3 reasons I hate writing sometimes (but do it anyway)

There are times I hate writing with the heat of 1000 flaming suns, as my sister would say.

Take this week as an example. I have been editing a 105 page report filled with statistics. It’s the kind of writing job that makes me want to stab my eye out with a pen

Before I start

Once I get into it however, I find it strangely satisfying. My report writing hell has made me reflect on the psychology of hating writing – and getting over it. I realised I have a number of ‘tricks’ I use to make me write.

Even when I hate it.

Here’s my top three reasons I hate writing and the tricks I have learned which help – do you have more? Love to hear about them in the comments.

1) Writing is hard work and I don’t like hard work.

In an earlier post I pointed out that one of the reasons that being a researcher is so difficult is that it doesn’t really look like work. To anyone watching me write this, I seem to be just staring at my screen, further developing my collection of frown lines. Inside I feel the churning mass of ideas crowding at the edge of my fingers, wanting to get out.

I’m an experienced writer now – I know that once I hit a ‘flow’state I will be fine, but I avoid it like mad. Writing is a bit like exercise: you know there may be a certain amount of pleasure in the activity once you get going, but there will also be pain and discomfort. If you are a fundamentally lazy person, like me, any deferment activity will do: email, Twitter, cleaning the toilet… well, I’m sure you can relate.

Routine helps of course, but the role of emotion is often overlooked. Desire, curiosity, interest, jealousy, anger and excitement: they make me want to write. From all I have read on the psychology of writing I know that many of you will be the same.

How can you use this insight?

Research on thesis examiners shows that one of the reasons they agree to examine in the first place is ‘interest’.  Examiners want to learn about new developments or what is happening in an adjacent field. If you think about it for  a moment, this means that you are giving a gift to the examiner. I love giving gifts! When I get excited about giving the gift of writing I will do it.

Even when I hate it.

2) Other people have so much to say

Have you gone onto those online databases lately? Oh my Lord! The amount of stuff you could read is infinite. Well – nearly. Many now have “‘if you like this you may like…” recommendation engines, which only makes the problem of obsessively collecting articles but not actually reading them worse.

Recently I did a back of the envelope calculation of the number of articles written each year, based on the latest estimate of the number of academic journals in the world. Assuming each of those only has 2 issues a year with 4 articles in it (and many publish much more than this), I get a total of around 362,400 papers.

Even a tiny field like mine – research education – can have a LOT of literature. When we had a new staff member arrive last year it took her weeks, reading full time, to get her head around the major themes. And that doesn’t count all the adjacent fields such as adult learning, peer to peer learning, informal learning, academic writing support, to name but a few, which are relevant to our work as research education scholars.

It takes a long time to accept that there is no way you are going to be able to read it all. Then you have the next problem: what do you have to say that hasn’t already been said? Sometimes it can feel like you are drowning in a sea of squabbling voices; other times you can get so caught up in the ideas of another person that it’s hard to feel like you have any of your own.

This is a difficult problem and one which I don’t think really has a cure. The only thing I’ve found that works is to close your eyes (so to speak) and just start writing. You will find that you have ideas and opinions inside you somewhere. That’s why I force myself to stand at the end of the writing high diving board and just jump off.

Even when I hate it.

3) Writing can be boring.

There were about 30,000 words of my thesis which were excruciating for me to write because, not to put too fine a point on it, they were dull. These words were describing data I had collected and providing basic interpretations; the guts of the thesis really, but to me it felt like eating dry toast. There was a lot of unpleasant and unproductive chewing. Knowing whole days were going to be swallowed up by this was depressing. It got to the point where I would do anything – ANYTHING – to avoid it.

How do you get around this problem? Well, watching Mr Thesis Whisperer, who is a big World of Warcraft fan, helped. A lot of WOW involves doing mundane ‘errands’ in order to build your character’s powers and talents. It’s boring and repetitious but you have to do it to get the ‘pay off’ of battling and beating the Bosses when you go off on Raids (sometimes I worry how much of my brain is taken up with WOW knowledge. And I don’t even play. Mr Thesis Whisperer calls this ‘grinding’ – which is a perfect way to describe the ‘dry toast’ section of my thesis.

Mr Thesis Whisperer doesn’t love grinding, but he sticks at it for amazingly long periods of time because he knows there will be a pay off. Finishing is probably too abstract a pay off to help you through your thesis, although it may work if you are close to the end. It’s better, I reckon, to think about more immediate ways you can get a pay off.

I used to work on my writing in the mornings and have the afternoon off before heading back into more writing in the evening. That afternoon off was filled with stuff I wanted to do: coffee with friends, a visit to the art gallery, shopping for new shoes – you get the idea. I made a deal with myself that the afternoon off was only allowed if I did my grinding in the morning. Giving myself a reward which is immediate and tangible makes me write.

Even when I hate it.

