July 24, 2018

Why “Just Sit Down and Write” Doesn’t Always Work

If you’ve done any prowling around internet circles, you’ve likely heard the bit of writing advice which boils down to (however it is actually phrased) “Just sit down and write”, as if, through sheer willpower, any and all obstacles keeping one’s WIP from being completed can be surmounted by placing fingers to keys and writing. To this advice, I reply in the words of Truman Capote: “That’s not writing, it’s typing”. To be fair, he said this to mock writers like Jack Kerouac and others who, for whatever reason, were not up to his snuff, but I think if we ignore this intention (death of the author, and all that), it’s actually pretty accurate.

Writing is not typing, or at least, it’s not only typing. I’ve probably mused on this before, but the writing process is more like what your middle school language arts teacher taught you than what popular writer zeitgeist would have you believe. Writing involves 3 to 5 processes, depending on where you make the divisions. Let’s split the difference and go with four. These are prewriting, which includes brainstorming and outlining; “writing”, i.e. typing content; editing, which involves rewriting, rearranging, continuity checking, and copy-editing; and publishing, which involves either querying an agent or formatting the whole book yourself. From my experience, most of these processes bleed into each other, meaning that one will do a lot of brainstorming while typing, and might outline while rearranging things during edits, and will certainly type while rewriting, and so forth.

What does all this have to do with Capote? Mostly it has to do with the fact that while you can force yourself to type, you cannot necessarily force yourself through every stage of the writing process. People talk about how to get over “writer’s block” by simply forcing yourself to “write”, which seems sound enough until you realize that not all obstacles to writing, or maybe I should say to finishing a work, are the same thing as writer’s block. I’ve had writer’s block— that horrible ennui where you just don’t want to sit down and put words on paper/word-processor—and, yeah, you kind of just have to power through it. There’s a lot more to it than that, of course, and someday I will write about why I think there are legitimate reasons not to force yourself to type, but that is a post for another day. Writer’s block is one problem, but others are less surmountable.

I personally don’t have problems with prewriting, because I tend to wing it or just let whatever ideas pop into my had and find a place for them. Other people, though, often complain about having characters but no plot, a setting but not characters, etc. I’m not really sure how these people get over this hurdle, so I can’t really speak on it. Then there are issues with the publishing process: if one self-publishes, one simply has to grapple with the peculiarities of whatever program one is using to format, but if one is going the traditional route, then there is literally no way to power through this stage of the process; it doesn’t matter how many queries you send, because you are still beholden to the whims of whatever agents read your query, who have workloads and time frames that you can do nothing about. It’s literally a waiting game. The writing zeitgeist can say “just sit down and write” all it wants, but that won’t get one traditionally published any faster.  

But, being prone to daydreaming, and thus brainstorming, and being self-published, as I am, these aren’t that big of an issue for me. No, my insurmountable hurdle usually comes during editing (I can hear you say, “You tricked us, Rose! All this philosophizing about writing was just one long excuse about why your book isn’t out on time!”. Haha, that it is). True, I’ve experienced legitimate writer’s block while doing rewrites, and that can be dealt with the same as when it happens during the initial writing phase: Just sit down, as they say, and write. But what no one will tell you, so I’m saying it now, is there is no way on earth to power through, skip over, or just-sit-down-and-write away a continuity error or a plot hole or scene that is just awful but that you don’t know how to fix. Don’t get me wrong, you can try to type these away; I’ve tried. I’ve tried starting new scenes to patch over a plot hole, only to scrap them because they add more problems, or rewritten a scene that I hated over and over and over, ten times, only to still hate it. And I can’t move on from these problems, because I refuse to publish a book with gaping plot holes and, worse, scenes which I absolutely hate.

I have, in my infinite wisdom (acquired from having rewritten my third book four and a half times), discovered two solutions to this problem, neither of which involves typing. The first is to talk to someone else about it. I’ll bounce ideas off my mother, father, or sister, and one of two things will happen. Either, they come up with a solution I couldn’t see, or through verbalizing the problem, I come up with a solution myself. The other way to solve this problem is by writing out notes on paper. I don’t consider this “just writing” because I don’t mean write the scene out on paper (though that can be part of it). I mean scribble out what needs to happen in the scene, or what needs to be addressed by the end of a patch of dialogue, or where the continuity error lies. Then go nuts. Write out any and every possible solution, every way the scene might go, no matter how weird. Is the error one of timing? Write out timelines for each character to try to sync them all up. Is there a plot hole? Write out ways to fix it, or maybe write out any repercussions should that plot line simply be removed. Scratch, scribble, and scrawl until you’ve come up with something, because it will all be scrapped anyway. You aren’t wasting time typing and trying to make anything that will be seen by human eyes; you’re writing out arcane symbols that only you can decipher, and that, once used to type out the actual scene, will literally be thrown away.

I think the issue with “just write” is that typing is still a very insular aspect of the writing process. The words are only those words the author finds acceptable, and has chosen precisely, and thought about. It’s still very much in the writer’s own head, despite appearing on a screen. Talking or note-writing, however, force a writer to get out of their own head—and get their ideas out too—because either another person is listening or the words are just thrown out onto paper and left to sit, rather than being prettied up with the option of spell check and a “delete” button. And it still might take a long time to find a solution to an error or to make a scene that you love. There isn’t really any magic be-all and end-all solution for writing problems, but I think I’ve found something that works for me, where my problems lie, because writing involves a lot of thinking, talking, and tinkering in order to get it just right.

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