Struggling to Write
by Sarah Archer
Writing is hard. Getting yourself to write, often, is harder. It took two cat naps, three internet breaks, and a muffin just to get me through the writing of this blog post. Here are eight things I remind myself of while I write to push past mental blocks and stay within shouting distance of sanity.
1. Words are free
One of the most magical, and most daunting, things about writing is that it is pure, ephemeral thought. The medium you’re working with is not something you have to buy, like paint. Words are free, and they’re an endlessly renewable resource.
If you have an idea but you’re not sure about it, just write it. If you think a certain ending might work, write it and see. You have nothing to lose. If you end up deleting those words, you have an infinite store of others to use.
2. First drafts are only a building block
The evil thing about a first draft is that, in a fundamental way, it is very similar to a final draft of a book (or poem, screenplay, article, etc.). It’s a Word document made of words strung into sentences, strung into paragraphs, strung into chapters, just like your final draft will be. The first draft looks like a book. It walks, talks, quacks like a book. It is, in fact, a book. It is the same sort of creature as a final draft, or any of the published books on your shelf. The only difference is that, usually, it is far, far worse.
This formal similarity is what makes it so easy to expect your first draft to be this brilliant, polished, thing. It looks finished, even though it isn’t. With many other things in life, the first “draft” is very clearly just that. If you’re building a house, you don’t stop after you’ve only got the framing up and lament the fact that it’s not a finished house. Of course it isn’t—you’ve just started. If you’re making a soup, you don’t stop after just sautéing the vegetables and lament that it’s not a perfect soup. But when you’re writing, it’s very easy to look at this neatly formatted, finished-looking manuscript you’ve just produced, read it back, and dress yourself in sackcloth because you didn’t write The Great Gatsby.
The point is, you have to consciously remind yourself that a work in progress is just that. If you’re on your first draft (or your second, your third, your fourth), remember that you’ve only got the framing up, maybe some sheetrock, maybe the subfloor. But it takes many steps and a lot of time to finish building a house.
3. All creative work is subjective
I don’t like to Google a book before I’ve read it, because I don’t want other readers’ opinions to influence my own. But once I’m done, sometimes I’ll Google the title and see what other people have said about it—professional reviewers, readers on Goodreads or Amazon. I’m amazed at how often I’ll see people giving one-star reviews to a book that I genuinely thought was a work of genius, or raving about how they stayed up all night finishing something that, to me, was just mediocre. No matter what I find, there is always, always a diversity of opinion.
You said what about David Foster Wallace?
You won’t find a single creative work about which everyone is in agreement. (Except maybe Reading Rainbow? We all loved Reading Rainbow.) Focusing too much when you’re writing on the potential reactions of others, or taking criticism on a work in progress too personally, is a recipe for writing paralysis.
Of course you want other people to like what you write. But there will always be people who don’t. One of the crucial parts of every writer’s journey is learning to differentiate between useful criticism and useless criticism—and learning how to take criticism that falls somewhere in the middle.
4. Someone else’s success is not your failure
No matter who you are, you can always find somebody who’s doing it better than you are.
Unless you’re Shakespeare. You still win, Shakespeare.
Stephen King might look at recent Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk and think “I’ll never get that kind of critical acclaim.” Tokarczuk might look at King and think “I’ll never make that much money, or reach that many readers.”
Read the work and observe the careers of your fellow writers. Learn from them, support them, befriend them. But don’t fall into the trap, made so terribly easy by social media, of thinking that everyone else clearly has it all figured out and you don’t, or that all the achievements shared by other writers are proof of your own inadequacy. You have your own path, and it’s not meant to look like anyone else’s.
5. Not all writing looks like writing
One question I often get from fellow writers and readers is “How many words do you write in a typical day?” And maybe this is a bad thing, but I truly have no idea. Partly because I don’t track it, and partly because there is no such thing as a typical day for me as a writer. There are days, particularly when I’m writing a first draft, when I’m churning out pages. If I put my mind to it, I can typically produce a first draft of a book in a month, or a screenplay in two weeks (see Item Two about first drafts being terrible). And those days, when I watch the word and page counts mount, can be exhilarating.
