Why you fail at writing
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
This is true of many large scale creative endeavors. In software development, where I sit, there is no shortage of people who “like to program”. What’s much harder to find is people who are willing, committed and able to stick with a project for a decade or more before falling prey to the allure of new projects and fads. You have to refactor the cruft, write the manuals, live with the design or (just as hard) evolve it, fix the nasty bugs and continue to innovate. It’s hell, but it’s the good kind of hell.
Much in line with your comments here, I really enjoyed the book “The War of Art” (https://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0446691437/scottberkunco-20/. Anyone involved in any large scale creative endeavor will probably appreciate it. Mostly, you’ll come to grips with the fact that your suffering is not unique and that it’s just part of being a Pro. Newcomers should take it to heart.
I would recommend honing one’s craft by volunteering somewhere with an editor.
I was once privileged to be edited on a weekly basis by whichever co-editor was available at my university student newspaper. Each co-editor, although skilled, would have his partner edit his manuscripts: we all need a second opinion. Have my stuff edited shortened my learning curve to being my own editor.
Over time, being frequently edited gave me a professional boundary: my ego is separate from my work. Being, between my ears, a “pro” I feel no harm if I am edited. I suppose this frees me to edit myself. One of my joys in life is editing and re-re-editing my blog essays. It’s joyful but also humbling… I do wish I had an editor.
Sounds like what I tell people about boot camp: It’s something I’m glad to have done (past-tense) but I really wouldn’t jump at the chance to do it again.
Bravo. It boils down to the simple answer that most don’t want to accept: it takes putting pen to paper. Simple as that. I think that’s why the question keeps making the rounds, oblivious to the answer; the answer isn’t what they want to hear.
thanks – I’m almost done with the War of Art. I understand why people love this book, but it’s not my kind. It’s downright silly in places. But perhaps it’s just me. John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction comes to mind as a better book for a similiar purpose.
Actually, If you like War of Art, you must read Art & Fear. It’s superior it most aspects, at least for my taste.
Indeed. I think editing/reading is half of writing. You can’t write well unless you can read your first draft and edit it into something better.
But I suspect the same people who think they want to write but don’t like writing, will think even less of editing.
Pym: I think you’re right. Asking the same questions a million times can be easier than accepting the truth just once.
An often overlooked truth: “It’s work.”
BTW, your talk was my fav at WordCamp SF in May.
Every time you write about writing I have the same impression which basically is you can’t get the job done without really doing a job. And basically all the tricks which work in more general cases work with writing too.
One which came to my mind after reading this post was prototyping. If you want to write novel or full-blown non-fiction book, you may start with a short story to learn whether you’re capable of completing the big thing. This is by the way something I did and learned I most likely wouldn’t write a book.
This is exactly as you write: if sentences are hard you won’t get through paragraphs, except with a prototype you have some goal to achieve which should help at least a bit.
Pawel: absolutely. Why believe you want to make a 7 course dinner if you can’t seem to deliver on reheating a snack? The prototyping metaphor is apt.
One counterargument is for some people making a big bet becomes part of the motivation. From experience I know the commitment to write a book, once I make it, works like a magnet. It draws in energy from myself and other people that wouldn’t come if the commitment weren’t as large.
But whether this sort of commitment gambling works for you or not is a question of self-knowledge, not a question of writing.
What about thinking too much? No, that’s not the same as thinking well, is it?
Thanks for the post, Scott. It reminds me to read more. And to learn about editing. I read Query Shark’s queries yesterday all in one sitting. Lots of editing there. But that’s for queries. Do you know of a blog that does that but for stories?
To read more and to learn more means less writing time. What I need to be skilled at is juggling.
I have to say, your previous post inspired me. I wrote a book after reading it–despite the fact that I disagreed with your answer to the first category!
Your first category was “20% of people want permission to write a book.” Your answer: “You don’t need permission to write.”
I disagree. Immediately, something felt wrong about that statement. “You don’t need permission to write.” It took me a few days of pondering to figure out what felt wrong about it.
You have to give yourself permission.
