I love to write. I want to write and I want to be a writer. So why do I so often find ways to do anything except write?
The fact of the matter is, even as someone who finds writing enjoyable, meaningful, and rewarding, the distractions and not-quite-writing temptations are many.
Here are five of the things that aren’t writing that I turn to when I want to write. These are some of the things that get in the way of my writing. And even though they’re not bad things—in fact, for the most part, these are good things—they are, at the end of the day, not writing.
1. Think About Writing
Ironically, one of the biggest obstacles to actually writing is thinking about writing. Now, to be sure, writing requires some level of thinking. Depending on your process, you might think a great deal at the start—plotting and planning and outlining—or you might save your thinking for the second draft when you’re revising and making your world coherent. Whatever the case, and as essential as thinking about writing is, it must never escape our notice that thinking about writing is not the same as writing.
We all know people who want to be writers who never get through chapter one. They may be excellent world-builders and have the ability to create convincing characters and that just-right dialogue, but none of it ever turns to ink. Their “writing” process is entirely in the mind.
Writers think. But, more importantly, writers write. For me, that means when I sit down the write, perhaps I will mull over an idea or two, or think through a scene, but I always keep my hands on the keyboard. Whenever I sit down the write, I force myself to type a word, which becomes a sentence, then a scene. But that first word is key. It doesn’t have to be thought through all the way. It doesn’t have to be thought through at all.
In the movie Finding Forrester, Sean Connery’s character—a famous, one-hit-wonder author—says “You write the first draft with your heart.” He says thinking comes later. That may not be everyone’s process, but his point is well-taken. It takes writing one word to write two, and that will never happen if your story is alive and unfolding only in your mind. At some point, you need to stop thinking and start writing.
2. Look at How Much We’ve Written
Another thing that keeps me from actually writing is looking at all the words I’ve already written. For better or worse, I have a whole day on my blog dedicated to this practice. I love to track my writing patterns. I love recording how many words I’ve gotten down, how much time I’ve spent writing, and finding trends and patterns to, hopefully, learn from and grow.
However, that tracking mentality can be a big hindrance to new writing. It is, in large part, backward-looking. Writing itself is for the here and now. It does not dwell on data and precedent, but on the present drive to put pen to paper.
It is valuable for me to see how much I’ve written in the past and to gauge patterns, but that must never get in the way of my writing habit. What good does it do me to have written 1,000 words yesterday if I merely count them again instead of adding to them today.
Writing must be an ongoing practice. It is not a game of equations or measuring word counts, but of typing and creating stories.
3. Watch TV or Surf the Web
If you write to be entertained, rather than out of a sense of purpose, self-expression, or responsibility, your writing habit will have a lot to compete with.
As TV and web-surfing has come to dominate the landscape of our mental and emotional stimulation, reading and writing have found it that much harder to compete. Reading, at least, has not dropped off too significantly, but it has taken on new forms in new venues—e-readers and reading online, reading blogs and scanning photo essays, funding our reading material via social media and RSS feeds rather than libraries and newspapers.
I do not say this to bemoan reading’s station in the current climate; people still read plenty. Writing has not had the same success—because it was always a harder, less accessible task, and because technology has not caught up to the stiff competition of modern entertainment. Sure, there is improving dictation software and USBs and the cloud (not to mention old-fashioned notebooks), which allow us to write anywhere, but the barriers to entry to writing—skill, convenience, time commitment, mental fortitude—have not come down to compete with other, more obvious forms of entertainment. I know it happens regularly that I sit down to write, but quickly find myself watching Netflix or scrolling through the endless loop of social media.
For most people, writing is not an addiction. TV is. So the best ways to break the addiction in order to write are to leave the TV out of it. Turn your wifi off. Turn your phone off. We must run away from those distractions—those temptations—in order to write. Or we must be so committed and even addicted to writing that it maintains a stronger pull than all the other things that might steal us away.
4. Edit Our Writing
Any good writer knows editing is an essential part of creating a good story. Editing, however, doesn’t create the story in the first place. In fact, too much polish can just make our writing boring, rote, the same as everyone else.
How often have I set my fingers on the keyboard and stared into the screen only to, rather than write, open an old file or a previous chapter and set to editing. Again, that is an important part of the process, but not when I’ve come to put new words on the page.
For me, I don’t count editing and rewriting toward my word count, because nothing has been produced, only reproduced. When we edit, we sometimes trick ourselves into believing we are writing, but really we aren’t. We are near-writing, and that’s not what we came for. I try never to do a day of only editing. Every day I want to get some new words on a new page. Editing is about strengthening our foothold in our world. Writing is about moving forward and exploring it more. Writing is how the story grows and moves and eventually comes to a point of editing, proofing, rewriting, and publishing. But always write first.
What is there to say? It is always easier to turn off than to turn it up. It is always easier to say, “Let me take a nap, and then I’ll be able to write.” While that may at times be true, isn’t it too often the case that, after that nap, we don’t return to the writing desk? Isn’t it too often the case that our naps go too long, leave us groggy instead of ready to write, or we wake up and find there is something “more pressing” to take care of.
Sleep is vital. Our words will thank us for good sleep, but we will sleep more soundly after we’ve done the writing we set out to do. Don’t let sleep get in the way of story. Maybe don’t fight through your total exhaustion to churn out 500 words (though even those words are never wasted), but fight through laziness and the temptation to just lay down for 20 minutes. Prioritize a time when you’re wide awake, whether that’s when you first get up or just before you go to bed or somewhere in the middle. You’ll always need sleep. But if writing really matters, the words will be better than sleep.
The key to writing is very simple. Just keep writing.
The trick to write a book is always to just write the next sentence. Don’t let the distractions of writing-related things that aren’t writing–TV and the internet, or sleep, or whatever it is–keep you from telling your stories.
Just keep writing.