I Hate To Write, Part 1

“I don’t like to write, but I like having written”
~ Anonymous Honest Writer*

It’s a sad truth that writing is too often the subject that students — and their parents, too — most dread and resist. Even gifted kids who love to learn often have bad feelings about writing.

Surely writing teachers and novelists are immune to this frustrating struggle, though, right?

Nope.

True confessions: I began this blog in much the same way that my students usually begin work on their first writing assignments for me: by procrastinating. I struggled with what to say. Writing felt hard and painful. I counted my words far more often than necessary and grumbled that the count wasn’t going up fast enough.

So why do we do this to ourselves and to our kids? Why do we write? And why is writing so doggone hard for us all?

We write because writing is still the most efficient way to communicate ideas. The writing process is the best way to develop a complex, interesting notion and winnow out any weaknesses of thought or argument. To say what we mean, as clearly as we can, and to share what we mean with other people, we must write.

Read that paragraph again. Do you see what’s missing?

Have another look. I’ll wait.

Did you catch it?

In a paragraph about why we write, I didn’t mention words at all.

That’s not an oversight. Writing is not about words; it’s about ideas. Words are merely the vehicle that carries those little nuggets of brainpower out into the world, and focusing too much on words instead of ideas is, paradoxically, one of the main reasons writing too often feels hard.

Good ideas are difficult to come up with, and it’s harder still to hammer a thought into words that express that thought accurately. Words are slippery. Words are mercurial. Words don’t always express ideas the way we want them to. Rather than drumming away at the words, however, a smart writer uses the idea as a hook with which to grab the right words.

How can aspiring writers get those recalcitrant words out of the way of the ideas? Here are some tips:

  1. Don’t get distracted by words.

    Ask the writer—aloud, if possible—“What am I/are you trying to say?”

    Then, also aloud, the writer should answer the question as directly as possible, beginning with the phrase: “I’m trying to say…”

    Answering the question aloud brings the focus back to the idea, where it belongs. This strategy keeps a writer from missing the idea forest for the word trees.

  2. Don’t wait for the right word.

    When the right word won’t come, don’t let the writing process grind to a halt while trying—and rejecting—a million options. Ideas are attention junkies, and they won’t tolerate that sort of delay. They’ll wander away, evaporating into the ether. Perfectionism is their enemy.

    Instead of obsessing about finding just the right word, use placeholder words. Mark these temporary words in some way so you remember that you have to find better ones later, after the idea is in better shape. Ideas come first, and word choice comes later, during revision.

    Think of it this way: the idea is the big picture; the words are details. Don’t waste time on the details until the big picture is working pretty well.

  3. Completely ignore grammar and spelling when writing a draft.

    It doesn’t matter if the whole draft is one, big, run-on sentence and it looks like it’s written in Aramaic. Big picture only, people, and that means grammar and spelling don’t matter yet. “I’ll fix it in revision” is the draft-writer’s mantra.

    A special note for parents: it is often particularly hard to see sentence-level errors in a child’s drafts and refrain from commenting on them. As hard as it is, please do refrain! If you focus on your child’s grammar and spelling too early in the process, you kill the ideas. Worse, you kill the child’s excitement about the ideas. That’s bad. That leads to “I hate writing.” We all hate “I hate writing.”

Once an idea has been put through its paces a bit, perhaps even challenged to defend itself, it gets better and smarter. As an idea gets better and smarter, the words to explain it come more easily, and then writing—or at least having written—starts to feel likable.

In my next post, I’ll talk about other reasons why writing is hard and how to make it easier. A preview: it’s complicated, so it’s best to take it one step at a time.


* It’s apparently not Dorothy Parker who said this first, though she is often credited for doing so.


How do you encourage your kids to write?
Share your ideas below!

Kriston Sites Eller

Kriston Sites Eller

Kriston Sites Eller has an M.A. in literature from Indiana University, and she completed all requirements for a Ph.D. except the dissertation. She has designed and taught literature and composition courses for students from age 10 through college. Currently, she tutors and teaches homeschoolers online and in person, in groups and one-on-one. When she's not teaching or parenting her two children, she’s making puns on Facebook, knitting, or rewriting one of several novels that she hopes to publish. Her literary claims to fame include eating dinner with Toni Morrison and having Dave Letterman read a Dr. Seuss book to her when she was a child. Follow her: twitter.com/KristonSEller or facebook.com/KristonSitesEller

7 thoughts on “I Hate To Write, Part 1

  • September 16, 2015 at 9:14 am
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    We have success with talking things out with a writing partner. The idea is usually there but when someone asks you questions about it the words start flowing until you hear yourself say exactly what you want to write.

    Reply
    • Kriston Sites Eller
      September 17, 2015 at 11:54 am
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      Talking things out is a great strategy, particularly if the listening/questioning partner doesn’t steer the writer too much. The point of the “What am I trying to say?” tip is to listen to the ideas instead of getting stuck in one’s own head. Definitely!

      Reply
  • September 16, 2015 at 12:26 pm
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    I think kids (or anyone) who think they hate to write most likely need more practice and have likely been stifled into thinking there is a “right” way to write. Sure, semantics are important, but later on. Free writing in a journal or talking out their ideas (to a person or a voice recorder) can be a way to help them get their ideas out before worrying about the process.

    Reply
    • Kriston Sites Eller
      September 17, 2015 at 12:02 pm
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      One of the reasons that writing is hard is because it necessarily requires both creativity and order/social conventions. Trying to do both bits at the same time is utterly stifling. That’s bad.

      Any worthwhile writing process will help a writer to separate the creativity/ideas phases from the editing/ordering phases because it makes both easier. Putting the early focus on ideas and spending plenty of time on idea generation and drafting seem to be good ways to make the writing process work for the writer instead of against him or her. That’s what we want!

      Reply
  • September 17, 2015 at 7:31 am
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    Good advice and well written. My writing ought to improve with your suggestions.

    Reply
    • Kriston Sites Eller
      September 17, 2015 at 12:03 pm
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      Thank you! I hope it does. 🙂

      Reply
  • September 26, 2015 at 5:21 pm
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    Hi, Kriston:

    I’m late in responding to this. But I finally had a chance to read your entry. it was comforting to read. My masters’ project is on reluctance to writing. I’m trying a new approach. But in that approach, I say some of the same things you mentioned – about not worrying about the words OR the spelling or grammar. Many parents have trouble with this concept. Yet, I know that interrupting the process often means lost ideas. So thanks for the vote of confidence. And…carry on!

    Reply

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