However, fewer than 50% of my writing days are spent like that. There are so many other parts of the process: researching, brainstorming, working on ideas that never go anywhere, developing characters, outlining, figuring out timelines, breaking chapters, rereading, revising, copyediting. Not to mention all of the peri-writing activities that I engage in as an author: reading to develop my sensibilities and keep up with what’s being published, reading the work of friends to give them notes, writing said notes, attending writers’ group meetings, attending readings and other events, networking, doing interviews and promotional appearances, maintaining a social media presence, maintaining a website, maintaining a newsletter, maintaining this blog…
All parts of the writing process are important. Even if you’re not hitting a certain word count goal, as long as you’re actively working on your writing, you’re making progress. Even if you write something that you end up throwing out, and you deduct those words from your total (the horror!), you may be able to use a version of what you wrote later. At the very least, every time you write, you’re developing your skills.
For some people, tracking their daily word or page count is helpful, and if that works for you, go for it. I typically pay more attention to how much time I spend writing in a day: I can’t control how many words I may come up with in a writing session, but I can control the time that I put in.
6. Perfectionism is the enemy of progress
It sounds obvious, but all you can write in the moment is whatever you can write in that moment. If you’re laboring over a sentence, or a scene or a character isn’t landing quite right, and you can’t figure out how to fix the problem, it’s immensely frustrating. But digging in and refusing to move on until you’ve perfected that one part seldom works. It’s almost always more efficient to just write the best version of it that you can in the moment, then keep going.
Remember that the version you’re writing now is just a starting point. As you continue working, and as time goes on, new ideas will come to you, and the lens through which you see your work will shift. In the future, you will be better equipped to come back and tackle that troublesome part. Sometimes you have to write something awful, to turn it into something okay, to turn it into something good, to turn it into something great.
Trusting that process is tough. It goes against the writer’s instinct to allow yourself to put words on the page that make you feel like a blob with a brain stem. Just remember, you’re not writing onstage. Nobody will see this draft until you decide to show it to them. You can be as dumb as you want. If all you can write today is the dumb version, then write it: tomorrow, you’ll get farther starting with the dumb version than you would with a blank page.
7. There is no right way to write
Unless you’re writing with a pine cone.
Most of my professional background is in the entertainment industry, and amongst screenwriters, outlining is a given. It’s a must. Not outlining is basically considered a rookie move.
Over the past few years, as I’ve gotten to know more fiction writers, I’ve been astonished by how many don’t outline. Some people call it “pantsing”—jumping in and writing by the seat of your pants. And many people swear by that method. Don’t get me wrong, I am still a staunch outliner, and probably always will be. But just seeing this much more open-minded attitude about different approaches to the creative process has been enlightening.
Just as there are no hard and fast rules about what makes a story work, there are also no absolute rules for how to write that story. You can outline, or you can pants it. You can go in order from beginning to end, or skip around. You can write a draft through and then revise, or reread and revise as you go. You can work on one project at a time, or four. You can write backwards in lemon juice and hold your words up to a mirror if that’s what lights your fuse. Over time, you’ll figure out the habits that best facilitate your creativity and productivity. But don’t be afraid to try new tricks, too. Sometimes shaking up your usual methods is the best way to get out of a rut.
8. You have to be willing to share your writing with others
Remember that thing I said about nobody seeing a draft until you decide to show it to them? That’s true… but at some point, you have to show it to them. Unless you are writing truly, purely for yourself, but if that’s the case, you’re in the minority. Most writers want their work to be read and enjoyed by others, possibly even professionally published.
Personally, I want millions of people to read and adore my work, and I also want no one to look at it, ever. Such is the writer’s paradox. Sharing your writing means sharing a piece of yourself, which requires courage and vulnerability. I recommend finding a circle of first-round readers who you can trust to be honest, but supportive, then sending to tougher readers as you go. Receiving criticism can be hard, but when you find someone who genuinely enjoys your work, and realize you’ve made a positive difference in the world through this invisible thought-string you’ve pulled out of your little head… there’s no better feeling.
Sarah Archer’s debut novel, The Plus One, was published by Putnam in the US and received a starred review from Booklist. It has also been published in the UK, Germany, and Japan, and is currently in development for television. As a screenwriter, she has developed material for MTV Entertainment, Snapchat, and Comedy Central. She is a Black List Screenwriting Lab fellow who has placed in competitions including the Motion Picture Academy’s Nicholl Fellowship and the Tracking Board’s Launch Pad. Her short stories and poetry have been published in numerous literary magazines, and she has spoken and taught on writing to groups in several states and countries. She is also a co-host of the award-winning Charlotte Readers Podcast. You can find her online at saraharcherwrites.com.