Why is writing so hard?

Word count: 717 words

Reading time: Less than 3 minutes

Do you frequently find yourself asking, “why is writing so hard?” (with or without an expletive!) I wrote today’s column expressly for you…

Twenty years ago, if you’d ask me to describe the single task I found most difficult, I wouldn’t have hesitated a nanosecond. Writing, I would have said. It kills me. (I worked for a daily newspaper at the time, which, if you think about it, is a bit like a chef hating cooking or an accountant detesting Excel.)

Now I find writing one of the most pleasurable jobs of my day. But a recent blog post by my friend Eve Johnson, Why Is Yoga So Hard to Do, made me think about people who feel the other way.

Writing is an awfully easy task to dislike. Why? For starters, it’s inadequately taught in schools. In my 16 years of education I was lucky to have many outstanding teachers. But not one of them taught me how to write.

Some teachers concentrate solely on mechanics – does every sentence have a verb? are all the modifiers in the right place? Are the prepositions correct? Others focus on the content – what’s the student’s thesis or main point? Is the reasoning persuasive? Does the essay address the well-known arguments in the field?

But few teachers ever consider the writing process. How do we get the ideas for writing in the first place? How do we keep our butts nestled in our writing chairs when we’re feeling uncomfortable and frustrated? How do we know when to throw out what we’ve done and start fresh?

The biggest bone most teachers will throw us is to tell us to prepare an outline. But you already know how I feel about that. Usually, we’re given assignments and we delay and procrastinate until the night before the work is due. Then we churn it out in a panic telling ourselves we would have done a much better job if only we’d had more time. Sound familiar?

Another horrible thing about writing is there are so few defensible standards beyond the rules of grammar. Have you ever read a bestseller and been appalled by the writing? (This happens to me fairly regularly.) Does the book being a bestseller make the writing good? Or does everyone else in the world just have bad taste?

I’m joking when I ask these questions – I realize that writing is an art and de gustibus non est disputandum (in matters of taste, there can be no dispute). But the bottom line? It’s really hard to define when we’ve achieved success – except by using external standards such as strong sales or happy editors – and, as a result, it’s awfully hard to feel successful.

So, the question remains: how did I win the battle against writing procrastination and, knock on wood, lodge myself permanently in a writing happy place? I learned five tricks:

1) Break writing into a series of steps. What most of us think of as writing  — sitting at a keyboard with our hands moving over the keys — is only one tiny part of the writing process. The other steps — preparing to write and repairing what we’ve written – are actually more important and require far more attention.

2) Don’t edit while writing. This toxic little habit will prevent you from getting a quick rough draft. Keep reminding yourself: no one needs to see the dreck you’re writing. You will turn it into brilliance when you’re editing/rewriting.

3) Mindmap. This works so much better than outlining and it will give you access to your unconscious —  the most deeply creative part of yourself. Re-read the handout on mindmapping I sent you when you signed up for my newsletter.

4) Write a lot. I write five days a week. I don’t let a single working day pass without writing for at least 30 minutes, often much longer. We all get better at what we do regularly. Would you try to run a marathon without having trained for it?

5) Copy others. I’ve written recently about Deliberate Practice which is where you deconstruct what other writers have done and imitate it. I’ve also recommitted to following Benjamin Franklin’s advice about copying others. Even though I’ve been a professional writer for more than 30 years, I’m learning plenty of new tricks.

If you want some help, let me know. I have a book, a course and one-on-one coaching.

Do you find writing hard? Why? And have you found any solutions to this problem? Please share your thoughts with my  readers and me, in the comments box. (If you don’t see it below, simply click here and then scroll to the end.)

Posted November 20th, 2012 in Power Writing

  • Bob

    You are so right in much of what you say. My favorite teacher, Mr Long, did not talk much about writing, but he made us write and write. To learn by doing. He advised me to concentrate on writing, my math being poor. I have loved writing ever since, all the time, and love reading about writing, especially your gems.

    • You’re lucky to have had a teacher who made you write, Bob. What a gift!

  • I guess it’s hard because most of us are basically lazy but if we settle into a routine of getting the ideas down, rethinking and then revising, we’ll find it much easier. I am still working on NOT revising as I go. I’ve found that my revisions as I go are counter productive as I fail to take into account what I may have said in a former sentence. Ever find you’ve inadvertently used the same word 3 times in a paragraph? Great post, Daphne!

    • Oh, I don’t think most people are basically lazy! I think we haven’t been taught how to achieve. But I agree that establishing a routine helps make creative work ever so much easier. It interests me that our definition of “creative” seems to exclude things like routines (and “copying”) but my experience has been that an “anything goes” philosophy doesn’t foster creativity. Quite the opposite!

  • Clarke Echols

    My mother was a school teacher before she met and married my dad. She made sure I understood grammar. I was competent at grammar all through school, but when I was a high-school junior, I had no clue what an “essay” was.

    My senior year, a very seasoned English teacher was hired into our small, rural school (23 in the class), and she told the principal she was going to teach us *English*, not journalism as he had requested.

    I was introduced to Shakespeare and other masters, but she started with nouns, verbs, etc. until we had that covered.

    Then she showed us how to take those components (engineer’s term) for parts of speech (English teacher’s term), and turn them into interesting sentences, and I ‘got it’.

    Suddenly writing interesing sentences was easy.

    A few days ago, I encountered a nice gem from Drayton Bird:
    “Good writing is the product of a well-furnished mind.”

    As in a well-furnished, comfortable home, one cannot be a good writer unless there are enough “furnishings” in our mind to support the enterprise.

    That’s why recent college grads can’t write good advertising copy (part of the problem is defective teaching from professors who don’t know the craft).

    Furnishing one’s mind is a life-long pursuit, and the best writers seem to be the ones who are most curious about lots of things.

    • LOVE the quote, “Good writing is the product of a well-furnished mind.” The way I interpret it, however, is “good writers are good readers!”

  • Paul

    Hi Daphne, In this post you posed the question, “How do we know when to throw out what we’ve done and start fresh?” That would make a great topic for your newsletter.

    • Thanks for the idea, Paul. I’m not sure I can turn that into a column because I’m not certain I can offer any “rules” — or even guidelines — about it. But I’ll give it some thought and see if I can try.