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Writing advice should stop targeting people who hate to write (enkiv2.medium.com)
90 points by enkiv2 12 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 52 comments

I'm part of a writing group that consists of 10 published authors. Of the 10, 8 absolutely despise writing first drafts.

Those 8 constantly groan about having to sit their butts in the chair and get the words down. There's a common mentality of, "I hate writing, but I love having written."

But those 8 members have landed several major deals, had movie rights sold, hundreds and thousands of copies sold, etc. And perhaps more importantly, they've gotten letters saying that their work changed people's lives for the better.

So although I personally fall into the "I love writing in all its stages" category, I have no problem with other writers talking about how much they hate it. Those people create some of the best work I've ever had the pleasure of reading. If it takes some moaning and groaning to make it happen, then so be it.

That being said--I will reserve my right to tease them about their moaning and annoy them with my undying enthusiasm. :)

> There's a common mentality of, "I hate writing, but I love having written."

I don't think this is that surprising: I love doing startups, but I hate screwing around with boilerplate code, doing zillions of early customer development interviews, and doing taxes.

I love playing competitive volleyball, but I hate drills and conditioning.

I love having money, but I hate working.

We're kindred spirits!

This aligns with a trend I've noticed of startup founders having very similar mindsets to novelists. And some brave souls being both.

That's fascinating. Are they writing what they want to write, or are they only writing for the money or adulation?

I've written commercially, but not at the rarefied level of your cohorts, and I've never wanted to make a career of it. I've always wanted to write well, but I've never had to rely on it to make a mortgage payment, much less to establish my place in the world, and I've often wondered if that explained the fact that I don't hate writing first drafts.

If I need to fix a toilet because a fixed toilet is needed, I like having fixed the toilet but might not enjoy fixing it. But if I'm creating what I want to create--writing or painting or a software project--then I feel like creating it, not just having created it. But for some it apparently is more like fixing very valuable toilets.

> Are they writing what they want to write, or are they only writing for the money or adulation?

A mixture. A lot of authors write in multiple genres to make ends meet (even a "major" contract pays way, way less than most people think). So for example I have one friend whose true passion is mystery with a literary bent (not a super popular niche), but also writes contemporary romance (the highest selling genre) to pay the bills.

There's also a constant conflict in publishing of writing what you love vs writing what you know will sell (not to mention what your editor will allow). So even if you pour your uncensored soul into a manuscript, your soul is going to take a beating with a red pen before it hits shelves. :)

That being said--everyone in this group writes at least one genre they're genuinely passionate about.

> I've always wanted to write well, but I've never had to rely on it to make a mortgage payment, much less to establish my place in the world, and I've often wondered if that explained the fact that I don't hate writing first drafts.

I would say this is a huge factor. Deadlines have a magical ability to kill joy in a craft. I think a lot of the "I hate writing" mentality comes from "I'm a perfectionist who feels I don't have enough time to make this manuscript as good as I want it to be."

That being said--a lot of people feel this dread even before they're published, so I think there's more than one factor at play.

What makes you feel more favorable towards first draft in comparison to your friends. Is it a mental model that you've adopted? Some interest in screwing around before composing in earnest? No multi-million dollar contracts or other stressors hanging over your head?

Oh, interesting question. I would chalk it up to three factors:

1) Genetics. I've always been one of those hopelessly enthusiastic and energetic people. (In contrast, a lot of my fellow writers suffer from serious depression, so getting the energy/motivation to write can be a huge obstacle.)

2) Almost dying a few times. As cliche as it is, it puts life into perspective and makes you feel tiny and relatively unimportant. I don't stress about my "legacy" like most writers I know, so it makes the whole process of writing way less stressful. It's all just good fun for me.

3) Using strict timed-writing and structured word count goals. A lot of writers are haunted by thoughts like, "Oh god, I have to finish an entire novel, and it's due in just three months!" For me, that thought process is, "I only have to write 750 words today to meet my weekly 3500 word goal."

4) I ain't famous. :) It's much easier to not stress when you're not thinking to yourself, "Am I going to get literal hate mail from my 50,000 adoring fans for including this plot twist?"

That seems like a bizarre group, may I ask how you joined them?

Over a decade spent in writing circles, working in publishing for 5 years, countless evenings spent at various critique groups, landing a top agent with good contacts, and befriending some people who are far more talented than me. All kind of coalesced into a melding of friend groups and our little group of creative misfits forming.

I should probably clarify that we have a handful of extreme success stories, and the rest of us are low or mid tier writers. Groups like us aren't rare (although our size is a bit larger than usual) since it's really hard to find quality critique partners. Once you find them, you hold on tight, and writers often stay in the same groups for years (even decades).

