Why is writing so hard?

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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.)

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