Debugging Writer's Block

post by matto · 2021-10-09T19:04:31.074Z · LW · GW · 9 comments

The hardest part of writing for me is dealing with writer's block. It appears almost every time I sit down to write–I'll have everything ready: the time, the space, and the super exciting idea I want to share. But right then, the words won't come! And when they eventually do, they come out in awkward strings that beg to be deleted, but I keep at it.

Soon, though, the excitement surrenders to frustration accompanied by a steely determination to get to the finish line. Predictably, this produces writing that feels dry and forced, leaving me disappointed and exhausted. Mistaking the symptoms for causes, I tried style guides: "Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace" by J. William, "The Art of Plain Talk" by R. Flesch, and, of course, Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style."

While my writing became somewhat better, the process remained frustrating and slow, yielding an essay once every 6 to 8 weeks. But I kept going at it, hoping that sooner or later I'll discover some advice or feedback that will remedy my problem. And then, one day, it happened–I stumbled on an interview with Jerry Seinfeld and because I love his comedy, I gave it a listen. Unexpectedly, at one point he shared this advice about writing:

  1. Set a hard time limit on your writing sessions.
  2. Reward yourself after each session.
  3. When you finish a piece, don't show it to anyone for at least a day.

It seemed simple, and having little to lose, I decided to give it a try. Long story short, it worked pretty well–I wrote about 1.5x to 2x faster. What's more, the process became fun, which made the output less dry and forced. It was great! But after enjoying this state for some time, I got to thinking: how does this advice work? And can it be applied to other problems?

Admittedly, my understanding of how the mind works is pretty shallow. It's mostly informed by sources like The Elephant in the Brain, Kaj Sotala's posts about IFS [LW · GW], and van der Kolk's book about Trauma. There's also quite a bit of bias that comes from writing software, eg. "everything is a system!" But anyway, here's my working theory about why this advice worked for me:

  1. Writing is hard (see footnote 1)! It takes a lot of time and effort to get better. And even if you do produce outstanding work, there's the uncertainty that, at the end, nobody will read any of it.
  2. System 1 takes notice of this and decides it doesn't like the upfront investment and unlikely payoff. It would prefer something immediate and sure, like cleaning or exercising
  3. System 1 communicates this through emotional resistance, which in my case took the form of guilt–guilt about not being good enough and wasting all these beautiful mornings and evenings.
  4. The guilt feeds into the feeling of frustration, making it more difficult to write, which produces more frustration–effectively creating a death spiral that should get me to do other stuff.

Now, here's where Seinfeld's advice kicks in:

  1. Setting hard time limits generates feelings of accomplishment after each session. Previously, when my writing time was unbounded, I always felt I could have done more–no matter how much I've already done. But with limits in place, I choose how much to do (hm, preference curves?) and then move on to other tasks, guilt-free.
  2. Rewarding myself after each session physically reinforces the feeling of accomplishment. Though it felt like cheating at first, it made me reflect and realize that this truly is a marathon.
  3. Keeping a piece of writing to myself for a day allows me to meditate on it: savor the feeling of finishing something, and consider the process and what it produced. Afterwards, it's much easier to digest external feedback.

In other words, Seinfeld's advice makes the payoff from writing feel certain and predictable. All you need to do is sit down, exert a reasonable amount of effort, and then enjoy a job well done. Then, when you're ready, repeat the process. As a result, System 1 doesn't worry about wasting time and energy, so it stops emitting guilt signals.

I believe this can be generalized to: figure out what is creating internal resistance, then dissolve it by experimenting with different ways of seeing a problem. For instance, let's say you're nervous about attending in-person meetups. Let's also assume that there are no physical reasons for this–it's in a nice part of town, nobody there is contagious, and everyone there is a decent human being.

Now, listen closely to what System 1 is trying to say. Is it afraid you won't make a good first impression, perhaps because of your looks? Or is it worried that others will find you uninteresting? Or... well, you get the idea. Next, try different ways of looking at the situation. Do you have to make a great impression on every single person you meet? Does everyone have to find you interesting? How would it look and feel like if just one other person visibly enjoyed your presence?

If any of the above sounds familiar, that's because these are fairly well known ideas from LessWrong. The first bit, the one about listening to System 1, is pretty much a combination of Noticing [? · GW] and Focusing [? · GW]. The second bit is close murphyjitsu [LW · GW]. And yet, even though I had practiced these techniques beforehand, it still took a random podcast interview to get me on the right track. Shouldn't have I debugged my problem sooner?

Perhaps.

At the meta-rational level, I think I failed to apply enough Dakka [LW · GW]. So while I applied murphyjitsu to the problem of dry and forced style, I completely missed the larger problem of emotional resistance. And even though it still took me weeks to finish one essay, I mentally marked my problem as solved. Had I used more Dakka, I probably would have spent considerably more time looking for the right problem to solve.

What I took away from this adventure is that, first, it's helpful to think about applying more Dakka–and then double it. It might force you to redefine the whole problem. And second, don't underestimate how influential System 1 can be. Here, it may help to take the outside of whatever is giving you trouble–it could simply be yourself.

