Most days, it’s a real struggle for me to get started on writing even a paragraph in one of my stories. Once in a great while, I’ll be struck by some inspiration and then it’s just a matter of getting the words down as fast as I can, but that’s rare. The more normal case is something like this:
I need to write something where X happens.
[Write a word or two]
Huh, I wonder what’s going on in the news.
[Half hour later, force myself to write another sentence or two]
Are there any good videos on YouTube?
I have to consciously force myself to stay on task and write something down. If I manage to do that, most of the time I hate what I’m writing up until I finish, at which point it starts to seem possibly decent. But the whole time I’m doing it, I feel like I’m doing lousy work, and moreover, it takes all my willpower to even do that.
Why is this? Writing is supposed to be what I like doing. No one is forcing me to do it—it’s what I want to do. But then why am I strongly tempted to avoid doing it, like it’s a job or something?
At first, I thought maybe I was just a lazy bum. But I follow lots of hard-working writers on Twitter, and they frequently report this same problem. I even did a poll of my followers, and while the sample was small, 100% reported they procrastinated:
Question for writers: do you often find yourself procrastinating when you want/ought to be writing?
— Berthold Gambrel (@BertholdGambrel) November 22, 2017
So, it’s not just me being lazy. Other writers face this problem too.
The simple and obvious explanation is that writing is active. You have to consciously do something to make it happen. Whereas reading the news or watching cat videos is passive—you just find your way to the site and put your mind on cruise control.
But this doesn’t totally explain it. One of the ways I procrastinate is by playing video games. And that’s not passive; I still have to press buttons and make decisions to get the outcome I want in the game. Yet it’s far easier for me to play a game of FTL or computer chess than it is to write. I don’t have to will myself to play a game.
My next-door neighbor has had all kinds of hobbies over the years I’ve known him, from shooting guns to building model airplanes to mixing drinks to, yes, playing video games. And he doesn’t seem to need a huge amount of willpower to make himself work at any of his hobbies. Why is my hobby different?
Part of the problem is that I’ll write something down and then think, “Well, that’s not any good”. This feels unsatisfying. And at some level, I think procrastination is a defense mechanism. Skimming the sports headlines may not yield much satisfaction, but at least it won’t be as disappointing as writing something imperfect.
But why should that be disappointing? After all, no one else is going to judge me by the first draft. No one else will even know it existed unless I show it to them. So why am I bothered if it’s not right the first time? I don’t get discouraged if I don’t win a video game right away. On the contrary, losing a game just makes me want to try again.
Writing, unlike other activities, is more closely associated with having an audience. After all, if you’re just writing for yourself, why bother writing? You know the story already—the only reason to write it down is to communicate it to others.
That’s the heart of the difference: When I play a video game or exercise or any of the other things I do for fun, my only audience is myself. If I’m satisfied with my performance, that’s all I need.
We are trained very early on that writing is different. Writing is what you do when you want to tell other people something. As a result, when you write, you are subconsciously trying to please other people.
Ta-da! This explains the mystery of why writers procrastinate. Procrastination is something you do when you are assigned a task by other people, and writing feels like that because that’s how we’re trained to regard it. It’s the same reason we all procrastinated when our teachers assigned us to write a paper on such-and-such-thing-no-one-cares-about.
Some of the most common advice I’ve seen from successful authors is stuff like “Write for yourself,” “Ignore your inner critic on the first draft” and perhaps the most common, “Lose your fear of writing”.*
This advice always puzzled me. Of course I was writing for myself! Who the hell else would I be writing these weird stories for? And my inner critic? Who’s that? As far as I knew, I didn’t have one. The fear thing seemed the most sensible, although for me, the fear wasn’t so much of writing as it was of publishing.
But now I see what all those famous writers were saying: you think you’re writing for yourself, but you aren’t really. In your unconscious mind, you are still trying to figure out what the readers are going to think of what you wrote. It’s a deeply-rooted habit, probably one that evolution instilled in us—the societies where people could clearly communicate their ideas to one another were the ones that flourished.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t write so that other people can understand you. But the point is, that has to come later. First, you have to treat writing as a personal challenge between you and the part of your mind that wants to stop you from doing it. It’s like working out: you know it’s good for you, and you know you will feel great afterward, but you have to overcome the natural instinct that tells you it’s easier not to do it.
The precise way to do this can vary from person to person. You’ll discover the method that works best for you as you go along.
One exercise that I think can help teach how not to write for an audience is to just try writing stream-of-consciousness. For this post, I deliberately tried an experiment where I turned off my sense-making filter and just spewed forth whatever came to mind. This is what resulted:
Grey window skies empty noises and duahgter nothing al dhpauiw hope thjat move listen coffee righ fjor wdesk need time hope sk
Sitting on a cold day that is grey and deporessing why am I doing this write exercise imagine plains vision skies weird black nebulous
This seems like incoherent babble, but it’s really not all that random. For context: I was sitting at my desk by a window on a cold grey day, drinking coffee. I could hear people outside talking and someone said something about a daughter.
For the second paragraph, the other people shut up, and I started to let my imagination roam, which led to visions of Lovecraftian weird cosmic horror, because that’s my favorite genre, or at least the one I’m most familiar with.
As sloppy and gibberish-filled as that is, you can see my thought process even through all the errors and downright nonsense. Which brings me to my point: as in many other fields, “true randomness” is actually pretty hard to achieve in writing. Your brain will work very hard to force you to make sense. Which is helpful in many other ways, but the problem is that our brains have become so good that they will try to prevent us writing anything less than the perfect sentence on the first try. That part of the brain would much rather procrastinate than risk writing something nonsensical.
This is what all those famous writers mean when they say “Write for yourself” or “Don’t worry about the audience” or “Ignore the inner-critic.” It’s all true, but it’s not specific enough, because when you are tempted to put off writing and procrastinate instead, you don’t realize you’re writing for someone else, or that it’s your inner-critic, or your fear of the audience. It feels like you’re just trying to write something that makes sense, and for some horrible reason, you can’t.
That’s because it doesn’t make perfect sense, and your brain hates that. But it’s okay. You can fix it later. Editors and beta readers will make sure of that.
So my advice is: don’t worry about making sense. In fact, I’ll go even further: actively try to avoid making sense on the first draft. Just put down the most basic, sub-literate version of what you want to convey. You’d be surprised how hard it is to not make sense—your unconscious mind will keep you at least within saluting distance of it most of the time. After that, you can just iterate until your visceral idea has been refined into something your readers can understand.
* As Phillip McCollum has observed, fear can also be extremely useful for writers. But that’s fear of other things, not writing itself.