So I’m wondering: why do you sometimes hate writing? What do you do to get over it?

Related Posts

How to write 1000 words a day (and not go bat shit crazy)

The ‘out the door’ rant

19 thoughts on “3 reasons I hate writing sometimes (but do it anyway)

  1. I remind myself that I hate writing most when I am not doing it. Once I get started I usually either enjoy it, or don’t mind it. Unless it’s a job application in which case I have to take myself somewhere without internet and housework and just force myself.

  2. The “gift” idea appeals to me a lot. Being a founding member of Nerds Inc, you must know about the fan fiction festivals where ‘festfics’ are requested (e.g. specify your ship, characters, or setting) and someone writes that story for you. Particularly in the establishment of norms in fandom exchange, these festfics rate highly with me.

    It’s an appealing idea: make a request for a narrative and a writer out there picks it up and presents it to you as a ‘gift’ (these writing fests are often based around the holiday season, Valentine’s Day, etc).

    In fact, WE ARE ALREADY DOING THIS with #tabit! Send the idea out there and someone, hopefully, will pick it up and write the blogpost!

  3. When I was an academic I used to struggle with this… oh the pain of getting started or making sense of all the thoughts clamouring to get out in some kind of logical and coherent order.
    My role limits the time I have to write and is very much shaped by the demands, expectations and deadlines of others. My time is taken up with operationalising and delivering service.
    How I miss the luxury of using my time to write about things that I am passionate about and which shape my role!
    My way of dealing with this is to create spaces in my own time and buddy up with fellow wannabe writers at a writing retreat.

  4. Great post! Because I’m sure almost every writer – academic or not – knows that love-hate-relationship with writing.

    The immediate reward thing is something that works for me as well (which is why I am here now – checking for updates as a rewarding mini-break for two hours of writing). But I’m also one of the few (?) for whom the idea of finishing also always worked as I’m kind of like a terrier. Once I started something I’ll hang on and get it done, no matter what.

  5. Really enjoyed the post. I suffer from ‘what-new-and-revolutionary-stuff-can-I-say-that-haven’t-been-said-before?’ syndrome too. But like you said, it helps to just write. In fact, I just don’t edit my first draft any more. And old advice but it works wonders..

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  7. I go to other writer’s events to talk about the difficulties of writing & get inspiration. It always helps to feel like you’re not alone.

    Also, I do ‘warm up’ exercises now. You warm up before exercise, so why not before writing? I got this idea from someone who ran a creative writing workshop. She through random ideas or words or themes or even sounds at us and we’d just have to write something, anything related to or inspired by that. It was a great idea for getting those neurons firing.

    Even in exercise, part of the warm up is about getting your brain & nerve connections working. In roller derby we talk to each other, yell instructions, and gradually increase the complexity of tasks over half an hour. So, similarly, if my writing feels ‘cold’, I now go for a walk & do some quick writing warm up exercises on something completely different, or even let myself write a letter, or a blog post, or diary item or creative piece. Just get the writing ‘juices flowing’ again. It works.

  8. I love this post. Writing is something I would like to do especially to be a scholar and an academia as well as to express my feeling in text. However, I am losing my confidence and enthusiastic in English writing. Everyday, I start to write section by section of my PhD working document as an exercise but then I am feeling so disappointed and depressed because of my English is weak. It makes my work delay and I left behind. Writing and understanding the language challenges me since I was a little kid. I have dreamed to publish many papers, blogging etc. but because of the language barrier makes me feel isolated.

    • I can imagine that being terribly frustrating… Have you tried Graff and Birkenstein’s book “they say / I say”? It has ‘sentence skeletons’ that are very useful if you are writing an extended work in English for the first time. Even if you are a native English speaker! Also – research on examiners show they are very tolerant to grammar and expression when they detect that English is not your first language. Hope this helps a little.

      • Thank you for your suggestions. I have not seen this book yet and will look at it. English language is hard because am not a native speaker. In my experiences am losing many opportunities because of the language. My learning journey is like riding on a roller coaster :).

  9. i used to hate writing but now, i’ve managed to turn it into a habit. i don’t really write on a series of bursts like before because like yourself, i find it too stressful.

    instead, i spend approximately 15 minutes / day to write a paragraph or two and then expand and assemble them once a week.

    within 3 months or so a paper would magically appear! yeah, this ain’t WOW but it feels like magic (think of a mage conjuring food from thin air)

    the thing about writing is it’s not so much about speed. once u’ve built the habit of writing, insyaAllah everything will be a LOT easier. u write faster and it becomes as natural as looking for goodies on sale at the AH.

    oh one more thing, don’t edit yourself too much until you’ve completed the entire paper. excessive self criticism can be a time killer. it feels worse than a 10 consecutive wipe in instances.

    ps : if u’re not playing WOW then please ignore the allegorical remarks. LoL

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