Why is writing sometimes so hard, and other times so easy?

Image: Leonid Pasternak via Wikimedia Commons

Writing can be a joy or a chore. I thought of this as I saw this tweet from Raul Pacheco-Vega:

“I’ve noticed something really funny: I struggle with putting words into paper, up until I reach a point where BOOM, the words just start pouring from my finger tips. Does this happen to you too?”

Every writer has experienced this. It may be mysterious to you, but it makes sense to me.

There are two main reasons why writing doesn’t flow: content deficiencies and environmental challenges. And then there’s a third reason, which is more fundamental.

You can’t write if you don’t know what you want to say

Imagine that I gave you the task of writing an article on artificial intelligence and how important it will be for the future. (Unless you’re an AI expert, in which case, for this thought experiment, imagine that you have to write an article about competitive women’s tennis.)

OK. Sit down at a keyboard. Start writing. Right now, come on, you can do it.

What? You’re drawing a blank? Of course you are. Because you don’t know what you want to say yet.

You can’t write without an idea. Your idea might be “There are too many technical challenges for AI to succeed yet.” Or it might be “AI needs training data, and that data is just becoming available.” Or it might be “AI will be the death of the world as we know it.”

But you can’t even decide on that idea until you do some research. Talk to some people. Read some papers and articles. Develop an idea, not just of what you want to say, but of all the steps in your argument.

You may think you have writer’s block, but you don’t. Your problem is ignorance.

Of course, you may have researched the heck out of this topic and still be unable to write. You need a lede. You need a hook for the piece. You need a theme. You need a throughline — a track for the article to follow. If you don’t have these things yet, perhaps you should talk to a developmental editor about your idea and work them out.

if you’re not ready to write the article, write a fat outline instead. A fat outline is just a dump of the concepts and ingredients of your article, without worrying about formats or writing style. It’s easy and low-stress, since you’re just moving bits and pieces around. If you have content, writing a fat outline should be easy.

Then, once the fat outline is written and you know where you’re going, you can start writing the actual piece.

Still stuck? Perhaps your problems are environmental, rather than content-related.

You can’t write if you’re not in the right frame of mind

If you have a roadmap and you still can’t write, your problem may be in your head. If you feel like a worthless loser and every time you start typing you erase what you wrote and kick yourself, this may be the problem.

To enter a “flow” state, where, as Raul describes, the words just start pouring out, here are some things to do.

  • Find a spot where you feel comfortable and won’t be interrupted.
  • Set aside at least a couple of hours to write.
  • Eliminate distractions like Facebook and your buzzing phone.
  • Ensure that you have the right blood-sugar level. It’s best to write when you’re not hungry, but not right after a big meal. Plan your food intake so your brain has sufficient energy. (I’m not a coffee drinker, but if you are, you probably also have to get the right level of caffeination, so you’re neither sleepy nor bouncing off the walls.)

Now, write.

If the words still don’t flow. Don’t worry about it. Just write crap.

Yeah. Don’t worry about about quality. Just get words down on the page. If you do this, you’ll get going, and it will get better as you go along.

Or, you may end up with a shitty first draft. That’s way better than nothing.

And when you go to rewrite it, having chewed through all the content once, you’ll find it far easier to get into a flow state for the rewrite.

Of course, it’s always possible that you just suck as a writer. But probably not. If, like Raul, you have experienced a flow state in writing before, you will be able to attain it again. If you have written good things, you can write more.

Just make sure you have assembled your content, your idea is strong, and your brain and body are ready.


One more thing.

Writers write.

I write every day. When do you write?

You can’t get good at golf without playing a lot. You can’t get good at the violin without practice. What makes you think you can sit down and write great stuff without practicing?

Words go together better in some ways than others. You, in particular, will find that you are better at some ways of writing than others. The only way to find that out is to do it.

If you don’t write much and your words don’t just flow when you do, your problem may not be talent. It may be commitment.

Blog. Write on 750 words. Keep a journal. But whatever you do, find times to write. Do it on a schedule. It will pay off in the long run.

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  1. “Of course, it’s always possible that you just suck as a writer. ” Well, that pretty much nails every insecurity, doesn’t it? I’m grateful you followed up with the positive (and realistic) messages those insecurities often block.

  2. I appreciate your suggestions, Josh. I have written a business blog post nearly every Thursday since late 2013. When thinking about some of my past stumbles I can see that I was missing some of those steps. Thanks for the insights!

    I experience writer’s block when I don’t know what to say, I think I have to write in logical order, or I think I need to use complete sentences or polished word choice in my early drafts. Here are solutions that have worked for me.

    My strongest way to break through “writer’s block”: Go into a room where I can be by myself, and I start talking aloud about the subject. I describe the subject as if my best friend was listening with great interest because he wants to learn as much as possible about this subject, and I’m enthralling him with my brain-dump of information, even if it is simply a bunch of “I wonder if…” statements. Standing on my feet and pacing around can also aid in this process. After I talk for a few minutes I typically discover some words I can type as a possible middle-of-the-article sentence. Even if I stumble over the choice of spoken words, this gets the language flowing smoothly enough to kickstart the writing. (I learned this technique from a personal development instructor whose name I have forgotten. )

    When I’m writing the early drafts of a composition, I also give myself permission to write just a word or two or phrases, in any order they choose to appear. My mother taught me that technique. I also tell myself, “The words can be boring as heck, it can be just a bunch of bullet points or phrases, incomplete sentences are fine. It doesn’t have to be brilliant, it just needs to be typed on the screen, and I’ll punch it up later. ”

    To avoid writer’s block, I also keep a written/typed idea file. I write/type ideas as soon as they appear. I have an app on my smartphone so I can also store these flashes of themes on-the-go. My brain is prolific on some days, and I capture that flow of ideas to help me through the dry spells.