As you say, writing is hard. The chances of rejection, and even ridicule, are high. The sacrifices are numerous: time spent writing instead of with loved ones, instead of doing things that need to be done around the house, or doing other things that one loves–hundreds of hours, and most likely these hours will be lost, with nothing to show but pages. Hopefully, with a cohesive plot or message!
But that’s ok, as long as you give yourself permission to do it. Nobody else can. Frankly, nobody else cares.
After reading your post, I explicitly gave myself permission. Permission to fail. Maybe even permission to succeed. (After all, success can be just as frightening as failure.)
It took 9 months, 3 weeks of vacation, and a yard with 2′ tall weeds, but I completed a fantasy novel, the one I had wanted to write for ten years. When I started the initial, simple, rewriting process, I found that it was better than I thought it would be. I had one test reader (a friend, of course) tell me that it was one of the best books he’d ever read.
In the professional world, though, nobody wants to represent it. Of course. :)
I can do more work to make it even better–rewriting is “heavy lifting”, harder in some ways than the original writing–but it seems easy now.
But all of that–the “one of the best books he’s ever written,” the rewriting, the lack of representation–is beside the point.
I did it. I’m proud of it. That’s all that matters.
Thanks for nudging me towards clarity, Scott. It is much appreciated.
I found your post very familiar to my life, the unattended garden and house work, never mind sitting alone at my kitchen table typing away while my family gather around the open fire in the living room. I’m new to this site and I would very much like to read your finished work, would that be possible?
Congratulations on the book – very pleased to hear my post was useful.
> You have to give yourself permission
On the one hand, this is a curious statement. Why would anyone need to give themselves permission for anything? But I understand what you mean. Somehow we implicitly get the message certain things are not allowed by us – that we’re not good enough to talented enough to do. Realizing these thoughts come from absolutely nowhere and have no real substance is very important, not just for writing but for living.
I have been in way too many bands with people who wanted the image of being in a band more than the actual effort required… more than the actual joy of creating.
Lacking the apprenticeship model, I think our culture at large is afflicted by this problem. The image. The virtual. People simulating their futures via video, etc. “I want to be that doctor on tv!” “I want to be an author so people will listen to me!”
I know somebody important said this but I don’t know who, so to paraphrase…
“Writing is easy. Just sit and stare at the page until you sweat blood.”
Like all things: Think, then do. Then think some more. Do some more. Think again. Do it over. Repeat until it’s what you were thinking is evident to the world.
Whipple: Ah, yes. I know that quote.
“Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”
– Gene Fowler
It’s the same when starting a blog. How many do you know that failed that were started by people who wanted to have a blog, but didn’t realise what was involved.
Also, writing proposals is hard, hard work. There is a lot of rereading and editing.
@Scott: I agree, “The War of Art” is a bit odd and Part 3 was not my cup of tea. I’m looking forward to Art & Fear – thanks for the tip!
First, great writing is artistry, and great artists are more interested in pleasing the Muse and satisfying themselves (either making the Great Thing or appeasing the clamoring inner voices) than in providing the unwashed masses with passing entertainment. And it is when the inner demons are revealed through clever combinations of the twenty-six characters, 10 digits, and assorted supportive symbols, that awesome writing emerges, as though the crest of a yet unrevealed beast lurking below the muck of the swamp fleetingly reveals to the astonished reader the power of the writer’s words.
What madness brought forth Vladimir Harkonnen? In what mind did Sauron take form, he and his cursed Ring? What tortured soul did Dracula’s three fiendish femmes ensnare in their castle wing but the very author’s whose fame lies undisputed?
Can you too, like these pre-internet men, craft chilling and memorable words–words that bind the threads of your thoughts so cunningly that you fall headlong into the sweet furrow of guidance, only to have men long dead craft images and memories more vivid and longer-lasting than Hollywood’s latest 3D fantasies?
Indeed words are power, and like a great fire they can engulf nations, lay lands waste, and enlighten generations. Is this craft not worth mastering? Is this art not worth studying?
Alas, few are they who like Tolkien will write such tales as their hearts desire because they are unable to find them already in print. But for they that do, what thrill!