As someone teaching at art school and who worked and works as a freelancer in all kind of creative professions (VFX, graphic design, programming, sounddesign) I think the best advice you can give to anyone in any creative profession is:

Learn to switch hats. When you have your writing hat on, put your critic hat, your editor hat, your publisher hat, etc. down. Make space for the other hats in times when you don't feel like writing. Same is useful for music, film, painting, design, art.

The thing is: it is really easier said than done. Most people constantly worry about other domains when they work on their things. Sure, let some ideas of how you want your work to be published flow into your writing, but don't worry about it. You can still worry later when you read the text again with a different hat. Or you could have worried about that before you started writing. Worry about writing, about which phrase to use to convey what, worry about where you want your text to develope and how fast.

The mastery of this type of very conscious context switching is hard, because nobody is going to tell you which hat you need to wear when and for how long. Nobody will tell you which hat is more important, and which you better leave to others. It is a very individual thing, but one thinking about really pays off in the long term.

100 times this. I like listening to podcasts and interviews with great creators in the various areas I work or hobby (music, writing, variety & comedy), and if one thing comes up over and over again in interviews with masters, it's this. It makes you better, faster, and saner. Seinfeld has a great rule for this: never show something you wrote to anyone on the same day you wrote it. It's brilliant in its simplicity. You need to firewall creator from editor from performer.

do you have any podcasts you could recommend? I'm particularly interested in music, but anything creation related would be useful.

I can't remember on which things I heard them, but Seinfeld, Chris Rock, George Carlin, and Jon Stewart all say some super interesting things in interviews. And one I do remember because it's a recent discovery is Jamie Lidell's podcast, Hanging out with Audiophiles. The session he did recently with producer Damian Taylor was fantastic. HTH!

Thank you for your reply, it added another dimension to the whole process!

I think this is just because most self help/self learn topics focus on beginners or people who like the idea of starting. It's easy for the writer to get a win. You don't need to be an expert to write something targeted at beginners. Like in programming, that's why we have endless "how to write your first todo app in ..." and not "how to maintain and organize a 10k loc application with 5 co workers all trying to fuck it up"

If you like to write, you're already writing, you're not a beginner anymore I would think. I think the same thing could be written as we need more intermediate and advanced advice.

Many topics branch exponentially as they become more complex making it difficult to train on the many variations that may occur. Do you want to get a student comfortable with the concept and get them going and then guide them to a place where they can begin to help themselves.

In tech, docs are difficult to use if you don’t quite know what you should be referencing. But after becoming familiar with the concepts, terms, and having gained some practical experience, the docs begin to unleash their power.

Saying that I agree that there is often quite a bit of track left even after the basics. At the least, taking the student down an increasingly complex path that although maybe not directly useful, helps build more experience.

But, you will probably get fewer views from content that is possibly more difficult and time consuming to build.

Hey you! Nice to see your work on the front of HN. That said, I disagree with the thrust of your thesis :) I'm a professional writer, it's pretty much my only monetizable skill as well as my passion, and writing first drafts is like pulling teeth. It's arduous and I rarely enjoy it in the moment. Very satisfying when I'm done and get to show off the result, though! I am exactly that cliché about "hate writing, love having written." This is not exactly an uncommon sentiment among writers, either.

I’m curious how you feel about editing.

For me, I do enjoy writing the first draft, even when I don’t know how or where many scenes will go. It’s definitely hard work, but enjoyable, especially when I get into the moment.

But editing, on the other hand, I don’t look forward to.

Editing is tedious--especially in the later "how did this stupid error make it this far?" stages. But it's definitely easier to start from some sort of foundation for me. That said, this is mostly with respect to editing my own writing. For editing the work of others, I definitely find there's sometimes this uncanny valley where I can't just say "this is trash" but I also can't say this just needs a bit of TLC either. And that's really frustrating because you sort of want to respect the original writer's work, but it really isn't very good.

The stupid mistakes are easy---just fix them.

For me the part that has me pulling teeth is when I know for a fact that something is wrong, but for the life of me I cannot see how to fix it. And with everything I try to do, I'm not honestly sure if the result is better or not. Ironically, this gets harder as your writing gets more polished---there's more to mess up when you change things.

Maybe some day I'll find a way around this, but so far I haven't.

To me editing still feels chore-ish but to a much lesser extent, and sometimes I'll have fun doing it.

As somebody who writes and codes, I am certainly not typically in a good mood for the entirety of my problem-focused period. Somebody could say that I "hate coding but love having coded", but it's actually very different from the other states we would describe this way. For instance, I code for fun in my free time, instead of only coding for money and prestige, and so I'm getting some kind of intrinsic enjoyment out of it -- even if it's simply the catharsis of solving a difficult problem. I feel almost exactly the same way about writing (although I find writing a lot easier than coding most of the time).

