Why “just write” is stupid advice

A golfer sighs in frustration as yet another ball slices hard and disappears into the woods. An old timer, who's spent the last few minutes observing the young hacker's herky-jerky swing, smiles and offers his sage advice: “Just hit the ball, son.”

A programmer glowers at his screen as his app coughs up exception after exception before falling down and dying. A more experience coworker, seeing the tangled mess his junior colleague has made of the program, rests his hand on his shoulder and gently says: “Just code, man.”

A would-be entrepreneur watches yet another product launch fizzle out. His mentor, seeing the disappointment etched on the young businessman's face, sets him back on the path to success: “Just sell something people want to buy.”

What is it about writing that makes people give stupid advice?

I hit a wall with my writing recently. I've spent the last year and a half working on a book , and it finally occurred to me that I'd sunk a lot of time into the project and I still had a long way to go. What was taking me so long? Is writing a book really this hard?

I hoped it wasn't. My long-term ambition is to support my family by self-publishing books, in the mould of Nathan Barry. But he launches several books per year, and I was still stuck on my first one, more than 18 months after starting it.

Clearly, I was doing it wrong.

I started looking for answers, and one of the first places I turned was a mailing list I belong to. It's a group of info-product and software entrepreneurs, many of whom have successfully launched products of their own.

“How can I learn to write faster?” I asked.

A few list members responded with helpful advice, but just as the conversation was starting to take a helpful turn, along came the old hand with his Zen-like guidance: “Just write,” he said.

And soon others joined the chorus: “Worrying about ‘process' is just avoidance behavior.”

Several subsequent “+1” responses made sure my thread was good and dead.

At the time, this “advice” made me really mad. Clearly someone who has a half-finished book of more than 30,000 words isn't just avoiding writing. I was devoting time every day to my writing but just not getting much traction.

What is it about writing in particular that makes everyone nod in agreement with asinine statements like “just write”?

In just about every other human endeavor, we'll agree that there's a core set of skills that you should master when you're just starting out.

In golf, you can't hope to improve without focusing on fundamentals like grip, stance and swing. If you're just heading to the links and hacking at the rough week after week, you might get a little better, but without mastering the basics, you're in for a tough slog.

In software development, you spend time studying basic programming concepts like variables and loops and if statements. Then you have to learn the particulars of a programming language or three, as well as how to work with a particular application platform like Ruby on Rails or iOS. There's a lot to absorb before you can “just code.”

And in business, you'll need to learn a little bit about market research, building products and marketing before you can expect regular success.

But somehow with writing, we pretend that the mere act of typing words on a screen is sufficient to make you proficient.

Fortunately, I chose to ignore the advice I got to just put my head down and keep plugging away, doing what I'd been doing and expecting things to magically improve.

Instead, I've spent the last few weeks taking a critical look at my writing process and comparing the way I work to the way that prolific writers tend to work.

And guess what? I discovered that most productive writers follow a core set of writing practices that I've overlooked. They use borrowed formulas and templates to provide a skeleton for their writing. They outline before they start working. They write a crappy first draft straight through without stopping to research or edit. Then they do a rewrite to clean up the wording and fill in gaps.

As I've learned about these core skills, I've devoted time to incorporating them into my writing process, even though it seemed like I was taking a few steps backward to do so.

Wouldn't you know it, my productivity has shot through the roof, as has the enjoyment I derive from my writing.

Given enough time, a golfer just might teach himself how to hit a straight drive. A programmer might uncover the SOLID principles on his own. An entrepreneur might develop an intuitive understanding of his market.

And a writer might eventually get the hang of producing well-researched and well-organized books.

But trial-and-error is a painful way to learn.

Next time you're tempted to tell a struggling writer to “just write,” don't. Instead, nudge him to look at his process. See if he's practicing the fundamentals.

You risk looking a little less sage-like, but who knows, you might actually help him.

Oz - December 17, 2013

Hey Joshua,

Can you please expand on how you discovered what the most productive writers do + best practices you found practical? I’ve try to implement outlining and writing straight through the first time, and would love to hear more about a writing system that helps you not just write a lot, but also write high quality articles.

I myself have subscribed to the “just write” model and this was a refreshing post to read.

P.S. Found your blog through your post on HN: http://joshuaearl.com/selfpublishing/lessons-learned-from-a-year-as-a-self-published-author

    josh - December 19, 2013

    Hey Oz! Great questions.

    When I decided to try to up my game in terms of writing speed, I did what most geeks do: I studied the topic for a few weeks. I went through all the blog posts I could find from people who had increased their writing speed. I read several books on Amazon, and I listened to the back catalog of the Self Publishing Podcast (disclaimer: good show, horrible language).

    The best book I found on the topic was 2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love. This author is doing herself a disservice by only charging $0.99, but I digress.

    I drew a lot of inspiration from hearing Johnny B. Truant’s turnaround from a plodding, unproductive writer to a writing machine who routinely churns out 2,000+ words an hour, which plays out over the course of several months’ worth of Self Publishing Podcast episodes.

    As far as best practices, the biggest thing I learned was how important it is to really put enough time and thought into the outlining process. I waste the most time when I’m trying to figure out what I really want to say. I treat outlining as pre-writing, and when I’m following my discipline, I write detailed outlines that read like an abbreviated version of the final piece. My goal is for someone else to be able to read the outline, follow the article’s flow and understand the points I’m making. When I don’t do this, it always takes more time than I’d like to write the post.

    Drafting straight through was a tough discipline for me to master as well. One thing that helps me a lot: If I think of a better way to say something, I’ll just type it again instead of going back and editing what I’ve already written. I’ll do this with phrases and entire sentences. Then I just clean it up in the edit.

    I also use a timer and daily word goals to keep me moving. When I’m in drafting mode, I write 1,000 words of fresh content a day. I can do this in less than an hour for non-technical material, and I average about 80 minutes for technical posts.

    Hope that helps!

Noah Gibbs - March 5, 2015

Great advice. I’ve noticed the same thing — and not just about writing. Honestly, a lot of people do effectively give bad business advice that is the same thing.

Out of curiosity, which mailing list? I’m always looking for other people selling infoproducts, especially if they are (or are selling to) software engineers. I wrote Rebuilding Rails awhile back, and I’m releasing Rails Deploy In An Hour right now. I’m still very much in that “trying to find my community” phase 🙂

I get the impression a lot of folks stay in that phase for a long time, often more or less permanently.

    Josh Earl - March 5, 2015

    Does that mean I should stop telling my clients, “just follow your passion”? 🙂

    The email list in question here was my SublimeTextTips email list.

    Definitely can be tough to find good communities for some of these niche-y products…

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