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Writing advice should stop targeting people who hate to write

Hacker News - Wed Apr 7 14:40

If more writing advice was focused on people who wanted to learn how to write better, and less was focused on people who want to “become a writer”, we would have better writing and better writers.

John Ohno

I write constantly, and I’m always on the lookout for advice on how to improve my craft — not out of fear that I’m insufficiently capable, but out of a desire to do better. Every time I crack open a book on the craft of writing, though, I have to wade through at least a chapter (only a chapter, if I’m lucky) that describes this dysfunctional codependent relationship with writing. Nobody actually likes to write, they say (in the same way as they might say no women actually like sex), and they continue, and we hate the rare people who do like it. Call me a writing-slut, but I think that perhaps if your emotional relationship with your vocation is the same as the one with your abusive-but-charismatic ex, you probably need to do something else. However, I doubt that this description is even generally accurate: this byronic framing is a myth that we can slot much more mundane problems into (like fatigue, executive dysfunction, and fragile egos).

This is a shame. You can’t necessarily skip these chapters, because they often contain good advice even for emotionally well-adjusted writers. For instance, sticking too strictly to a plan can feel limiting, and a free-writing session can produce material that you wouldn’t have otherwise produced. One does not need the sturm-und-drang of a heroic yet tragic fixation on one’s Art to profit from putting a manuscript away for a while and looking at it with fresh eyes.

Ego fixations seem to still be a problem, based on the sheer amount of writing advice that focuses on them. I would have expected that, because most of the writing we produce and consume in the internet age is both public and unedited, we would all become accustomed to the idea that writing is a process of slow refinement simply through visibility; the most creatively vibrant people on the internet, chronic shitposters, write in public and often begin with deliberately silly or juvenile forms or material. However, just right here on Medium, I know of no fewer than five publications about writing whose names specifically reference the idea that writing poses a terrifying threat to the author and that writing anything at all is a valorous act. The shitposters have the right idea: write in public, as part of a community, and refine your work until you have pieces that are worth reassembling into a more professional format; this is not ‘courage’, but merely communication.

Perhaps some of the aversion to writing that we see comes from schooling. Still, even though most people in the United States have an aversion to mathematics that comes from poor teaching methods and bad experiences with it during mandatory education, only a tiny minority of texts explaining mathematical concepts spend a considerable portion of their length explaining the (hopefully obvious) fact that finding mathematics difficult does not make one dumb. These books are called things like “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Algebra for Dummies” and they can therefore be avoided by people who do not feel the urge to call themselves idiots when they see the word “algebra”. There is no such titling convention with writing guides: they all assume that the reader hates and fears at least first drafts.

The enormous popularity of video games across basically all demographics demonstrates that people do not necessarily avoid difficulty, and will in fact spend money to perform difficult and unnecessary tasks in their free time if you frame those tasks properly or allow them to choose their own tasks. This should be no surprise to readers of Marx, since playing video games is a kind of artificially de-alienated labor. Writing (aside from copy-writing and other kinds of piece-work) is one of the few forms of labor that is not and has never been properly alienated: a writer brings a text (of any length, from a series of brick-sized fantasy tomes to, in the case of some avant-garde poetry, a single word misspelled in a clever way) into existence and sees the whole process, and can (if he puts the text in a drawer for a while) even somewhat-objectively determine its quality.

Writing is often difficult, like most rewarding things. It may be sensible to compare writing to gardening: you are selecting some elements, removing others, composting raw materials, and waiting, in the hope that the elements you have selected will grow and bloom. It is not always successful. But, who wakes in a cold sweat in the middle of the night, wind howling across the moors, damning themselves for being insufficiently morally pure or worthwhile as a human being because the peonies didn’t take or the rhubarb flowered? Drama has no place in the craft of writing either, if you want to live with it.