Yesterday, I saw an internet post from a writer saying, “I’m an early career, tenure-track professor, and I hate writing.” One commenter responded: “I like doing analysis, but I hate hate hate writing.” If you hate writing, that’s a big block. It drains motivation; it interferes with focus. It leads to procrastination. My preliminary response was to stress the value in recognizing and identifying the specific reasons that the person hates writing (see my previous posts in this blog). The original post author responded by noting a few different specific concerns that triggered the hatred of writing—feelings of inadequacy, fear of rejection—and another commenter added other specific concerns—uncertainty about how to proceed, technical difficulties with structure, emotional and technical difficulties with conventions. All of these specific concerns can contribute to make writing unpleasant, but none of them are the totality of writing.
In this post, I argue that you can learn to like writing, and if you do, that appreciation and positive emotion will help carry you through difficulties and frustrations related to writing. The diagnostic analysis of your writing process is useful in developing a practice that you can like, not only because you can identify and eliminate or reduce problems, but also because you can focus your attention on aspects of the process that are interesting and potentially enjoyable.
“I Hate Writing; Writing Sucks.”
Lots of people say this. The internet post I saw yesterday struck me because, to continue my series of recent posts about getting past writer’s block, I was already planning for my next post to look at the idea that writing sucks, because the general dislike of writing is an emotional writing block for many. The idea that writing generally sucks is a barrier that can be dispelled by using the diagnostic analysis that I have discussed previously: when you look at it closely, it’s not the writing, as a whole, that is unpleasant, but rather specific aspects of it, and specific responses to it. If you hate dealing with punctuation, for example, that is one specific aspect of writing you don’t like, but writing is not only punctuation. If you hate writing because you fear rejection, well, rejection isn’t part of writing itself, it’s something that happens after you’re done writing.
If you think that writing sucks or if you hate writing, and you also need to write for your career, it’s worth trying to translate that general “writing sucks” into a more specific diagnosis. But making a diagnosis and developing plans to addresses problems is only the negative half of the picture. To reduce or eliminate a general sense that writing sucks, it’s important to see a positive dimension, too. And, though you may doubt, there is a positive side to the task of writing.
Can Writing Be Pleasurable?
Writing may be hard, but that doesn’t mean it necessarily sucks. There are lots of things that are very difficult that are also pleasurable—hobbyists and amateurs work hard to excel at their chosen skill, not for financial or career rewards but rather because of the emotional reward. An amateur athlete will experience difficulty to excel in their sport and also enjoy the performance. An amateur musician will endure the frustrations of practice to enjoy the pleasure of performing music. Arts and crafts all involve some difficulties and frustrations, require significant investment of effort to be any good, but, in return, offer hours of positive activity as well as satisfaction from producing something beautiful. For all of these activities, it’s worth noting that the balance between frustration and pleasure shifts as skill increases: the beginner struggles to create something simple, while the skilled expert creates something of beauty with relative ease (emphasizing the word “relative”). Writing is an activity of the same sort: it is difficult and frustrating, but it can also offer the emotional rewards of creating something satisfactory (a written work that is well received by an audience) and the immediate rewards of engaging in a focused practice (being in the zone, as might be said colloquially, or being in “flow,” to use the idea of Csikszentmihalyi).
What Is Writing For?
You’ll struggle to find any pleasure in writing if the only reason you write is because someone told you you have to write. Many of us learn to write in school when writing is only an unpleasant task forced upon us, after which we are criticized harshly. If you don’t want to write, writing that “what I did on summer vacation” paper may be pretty miserable. And worse so in high school, if you’re called upon to write about books that you didn’t really want to read either. Personally, I hated writing in high school and in college. It was only in grad school that my feelings about writing shifted as my ability to write improved.
But writing in’t taught to torture school students; it’s taught because it’s a powerful tool. There are, as I see it, three main purposes for writing: to aid memory, to work out and develop ideas, and to communicate with others. Thinking about writing as serving at least one of these three purposes can shift your relationship with writing. Instead of just writing because of some outward obligation, you can use it as a tool to serve your own purposes.