There are a lot of writers (mostly young naifs and beginners) who have fallen in love with the romantic ideal of the tortured artist, and have the completely unrealistic expectation that if they suffer for their art they will inevitably be rewarded with prestige. It's a common, and toxic, mentality. Failing to distinguish the teeth-grinding dubious pleasure of working at the edge of your ability (something familiar not just to programmers and writers but to athletes, gamers, and craftspeople) from egocentric paranoia is problematic, because it risks supporting the former tendency instead of the latter.

This is not to say that writing can't be difficult, but writing is also something that almost definitely does not pay enough to justify doing it despite genuinely hating it! I think if you describe writing as your "passion", then you're coming to it from the right perspective -- plus, you're a skilled enough writer that it's clear you put the work in long before it became profitable. As they say in the Dwarf Fortress community, "failing is fun".

Folks who hate writing but love "being a Writer" -- the crowd who post bookstagram shots of their color-coded shelves -- are not setting themselves up for a fun time on the other hand. You've gotta have a little bit of masochism to survive in any 'creative' job, but if you're spending all day doing something you genuinely hate, only extrinsic rewards like money and the warm embrace of your fans are keeping you afloat. Extrinsic rewards are mercurial.

Of course, I've got a pretty casual perspective on writing. I do some freelance when it interests me, but most of my writing is done for communication first with profit a very minor concern. But my day job is my other passion. The nature of day jobs is that you're required to do a lot of stuff that's boring, stupid, and offensive to your sensibilities. If coding was not a passion, I would have burnt out far harder far sooner.

Maya Angelou, one of the great writers of her age, was violently assaulted as a child by her mother's boyfriend. She told her brother who had done this to her and he turned up dead not long thereafter.

I think she didn't speak for five years after that. She experienced it as "I spoke his name and it killed him."

She learned the power of her words at an early age and it made a really huge impression on her. That no doubt was not irrelevant to her amazing career as a writer.

One reason writers agonize is because words can have power and because writing can be like doing therapy on stage while everyone watches. Good writing often contains some piece of the author's soul and that's always a risk to take.

It's not neurotic that some people find writing emotionally hard and all that. If you happen to have found your way to writing via a path that didn't leave you fearful of the power of your words, well, nice for you.

But "get off my lawn" as they say. (I generally enjoy writing. Get off my lawn anyway.)

> She told her brother who had done this to her and he turned up dead not long thereafter.

For those who don't know, the boyfriend turned up dead, not the brother.

Writing is powerful and involves a lot of responsibility. Torturing yourself does not necessarily improve your ability to wield this tool responsibly.

> Good writing often contains some piece of the author's soul and that's always a risk to take.

Ego risk or reputational risk should not be treated the same way as risk to others. It's also easy to avoid.

Very few writers are so monumentally important that the world would mourn for them having never published -- and most of those who would have been were, of course, never published. My advice to people is that if writing feels like self-harm, you're better off not doing it & the world probably won't notice. Folks who have something so important to say (or who are so desperate to say anything at all) that they ignore my advice have made their choice :)

Torturing yourself does not necessarily improve your ability to wield this tool responsibly.

A lot of my writing grows out of the fact that my life is torture. Writing helps make it less torturous but it doesn't come without risks.

It is rather arrogant and likely comes from a place of privilege to presume that people who find writing torment are in a place to chose to not be tormented. Not everyone has some nice, cushy life where they can decide between "Get X job or write" and choose X job because it comfortably pays the bills without being emotional torment for them.

It doesn't have to change the world for it to be monumentally important for that specific writer. Their torment is no less real just because most of the world didn't care about their personal struggles in the face of monumental personal problems, even if solving their own problems only solves it for them and for no one else.

If writing actually improves your mental state, then you are not in the group of people I am criticizing.

No, writing doesn't improve my mental state. It improves my actual life and that improves my mental state.

I mostly like writing anyway, so you aren't criticizing me anyway. That doesn't mean I can't criticize your criticism.

Just because you don't understand why people do what they do doesn't mean their reasons are neurotic or invalid and they should go do something else.

I feel it's because a beginner is a mostly blank slate so you can give generic advice without need to understand their personal context. Someone who is proficient will have strong context (areas they're strong in, weak in, like, dislike, etc.) so advice should be tailored to them. Writers may also not actually be cognizant of their own context so can't self select specific tailored advice books. Which is why there's historically been writing workshops, editors, proofreaders, etc.

Curious how off the mark I am in my thoughts.

I'm not anything like a professional writer but I was going say something like your point. There's no easy advise list for serious writers. Even more, no being able to write is specific speed bump that many people experience and getting past that is a key thing. Not knowing basic style and grammar "rules" is another common experience. After that, the rules and the choice are much less clear - the style, tone, etc of your writing relates holistically to what you want to say.

