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.