There's two elements of writing. One is fun when it's going well, and miserable when it's not. The other is never fun.
(1) Thinking, planning, brainstorming, daydreaming, and otherwise figuring out ideas.
(2) Communicating those ideas using words, language, and structure.
The first part of writing is thinking - figuring out what you want to say.
This is incredibly enjoyable and fulfilling when you work out an interesting idea on the page. Sometimes you've almost got something, but not quite, and that can be frustrating.
The second part is the mechanics. Above, I said this is never fun, but that's probably not true. Occasionally it's fun in a craftsmanship sort of way. But usually it isn't. That's because the thinking, planning, daydreaming, and brainstorming you do is hard to capture just right on the page, and that's a yucky feeling.
"I've got this idea, I think it's a good idea... but the words I've written fail to communicate it."
The first part of writing is the most important part. Without it, the second part doesn't matter. This is an essay assigned in high school where there's only one or two correct topics that have already been well-worn. You don't get to actually think through interesting ideas - it's just an exercise in mechanics.
That's why high school essays feel like torture. I think this dissuades a lot of people who could be good writers. Anyone who can think clearly and then communicate those clear thoughts could do some good writing. But high school assignments tend to make people think that writing is about the mechanics, rather than the thinking and brainstorming and daydreaming and synergizing and synthesizing ideas.
Certainly, the mechanics of writing can really elevate a piece and make it shine. The final bit of polish and finish can make the difference between "good" and "masterpiece."
What's blogging? Blogging is just a publishing platform for writing and other forms of media. There happens to be almost no cost to doing it, so the stakes are low. Thus, you're allowed to do step 1 (the fun thinking part) without necessarily doing step 2 (the not-fun mechanics part).
That's why blogging tends to be a lot more fun than high school essay writing. On most blogs, it's practically the opposite - it tends towards rambling, unedited, and otherwise mechanically unsound form... but the blog author gets the enjoyment of thinking on page, and people who stick around get exposure to their thinking.
The not-fun mechanics part is what elevates a piece of writing from good to masterpiece. My strategy is roughly to do a lot of step 1, which I enjoy and which doesn't tire me out. On the rare occasion that I think a piece could really shine, I'll apply the polish and mechanics in detail (which I don't really enjoy and which does tire me out) for the chance that it becomes something lasting.
I'd recommend something similar if you're just starting. Enjoying the process is big. Certainly, study the mechanics and gradually improve yours. But don't obsess over them. Without interesting thinking at its base, mechanical communication means nothing.
Learn the mechanics! They're useful, yes. Necessary sometimes, too. But it's not the core of writing. Writing starts with thinking. The mechanics are there to serve you in communicating your thoughts.
This reminds me of a quotation attributed to Dorothy Parker. "I hate writing. I love having written." I hopped over from Irving's blog. I enjoyed your guest post there and I will certainly check out the link to the site you provided in your response to my comment. Thank you.
Your profile is very interesting. I lived in various countries and traveled a lot, too, although I have become a happy homebody in Oregon and rarely travel now.
I was especially interested in this post because I just posted something on my blog seeking advice about how to manage the time devoted to blog related activities, particularly reading other blogs and commenting! I look forward to reading more of your blog.
"Enjoying the process is big."
I actually lost the sight on this important point. When dealing with all the polish, craft, and technical details that's a real danger there. Perfectionism kills fun and motivation pretty effectively.
It reminds me of Paul Graham's essay on essays, which I'm sure you read already.
I really wish I understood this _before_ going to high school, and not 4 years after.
Question from a reader -
You have maintained your commitment to being prolific which is made even more exceptional by the fact you are travelling around the world at the same time.
I realise your article on being prolific is about this, but accepting that I'm going to release a lot of crap before I realise something good is a tough wall to knock down. My biggest issue writing anything seems to be that it feel insufficent. Naturally no post I write has the length of Steve Yegge, the persuasiveness of Paul Graham, the content of Unqualified Reservations etc. etc. and while I can consciously accept this, there seems to be some mental block. How do you go "that's sufficient" and release it into the wild?
There's two basic approaches to being successful as a writer. The first, we could call the "Paul Graham / Derek Sivers" approach. This is where you explore a lot of ideas privately, go forward with the best ideas you have, and edit and polish the hell out of everything before you release it into the world. If you do this, and you've got talent as a writer, and you've got important ideas - then you're going to consistently only release masterpieces.
The second way is to just write a hell of a lot and know that a number of the things you write will turn out quite well, but your average quality level will be much lower. We could call this the "write every day no matter what" approach.
I was undeniably stuck. Over the past month, I’ve produced a fat zero in typed or handwritten output. It was bothering me - a lot. This site isn’t income generating, I pay to display my wares here. It’s not much - the price of a couple of beers a month, as I’ve mentioned before. Like an unused gym membership, the wasted money was troubling. I’m hardly flush and it does add up over the course of a year.
I decided to turn the absence of writing into a personal experiment. First, a declared halt to all writing and blogging endeavours. By turning an unconscious decision into one that I controlled, the source of anxiety was removed. Now all I had to do was wait and observe. I found that at first, I was quite alright with not writing. I could spend more time focusing on paid work, family and training. I dropped most social network activity and that felt good too. When I did need to write for any reason, it was all on loose leaf paper, and I found myself gravitating towards A3 and up. It’s not practical or portable, but the extra white space gives me room to think. So I acknowledge that and will continue to use it.
I learned that lists were really make my brain seize up. Non-linear mind mapping techniques jolt my mind far better than any todo list. I found myself having ideas again thinking in multiple planes. In fact, just to have ideas again was nice. I started to formulate entire articles in my head - first drafts at 3am in the dark. Over the last couple of days, communication lines resumed again and that feels good too. Now I’m writing this, and it isn’t a masterpiece but that’s cool. It’s here and I’m happy to write it - not through any kind of obligation, but want. This is how it ought to be.
In being stuck I got better at observing myself. Plus I had loads of time to play through Link Between Worlds, which was far higher priority to me than writing any article. If you’re a gamer, you should pick that up.