But the opposite pole is that for an advanced writers, any book you consider great is a kind of advise - it's an example of the choices one writer made to create a text said something well. If you want more here, you can also read an analysis of such texts.

And with so much available once someone is at that level, there's also not a lot of reason for people write advanced advise books.

Perhaps. It seems awfully counterproductive though, even so.

Other fields (even ones that benefit from or effectively require in-person guidance -- like mathematics, or martial arts) have books aimed at more advanced practitioners. Theoretically, some writing advice books are aimed at more advanced practitioners.

This essay was spawned by my experience reading a book that was literally intended as the textbook for an undergraduate creative writing workshop (i.e., a class for juniors and seniors who are english majors with a focus in creative writing). Surely twenty-five year olds who have already spent three years dedicated to the craft of creative writing are in the same position as their peers who have majored in mathematics, and do not need to be assigned the english equivalent of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Calculus".

I've read a number of other writing guides, only one of which was aimed at folks who did not self-identify as writers, and they all had at least one chapter on navigating ego hangups -- even the ones called things like "Creating Engaging Character Arcs" and "Promoting Audiobooks on Kindle" that you'd expect to be highly technical and specifically aimed at professionals.

Any general advice on how to find a writing group, for intermediate writers that are past the beginners stage? I'm thinking of people that are perhaps beyond the nanowrimo and fanfic stages, that are comfortable with dialogue and characterization, that can string together some fun scenes and short stories, but aren't published writers.

I personally have been having fun over the past year writing a branching novel with some friends. I know I've personally written more than 50k words with all sorts of characters and twists and turns and satisfying conclusions, but I feel like I'm plateauing. I've thought about joining one of my local meetup.com writing groups but I get the sense they'll take anyone and I'd rather be the weakest writer in the room. Well, maybe second-weakest.

My wife had some luck taking a couple of courses by established writers, who had their own private Facebook group you can join afterwards. Seems like most of the people who are willing to pay a few hundred dollars for the course are more serious about wanting to make a career of it.

I belong to a local writer's group, and except for a short story anthology that gets put out every year (and I participate in sometimes), it's pretty clear that 90% of the people in the group are never going to put forth the effort to probably ever even get a self-published book out there.

And they definitely aren't serious enough to spend any money to have any success. Can't even get them to chip in $15 apiece to pay to get a decent looking book cover so the anthology might grab some eyeballs and their stories get more readers.

I thought it was very "bold" of the author to casually compare writer's block to rape and domestic abuse, in the year of 2021.

People have gotten cancelled for a LOT less recently. (such as, saying they prefer "pers" to "they", for example).

If someone wanted to "cancel" me, I have greater sins than having accurately summarized other writers' descriptions of their emotional relationship with the craft. Since I am taking umbrage at exactly these descriptions, I don't see the grounds.

Use of 'forbidden words' typically carries far more weight in such cancel movements than even reasonable assertions of having proper grounds for using them.

And you can rest assured that if this material fell in the wrong hands, those greater sins you mention would be revealed fairly swiftly as well, and then some.

Hence, bold. (If it was not boldness, it was just recklessness).

Isn't it pretty common for successful published writers to actually hate the process of writing? They enjoy the outcomes, but the actual process of writing feels tortured to many.

This is how programming generally feels to me. I love having written a useful / interesting tool or function, but sometimes getting started is like pulling teeth.

If you write, and like to write, why would you seek advice about how to write?

For the same reason people who like to paint seek advice about painting and people who like to program seek advice about programming. Writing is a craft. You can learn how to do it better (although not usually from books about how to write well).

Some years into habitual writing, this is all I've got:


It guess what I learned is that each piece is about a "concept." Say it clearly. And enjoy it years later by reading it again. And finally publish something, no matter how small once monthly.

I think writing (not short blogs, but longer writing) is a process, and you have to enjoy the process, or at least enjoy the end product to struggle through the process. I think writers can hate a part of the process while enjoying the creating and end part -- and I think we should encourage people to navigate the hard part.

This guy likes writing too much. "bryonic??"

It's the most precise word and also is readily understood by his target audience of writers. A correct term of art can replace swathes of text. Compare using the abbreviation DAG as opposed to trying to explain the same concept without appealing to shared knowledge.

I’d say “Byron-esque” has the same meaning while being more readily understood.

Sounds like he's a fan of the Count of Monte Cristo.

Count of Monte Cristo is perhaps one of the best revenge stories ever written. Though I'd say Titus Andronicus is up there pretty high as well.

I haven't read it, though I've read some Byron (and Polidori's ripoff).

It's absolutely marvelous. It also inspired some fun derivative works like Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination (Tyger Tyger in the UK).

What happens to a craft that stops encouraging beginners?

The article doesn't claim that these descriptions have no place, but merely laments that they form the vast majority of writing advice.

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