Bonus: do you love "WRITING" so much you don't actually write?

Here is a tough question: Could you be slowing your writing down without knowing it? Might you be turning yourself into a miserable writer, for no good reason?

Writing Isn't What You Think It Is

When you sit down to write, what are you doing?

On a physical level, you are likely writing in a fairly standard way: placing your hands on a keyboard and typing, or holding a pen over a page. Maybe your posture is good, or maybe it needs some work.

Maybe you have a cup of coffee on your desk, or a cat on your lap, or maybe you're sitting on a bar stool in a dive bar, in one of the roughest crab fishing ports of Alaska, typing on your phone while large men brawl behind you. More power to you.

Well, whatever way you physically do your writing, that's not what I'm talking about today.

I'm talking about the mental process of creating words. 

My worry is that you are doing what I do (sometimes) when I try to write: you are using this time to "feel like a writer." 

In other words, when you sit down to write, you are hoping that this session will go well -- because you want to feel like you are a good, skilled, capable writer. 

I understand that urge. And I hate it.

For instance, it's normal to begin a writing session by re-reading what you wrote in the last session: to get warmed up by re-reading the previous page or chapter. And there's nothing wrong with doing that, but when you re-read your writing, it can be easy to read with the hope that what you wrote was actually good. 

After all, if it's not good, does this mean that -- gulp -- you are not actually a good writer? Maybe you are fooling yourself. Or maybe you should abandon this whole project, and start that other idea you had, the novel about the sword-wielding puffins who have to protect their island against an army of robot-bears. 

Here's my argument: when you are having these thoughts, you are making a basic mistake, a category error. You are confusing two completely different things: "writing" -- getting words on the page -- with "WRITING" -- being a cool and admired person who has written lots of successful books. 

I do this all the time and it's a terrible thing. 

By confusing a writing session with "WRITING," by expecting one particular paragraph to offer validation for my artistic choices and life decisions, I am burdening the chance to get some writing done (the blessed, magical hour or two I have to create) with far more weight than it can possibly sustain.

The brain only has so many resources to spare. The more stuff you ask it to do, the less effective it will be. The more nervous questions you allow to circulate around your head, the less talent and genius there will be left over to actually get any writing done. 

Here's my proposal. When you sit down to write, you should have only one concern: to get as much writing done as possible. 

Until the draft is done, until the thing you are working on is finished, quality should not be a concern. The goal is simply to move as quickly as possible until you have made something -- a complete story, blog post, essay, poem etc. 

To put this another way: it would be absurd to judge the hours you spent sleeping by asking how many errands you also completed while asleep. Running errands and sleeping are two different, and usually incompatible, tasks. It is much better to get a proper night's sleep than to try to catch a ten-minute nap while standing in the wine aisle of World Market. 

My argument is that during a creative session, it is just as absurd to combine this session with other artistic concerns. Creation is a separate task from editing, and from planning, and from judging, and defending yourself from future criticisms. 

The more you try to add extra mental stuff into a writing session, the less good that session is going to be.

This principle, by the way, could explain why so many famous writers advise seeing one's writing process as a simple, practical, functional thing. Stephen King, for example, has said that if you have ever been able to pay an electricity bill with the proceeds of your writing, then you should consider yourself a talented writer. 

Neil Gaiman stresses the importance of finishing things, no matter what. 

I think what these writers are trying to say is: the actual act of writing is not the place to ask big questions. The only thing to do, when you are writing, is to do the very thing you most enjoy: getting words down on the page. 


All right. Here's an activity for you. It won't take long. 

The goal here is to announce to your brain a new intention: to use writing time only for writing. When you have time to write, you will deploy that time only for getting words down. 

The idea of the activity is simple: first, think about what it would feel like, for the next thirty days, to only write your novel.

In other words, for the next month, during a writing session, you will accept that any and every word you type is a good, excellent, inspired word. The only target is quantity, page count, forward progress. 

By this rule, writing 300 words a day is better than 200 words; writing 2,000 words is better than 1,500. And for the next thirty days, there are no other criteria.

Second, listen to the doubts and concerns that this goal creates in you. Listen to the questions and fears you feel rising up, the reasonable objections. Notice if this idea makes you nervous.

Now picture the speaker of those doubts. If you like, you can visualise this person -- a former teacher, or a black-clad critic like that moody fellow in the film Ratatouille -- or you can just imagine a misty blob of anxiety and self-criticism. 

Got someone / something in mind? Great.

Now we're going to write a simple, short letter to that person. 

In this letter, we're going to ask permission to use the next thirty days to write as fast as possible. It's ONLY thirty days, that's the deal. After that time is up, the critic can come back and make observations, complaints, demands. This critic, in fact, can go to town. He or she can make enormous emotional demands and require absolute, impossible perfection. 

But, in return for this future orgy of self-loathing, for the coming thirty days, the critic is going to stay quiet. You are just going to create, and the critic will not interfere.


Write the letter quickly, in no more than six sentences. 

It could look something like this:

"Dear ___,

I think you and I would both be happier if I finished more projects. I know you care a lot about __, and you worry about _. I am grateful to you. You are so useful to me because _. I actually value your help with __ a lot. However, for the next thirty days, I am going to work on my novel and not _. After that, I'll ask your advice on everything I've written, and you can say __. But until then, __"


I think it will feel really good to write this letter.

PS I'm not actually saying you have to write fast forever. But I do believe toooo many writers burden themselves with too many doubts, and that writing fast, for thirty days, may help you change that deep-set mental habit.