Hi, I’m not a good writer. I would like to write a book about my life and the hell my family put me through. Is there any thing you could do to help me?
Loved this post. Went back and read the original “How to write a book” post, too.
I just finished a non-fiction book (a friend is editing it now). Not sure if it’ll get published, but an acquisitions editor has asked to see the whole thing, which seems like a good sign (her words: “when the manuscript is in the shape you want it.” GAH!).
What has really helped me is writing a little bit every day, just like you said. I started getting up at 5:15 a.m. every morning, even on the weekends. (I have 2 young kids and a bunch of dogs, so my house is crazy loud. Except at 5:15 a.m.) I spend the first 30 minutes or so chugging coffee and writing at least 3 pages in a journal, a trick I learned from Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way.” Writing in the journal gets the pen going, and helps de-clutter my brain so that I can think about my book.
I also have a blog that I post to once or twice a week. It stresses me out every time I hit “Publish Post,” but I know the blog is good for me – it’s toughening me up.
(Scott, I just ordered “Confessions of a Public Speaker,” looking forward to that. :))
“Some things can not be done. Writing without writing is one of them.”
Single best motivational quote for writers… EVER!
I want to write a book so badly but I have other things that come first in my life so I spend my writing hours asleep….. What I mean is that I have no time to do anything but my jobs and sleeping! Maybe thats why I failed to write a book so many times before!
Wow. That really helped me. I’m only 13 and I love writing. People say it comes naturally to me because when I write a story, my fingers don’t stop moving, and the story turns out good. I love writing because it’s sorta-of an escape. I can decribe beautiful places, joy of a life, and the simple happyness of being alive. Thats what I love to share with people. I love animals too, and that is mostly what I write about. I am working on a book now, and I have finally made it to page 64. I personaly love my book. I’m not done yet, but whenever I get home I have to write. My problem is I want to get it published when I finish. (Only if its good ofcouse). I know how to find a publisher and I know I will not become some rich famous lady. I just want to share my writing with the world. I know this sounds silly, but I’m having trouble. I read my stories and they sound good to me. I just don’t know that other people will enjoy it as much as I do. I enjoy reading other published books alot and I want people to enjoy reading my books too. Should I put it out there and see how it goes?
This is brilliant: “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.”
Scott Berkun said, “Many books are written by ghostwriters. Why? These are people who want to say they have written a book, without writing a book.”
I think that could use some editing…
I think you should write/publish a book on “writing”. I know it will be a best seller.
Thanks. Given how many popular posts I have on writing, I’ve thought about it. I think I should write a few more books on other things first.
Thank you for sharing this information, I’ve “thought” about writing a book and even tried once but came across two issues, does anyone find that when writing you have so many thoughts going through your head that your going back and to in your story, secondly its identifying different characters, I went on a misson with family and friends to identify their different qualities but this was my interpretation. Actually I have to go just had a thought, its my ending! If you don’t have a goal how do you know where to aim, happy writing :)
The best blog on ‘writing a book’. You have one of the best style of writing; it is informative and at the same time, humorous. Well done again and I would definitely would like to stay connected with you through your blog/emails.
OK, I assume I am the kind of guy you mention in your last paragraph. I have been thinking for years about being famous without making the right effort, although I have written a lot of pages and I always find myself stuck and I throw in the towel. I live in a vicious circle. I spend a lot of time reading about writing without doing it. It seems stupid and easy to solve, but the reality is that I can’t escape from this routine. Maybe I can get some momentum for a couple of days or even one week. But that’s it.
So what’s next? This fire will be there forever. How can I make a definitive plan to be constant on my writing? I really need help with this.
Some of us can be motivated off in a cabin if we never meet another person, let alone another writer. But my own self knowledge is: NOT.
I would say to get into a community of two or more other writers, if only to give you validation for spending all those man-hours writing that could be spent on getting rich or watching Star Trek.
I would think it’s harder to fail if a respectable fellow amateur writer knows your “commitment,” and easier to succeed if you have a peer to commiserate with. We are social animals, and role modelling works wonders.
To find other writers you could search a community directory or ask a local librarian. And of course be searching the library for resources for writing.