People say they get stuck when they try to write, but being stuck really means you’re forced to think. What is writing but thinking put down on paper? If you’re not willing to sit and think you probably won’t write well. Writing, therefore, can be thought of as a long series of thinking sessions. You string enough of those sessions together and you have an essay, a chapter or a book. If you don’t, you don’t.
More than anything, writing is a kind of work. Even if you love it, even if you are brilliant, even if you have amazing ideas, it will require many hours of effort to finish writing an essay or a book. You will be giving up other activities to create that time. This trade may simply not be worth it to you. This is fine, as you might be happier and more useful to the world as a person who does not write. If you know yourself well, you might realize the problem is simply you like the idea of writing far more than the reality of how much time and effort is required.
But many people are not self-aware. A common question I get asked is this (from an actual email I received):
I really really want to write a book. I know I have it in me. But when I start I get stuck and want to do something else. How do you get around this?
Some things can not be done. Writing without writing is one of them.
If you don’t like writing a sentence, odds are good you won’t like paragraphs, and if you don’t like paragraphs you’ll be really pissed off when you learn about these things called pages (chapters will blow your mind). Writing is hard. It’s work. That’s part of why people are impressed by others who have written books, or essays, or anything at all.
There is a big difference between wanting to say you wrote a book, and actually writing one. Many people think they want to write, even though they find crafting sentences and paragraphs unpleasant. They hope there is a way to write without writing. I can tell you with certainty there isn’t one.
“A writer who isn’t writing is asking for trouble.” – Walter Kirn
Many books are written by ghostwriters. Why? Many people want to say they have written a book, without writing a book. They pay someone to do the writing part, and then get to put their name on it. That is not writing. It’s delegating. Same goes for books that say “By <very famous person>, with <very not-famous person who writes>”. They are offloading the writing part. They might be thinking, or sharing, to make the book possible, which are good things, but that’s not writing.
Thousands of people start books and then stop. This is the second law of thermodynamics applied to creative works. The natural state of a book idea is for it not to be written. We have to expend extra energy to manifest an idea in the world, and that’s why making things can be so magical. But someone can think about writing, and have ideas for grand movies and thrilling novels, ideas they love and tell their friends about, and never write a single word. Thinking about writing is not the same as writing. No amount of thinking about a paragraph puts your ass in a chair in proximity to a keyboard, and gets those fingers moving.
Another reason people fail at writing is simply they don’t know how to read well. To read as a writer means your paying attention to why writer’s made the choices they did on every page. Asking questions about craft as you read is important because when you write pages of your own, you will have to reread them many times. If you can’t read other writer’s work well, you probably can’t critique your own. It seems counterintuitive, but a way to be a better writer is to become a better reader first.
There are definitely techniques for learning to get past fear, how to love blank pages, what to do when your motivation fades – these techniques are easy to find. Writing is old. Writing about writing is almost as old. I’m happy to share the ones I know.
But many people who fail at writing really didn’t want to write in the first place. They only thought they did. Perhaps they want to be famous, or to think of themselves as the kind of person who writes books, both of which have little to do with writing.
But if you really want to write – here’s more practical advice:
- Writing hacks: part 1 – starting – What to do when the page is blank.
- How to get from an idea to a book – breaking down the work
- How to start a book project – specific advice for tackling a book sized effort
- How to write a book: the short honest truth – the post that started it all
- Part 2 of ‘how to write a book’ is here, where I answer the best comments