How to Talk Your Way Out of Writing

The more you think, the harder it is to write. No kidding.

Remember back when you were just learning about paragraphs? You were thrilled to come up with three generic reasons why dogs made fun pets. Maybe you stuck in some bland transitions—I mean, all the cool kids were using First, Next, and Finally—and you were good to go.

As a more mature writer, you still have a basic structure to follow. (If you’re saying, “Wait, what structure?!” let’s talk ASAP!)

But now your ideas are a lot more complex. You’re trying to reveal a subtle theme about a tough novel or explain complicated pairs of cause and effect. It can be really challenging to organize your essay just right.

And choosing vocab and word order is a whole different can of worms. You don’t want to put your beautiful, shiny ideas into old, rusty sentences. You might write, delete, and rewrite so many times that you can’t move past your first paragraph!

Here’s why writing can be so hard for smart people: You’re trying to do too many complicated tasks all at the same time.

Think about it:

  • Developing quality ideas is hard.
  • Connecting those ideas is hard.
  • Choosing the best order to present those ideas is hard.
  • Writing beautiful sentences is hard.
  • Rescuing awkward sentences and turning them into beautiful, sophisticated sentences is hard.
  • Editing for clarity and length is hard.
  • Proofreading is hard.

Are you seriously trying to do all those hard tasks simultaneously? No wonder your brain just skipped town and left you a note that says, “See ya, wouldn’t want to be ya.”

The more complicated your thinking is, the more you need to separate these tasks.

And the more in-depth your ideas are, the more you need to have a writing plan. You need the outline template, ideas, and revising strategies that will help your good ideas shine in great sentences.

If you have a hard time coming up with that plan on your own, guess what? You’re perfectly normal! When you’re in the middle of developing ideas, it’s really hard to get enough distance from them to see if they make sense or to figure out how to present them with the most pizzazz.

Your brain isn’t malfunctioning; it’s actually doing just what a good writer's brain is supposed to do.

The first step of writing well is being fully absorbed in your own POV. [Tweet that.]

This is what allows you to own your argument and use all of your skills to find, present, and analyze evidence that supports your position.  

But being fully absorbed in your own ideas makes it really hard to see how to change them if they're not working! You don't have the distance to see an alternate route. It's kind of like being stuck in a traffic jam without your phone or Garmin; you can't see where to turn off and take a different approach to your goal.

Since your metaphorical car is stopped and going nowhere, it's the perfect time to make a plan. (Planning while writing isn't as dangerous as navigating while driving, but it's close!)

You need to stop writing and make a writing plan in order to move forward. (Stop in order to move forward?  Isn’t that a paradox? Why, yes. Yes it is. Two points for you for recognizing that literary device!)

Whether you talk to your best friend, a writing coach , or just yourself in the mirror, talking is actually the key to solving your writing conundrum.

Sound weird?  

When you stop writing and start talking, you get to meet an important person: a listener. Listeners are more discerning. They ask questions. They look for logical fallacies. They give us a hard time when we use words incorrectly. In short, listeners are judgmental. A good listener will...  

  • Evaluate the speaker's ideas more objectively than the speaker does
  • Reject arguments that don't make sense
  • See the bigger picture
  • Notice contradictions
  • Notice imbalances (when one idea is glossed over while others are explained in depth) 

But you don’t have to take my word for it; you can try this short experiment for yourself. Because you can be your own good listener. Here's what to do:

  1. Say aloud what you’re doing right now, in the context of your writing process.
  2. Say aloud why you’re doing it.
  3. Ask aloud whether this action is helping you meet your goal.
  4. Say aloud what you should do next that would help you meet your goal.

Here’s an example:

  1. “I’m rewriting my hook for the ninth time even though I don’t have any other part of my essay written.”
  2. “I’m doing this because the hook is the first thing my teacher reads, so I want it to be perfect.”
  3. “This choice isn't helping me meet my goal of finishing my entire rough draft by 10:00 pm tonight.”
  4. "I should skip the hook and come back to it once I've completed my rough draft. I already have an outline, so writing my body paragraphs will be more straightforward. Plus, that will give my ideas time to steep, and I'll probably come up with a better hook once I know what the whole essay looks like."

Now, wanting to write an amazing hook isn’t crazy; in fact, it’s a smart idea. But rewriting it nine times before you’ve written anything else is pretty irrational.

The Why helps to show this clearly: even though it’s the first thing your teacher reads, it’s not the only thing. If you turn in an essay that has a great hook and a lousy argument, your teacher is going to quickly forget how brilliant that first sentence was and get on with deducting points for lack of evidence and clumsy structure.

And if you've set a personal deadline, as I did in my example, you might run out of time to complete other important writing tasks.

That’s why it’s key to know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. And knowing both of those will usually help you determine what you should do next. 

So here’s my challenge to you:

Go look in the mirror and talk to yourself out loud.

  1. First, say what you’re doing in your writing process right now. (Or what you were doing before you took a break to check your email or surf the web.)
  2. Next, say why you’re doing it.
  3. Then, state whether this action is helping you achieve your goal. (Hint: you have to know your goal to be able to do this!)
  4. Finally, say what you will do next in your writing process. How can you move forward from where you are right now?

How'd it go? Tell me your four statements in the comments below and I’ll give you my two cents about how to make the most of your next step!

P.S. Did you notice I used "elementary school" transitions? Write them in the comments if you caught them. ;)