Writing to aid memory—from writing a shopping list for the market, to taking notes in a lecture, to taking notes of research observations—doesn’t feel like writing for an assignment. Indeed, that kind of writing often isn’t what people think of as “writing,”—it’s “just” taking notes or something of the sort—but that kind of writing still exercises many of the same skills as more formal writing, especially the skill of putting ideas into words. And many people have enjoyed writing down memories—diaries, journals, blogs, and social media posts are all forms of writing used to preserve memories.
Development of Ideas
Writing as an aid to analysis and development of ideas—akin to a mathematician working through a problem on scratch paper, or an architect or artist drawing study sketches of a project—is sometimes overlooked, especially by those who think they hate writing. As I mentioned above, there was a comment that said “I like to analyze but I hate to write.” But if writing is a tool for analysis and you like analysis, isn’t there a place to like writing as part of the larger process of analysis (recognizing that writing to work out an idea—on “scratch paper,” so to speak—is not quite the same as writing something for to be submitted for review)?
The idea that “writing is thinking” is often expressed (I have seen it in multiple places, but the one I can remember offhand in the book The Craft of Research from University of Chicago Press), and many people enjoy thinking and exploring ideas. Of course, saying that writing is thinking gives a very different purpose to writing than writing to answer someone else’s questions. It also shifts the view of the process: some writing is just an exploration that is not meant to be the final work but rather a tool for learning more, like a painter making initial study sketches for a project.
Writing is a tool for communication and many people like communicating but hate writing. A lot of writers that I have worked with get stuck because instead of focusing on the task of communication—what ideas do you want to share?—they focus on the task of putting sentences and paragraphs together on a page, which fraught with all the possibility of error in spelling, punctuation, grammar, etc. Thinking about the technical difficulties interferes with thinking about the interesting stuff you want to share with people. You may be passionate to educate people about some topic, but if you’re worried about spelling, punctuation, etc., as well as the response of someone who might be hostile (a reviewer, a difficult professor), then it’s easy to lose sight of the underlying interest that drives a project.
Below, I offer an exercise comparing speaking with writing. It is instructive to compare speaking with writing because most people like speaking, or at least feel comfortable speaking, even if they dislike writing. Why do people like speaking? Among other reasons, it’s because speaking allows them to build connections with other people, to share ideas with other people, and to get other people to learn things that they care about. The process of writing takes on a very different emotional character when you’re focusing on sharing an idea with someone who will be interested, even enthusiastic about your work.
It’s reasonable to give some attention to possible criticism of your work, but that shouldn’t keep you from thinking about the positive response you want to create. Some writers get stuck thinking about all the people who would complain; others get motivated by thinking about people who would be interested in or even excited by their ideas. In the practice of writing, think about writing to someone who would be enthusiastic about your work, rather than thinking about writing to someone who will complain about your punctuation.
Exercise: Writing and Speaking
How do you feel about speaking? Do you hate to speak? Do you like to speak? In what situations do you like to speak, and what situations do you dislike it? Do you like writing less than you like speaking?
What are the differences between writing and speaking?
What are the similarities between writing and speaking?
Other Positive Dimensions of Writing
There’s more to like in writing than just these three purposes. I mentioned earlier how writing offers the challenge of becoming good at a skilled task, and of practicing that task at a high level, which can be satisfying or even pleasurable. According to the research of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, such challenges are at the heart of the “flow” experience, which, for many, offer the best moments of their lives. I will not discuss this potential here, however. In other posts, I have mentioned how writing can provide a certain refuge from other difficulties. I’m not arguing that writing is free from difficulties and frustrations, only that writing offers benefits, including emotional ones.
If you want to get past writer’s block, it’s important to keep in mind that writing, despite its difficulties and frustrations, is something that has enjoyable and engaging aspects. If you focus exclusively on the worst parts of writing, your aversion will be strengthened. Instead, focus on the best parts of writing—the ability to explore and share ideas, the challenges of developing skill—to get more positive motivation.