Footnotes:

  1. We're all taught to read and write in school, so it seems that writing should be easy, right? That's what I thought, but then I realized how different school-level writing is from the stuff you can find in books or magazines. This is because at school we are taught to write by formula–the report, they five-paragraph essay, etc. Simplifying it like this allows us to teach young humans a baseline level of communication skills. And remember that, in school, teachers are paid to read whatever students' produce. But in the real world, where time and attention are scarce, ignoring inputs is the default. Here, all the dull, lifeless, and boring writing withers away as if it never even existed. Here, to survive, an essay or story needs to be interesting and put together well. That's why the quality gap between school-level and real-world writing is so great, and why it takes so much effort to cross it.

9 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by lsusr · 2021-10-10T02:10:56.579Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I never have "writer's block" because I just let myself publish crap. My best writing often happens late at night when I'm slightly delirious. I'll hit "publish" on anything that isn't mean, incoherent, dangerous or wrong.

comment by Yoreth · 2021-10-10T14:34:34.601Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
  1. Reward yourself after each session.

What kinds of rewards do you use for this?

Replies from: matto
comment by matto · 2021-10-10T16:45:11.802Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It depends on what I need at a given time. Some times, it's some chocolate or other food that I like. Other times, it will be a walk or 10-20 minutes of exercise.

When I finish a piece and I feel it went well, I'll spend a few minutes during a walk going over the process and feeling good.

comment by M Harold Page (m-harold-page) · 2021-10-10T11:34:01.231Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Semi-pro writer, and blogger here. My angle on this is slightly different.

For me there are (usually) three aspects to writer's block:

  1. Some deficiency in craft, usually a lack of conscious knowledge of internalised craft.
  2. Too much focus on end purpose.
  3. Life

So you can sit down to work, but get stuck because you need to learn more craft, or because your unconscious fails you and you can't just consciously select from your toolkit, or because you have no yardstick on which to judge what you are writing.

And the work becomes demotivating, partly because of the above, but also because of the poor odds and long road to any kind of success: this is especially true when creating a 100K word fantasy novel!

Finally, life gets in the way and gives you other things to worry about. Should you really be writing this blog post, this article, this book, when challenges and tragedies are besetting you and yours?

For me, and at least some people with whom I've compared notes, the solution to writer's block is twofold.

First, consciously learn some craft, if only for quality control. At minimum, know why what you've done well is good. That way you have a launching pad, and validation as you go.

Second, embrace the writing as a worthwhile activity in its own right. I don't know how well any project will do, but I do know spending time writing in flow makes me happy and mentally healthy. Make writing your yoga, not your financial parachute... 

Replies from: matto
comment by matto · 2021-10-10T20:52:00.663Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for sharing - I think this adds an interesting dimension to the issue.

In my case, trying to level up my craft actually made my life harder. After reading the style guides I mentioned, each sentence I put down would sound awful. I would iterate on it, but that would create a cascade of changes in the surrounding paragraph. What this looked like was that a simple, 500-word blog post would take 12000 words of revisions -- and multiple weeks of work.

But perhaps that's a newbie mistake, a result of exploring a vast cave alone in the dark. I say this because, at one point, I began rewriting others' essays (by hand) and I suspect this helped me internalize some of these rules that I was trying to memorize and apply mechanically. And when that happened, the words began flowing and I found a lot of peace and fun in the exercise.

Out of curiosity, what's your go-to activity/resource for practicing craft?

comment by Viliam · 2021-10-10T21:02:46.758Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Whether you are working is more under your control than whether you succeed. Also, trying to work is likely to make you work, while trying to succeed can make you procrastinate because nothing seems perfect. From this perspective, it makes more sense to reward work than to reward success. Also, work needs to be done every day, success only comes after you have finished.

The obvious objection: if we reward work regardless of success, what if it makes you do a lot of stupid stuff, or just repeat the same wrong thing over and over again? Yes, if measuring hours is literally the only check you apply, this could happen. So, in addition to measuring hours, you also need some way to steer your work toward better outcomes. But this steering is probably easier to do when you are already writing regularly, than making yourself write regularly when you are not.

For me, the problem is consistency of vision. When I start writing, I have a rich colorful picture in my head, I feel awesome about it, and I put words on paper. If I interrupt this work and return to it on another day, the mental picture is gone. Most things I wrote, I wrote during a single session. (That means I never progressed beyond short stories. Only once I wrote a short story in two sessions, and that story has two parts that feel different; luckily, it fit the plot, so it didn't ruin the story.) Not sure how to keep the vision alive across the sessions.

Replies from: matto
comment by matto · 2021-10-11T20:05:42.201Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

How long are your writing sessions?

Have you tried "bookmarking" your thoughts? I sometimes leave myself some comments about what I wanted to write next. I'm also experimenting with outlining.

Replies from: Viliam
comment by Viliam · 2021-10-13T11:22:38.140Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Session = an hour or two, probably. I haven't written fiction for years, but I have a similar problem with blogging these days.

Yes, outlines improve the process. By the way, I also use "bookmarking" at work, sometimes it's like I am writing a diary about my tasks; but it is a great help after being interrupted.

Replies from: matto
comment by matto · 2021-10-14T19:20:49.464Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm similar - an hour or two is about what I can squeeze out of myself before I get too tired. This also mirrors how long I can program or debug software in one go before needing a longer break.

One blogger that I respect a lot (Venkatesh Rao) once wrote that it took him a long time to train to be able to endure multi-hour writing sessions. I hope that's the case, but right now I'll focus on learning to maintain a consistent vision.