What makes writing hard?

A lot of people say they find writing hard. But what exactly makes writing so difficult? Just putting random words on paper is easy. What’s difficult is turning those words into sentences that really express the ideas you’re trying to convey. When we talk about difficulty writing, we often say that “the words aren’t coming out right” - we’ll write a sentence, and then delete it because we don’t like how it sounds, then sit staring at a blank piece of paper not knowing how to re-write it.

Writing is all about communicating ideas to others. This means that a really key aspect of writing, before you even get to putting pen to paper (or more often, fingers to keyboard), is figuring out exactly the ideas you want to communicate.

I think it’s useful to explicitly distinguish two different stages of the writing process:

  1. Figuring out yourself what ideas you want to express, and making sure those points are clear in your own mind;

  2. Working on communicating those ideas to others - how to do so clearly, how to keep the reader engaged, perhaps how to evoke certain emotions in your reader, etc.

This might sound obvious. And technically speaking, only 2. is ‘writing’. But I think learning to do 1. well is a vital part of being a good writer. If the ideas you want to express aren’t even clear in your own mind, how on earth are you supposed to communicate them to others?

Based on this, I’ve recently tried distinguishing two very different types of writing. The first type is writing I do to clarify my own ideas: I’m putting words onto paper without worrying how they look,  expressing ideas in the order they come to me rather than the order that I’d want someone to read them. This is “stream-of-consciousness-style” writing: the kind of writing I do when I’m writing in a journal, or when writing a quick email explaining something to a friend. The second type of writing is writing I do to express those ideas to others: I’m taking already-clarified ideas and thinking about how to structure and present them in a clear and engaging way. This is “presentation-style” writing. With stream-of-consciousness-writing, I do very little editing or backtracking. Presentation-style writing, by contrast, involves multiple stages of revisions: first, I get the basic ideas down as clearly as possible, then I review it and think about how to edit those words and change the structure to make it clearer and more engaging.

I think that one reason many people find writing so hard is that they miss step 1. entirely. They’re trying to do “presentation-style” writing, when really what they need to be doing is “stream-of-consciousness-style” writing. It’s really hard to focus on both the content of what you’re expressing, and how that content is presented at the same time. So if you’re spending attention thinking about presentation, you’re going to have much less left over for thinking about content. The idea behind stream-of-consciousness-style writing is that you forget about presentation temporarily, so that you can focus all of your attention on the content of what you want to express.

Most writing advice focuses on presentation-style writing: how to communicate ideas through writing clearly and engagingly. But actually, in my experience, the actual process of writing is relatively easy if you do step 1. right - if you’re really clear what ideas you want to communicate. Or at very least, doing step 1. well makes the actual writing part a lot easier. It might not turn you into a literary genius, but it makes it a lot easier to express what you want to say clearly, which you can then build on.

When I had to write essays at university, I’d spend the bulk of my time on “planning” - scribbling ideas down with pen and paper to figure out exactly what points I wanted to make, and then making detailed notes on how I wanted to structure and present those ideas. Once I’d done that, the actual writing was easy - it was just a matter of stringing those ideas together into sentences. People would be impressed when I said I could write a 2,000 word essay in not much over an hour - but what they were missing was how much preparation had gone in before this point.

A lot of the time, I think that when people say they find writing difficult, what they’re struggling with isn’t creating evocative and beautiful prose from simple language. What they’re struggling with is expressing their ideas in simple language in the first place.

Just to get really meta, here’s the process I used to write this blog post:

  1. First, I spent somewhere between half and hour and an hour on stream of consciousness-style writing: literally just writing words onto paper in the order they came into my head to figure out what ideas I wanted to express. If I found myself not knowing what to write at any point, I just wrote that.

  2. I then went over the output of stage 1. and made notes on how I wanted to structure the ideas in order to best communicate them to someone else.

  3. I then sat down to write this post, writing with more awareness of how I was presenting my ideas to others. This stage itself was made up of two stages: a first pass, where I simply took my notes and expanded them into prose, and a second pass, where I went through what I’d written and edited it.

In total, I spent not much over 2 hours on this - which is quicker than I’ve written most of my blog posts. Of course, the amount of time you want to spend on each stage - braindumping ideas, structuring them, turning that structure into prose, and then editing it - is going to depend on the style and importance of what you’re writing. But I think step 1 - figuring out ideas, stream-of-consciousness-style, is pretty much vital in any case. In fact, if you want to write something quickly, I think you’re much better off cutting back on the later stages - worrying less about editing your stream-of-consciousness writing - than skipping stage 1.

If I can get over my perfectionism enough, I’m going to try publishing more posts on my blog that I’ve written almost entirely in stream-of-consciousness-style, with minimal editing. I really want to write more, and the reason I don’t is that it takes too much time. I’d like to have time to edit each post into something beautiful and coherent, but given that’s not realistic, I’d definitely rather share my ideas - even if they’re not formed into perfect prose - than nothing.

Sometimes, the boundary between writing-to-clarify-ideas and writing-as-presentation gets blurry. You might be be doing the former and find you have a new idea while writing - and then it may make sense to switch styles. This sort of happened to me a couple of paragraphs back - I hadn’t planned the point about the idea-clarification stage being the most important, but it made sense to me as I was writing, so I decided to go off-piste a little. This then led me to the idea in this paragraph - that sometimes you want to be able to switch a bit between the two.

Finally, in my experience, by far the hardest part of writing is just getting those first words onto the page. Once you’ve got a first draft down - even if it’s a mess - it’s much easier to edit it into something coherent. There’s something very psychologically daunting about a blank sheet (/word doc.) And so perhaps the most useful thing about breaking writing down into two stages - first clarifying your ideas, and then figuring out how best to present them - is it makes that initial “getting words onto paper” much less daunting. Trying to start from scratch and produce a masterpiece is never going to happen, and accepting that your first draft is likely to be far from perfect is incredibly useful.

I should caveat that I know writing is a different process for different people, so what works well for me might not necessarily work for you - and similarly, what I find hard about writing might not apply to everyone. But it seems likely enough that this idea would help other people that it was worth sharing. If you think your experience of writing is similar, I’d be really interested to hear that - but if you think it isn’t, and there’s something else about writing you find hard which this doesn’t help with, I’d be really interested to hear that too!