that again.
  • I just need to force myself to sit in my chair longer until I get this damn thing written.

These are likely true enough, in their limited way. But I predict that pursuing them offers as much chance of success as changing a light bulb does when it’s the wiring that’s broken.

Writers typically face a number of issues that are far more complex than just “poor discipline.” The problems reflect the complexity of the human brain and the myriad of emotions that govern our lives.

Here are three of the “human factors issues,” as Jakob Nielsen calls them, that I most frequently identify with the people I coach:

They don’t read enough good writing. When I suggest to people that they read more, and better, many of them think I’m joking. Or telling them to slack off. Nothing could be further from the truth. Good reading is not for jokers or slackers. It requires intent. You have to identify the authors you want to imitate. And you must study them – slowly and carefully.

So many of us are required to read so much schlock! Annual reports. Marketing papers. Poorly written online articles. I scan 80 blogs every morning. Most of them are aimed at writers or bloggers. And many of them are dull or written for search engines rather than real people.

The trouble is, when we read that sort of dreck regularly, it starts to sound normal. Our brains conclude that that’s what real writing should sound like. That’s precisely why I challenge myself to read a minimum of 52 books per year. And a copy of the New Yorker every week. I want some fine reading to balance all the other stuff I have to slog through. You need this, too.

They fail to implement the steps they already know will help improve their writing. I’ve recently finished coaching a client who seemed knowledgeable of many of the tricks I have to offer. Mindmapping? Tick. Keeping a list of story ideas? Yes. Going for walks to think rather than sitting in front of a screen? You bet. But was he using any of them? No! He wasn’t deliberately sabotaging himself. Mostly, he’d just forgotten. That happens to all of us. Writers often need help figuring out how to implement the steps that will help them write faster, better.

They don’t carve out the time for writing five days per week. Writing is like exercise. You don’t build up muscles by exercising sporadically. Similarly, if you want to be a better writer you need to do it five days a week. Note: I’m not saying you have to spend four hours a day at it. Ten minutes may be enough. It’s far more worthwhile to develop even a small writing habit, than it is to complete a writing marathon.

If you want to address your writing problems, make sure you identify them correctly, first. There’s no point in changing the brake pedal when you’re accidentally hitting the accelerator.

If you want my help, consider my book, my  Extreme Writing Makeover — a 52-week course – or one-on-one coaching.

What’s your real problem with writing? How did you identify it? We can all learn from each other so please share your thoughts with my readers and me by commenting below. (If you don’t see the comments box, click here and then scroll to the end.)


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