science of us

Why Does Writing Suck?

Photo: George Marks/Getty Images

It is rare, in this day and age, to see a good tweet on the internet, but I did love this one, from New York Times writer Erin Griffith, which includes a graph she designed to depict the dramatic ups and downs of a writer’s self-esteem, which are entirely dependent upon the stage of the writing/editing process they’re in. There is the ecstatic high in submitting a draft to one’s editor, and the inevitable gloom that follows the first round of edits received. Writing may not be the only profession subject to such wildly variable morale, but to hear writers tell it, there’s simply nothing worse. As Dorothy Parker once said (according to the internet, anyway), “I hate writing, but I love having written.”

Why, though — besides being drama queens by trade, if not by nature — do writers hate writing so much? Beth Rapp Young, an associate professor of English at the University of Central Florida, has done substantial research on the relationship writers have to feedback, procrastination, and success. In many years of work on the subject, she can say the following with more authority than most: “Writing is hard,” she tells me. “Anybody who has to do it for their job knows it’s hard.”

As a professor, says Young, she has several categories of work she must regularly attend to, and writing is, by far, the worst. In her work on hiring committees, in administrative work for the university, and even in teaching, Young says, her tasks are clearly defined, and the expectations straightforward. “No one’s going to say ‘Wow, you really hit it out of the park with that job listing!’” she explains. Writing academic papers, by contrast, are entirely open-ended, with self-determined deadlines, and amorphous expectations. Not to mention that, like most writing, it isn’t very well-paid.

What’s also hard about writing, says Young, is that it’s never, ever done. “It reminds me a lot of getting regular exercise, eating healthy, keeping a house clean — all these things we have to do that are never done,” she says. “It’s never going to be something that’s finished.” Haha, ahhhhhh. When you put it like that, yeah. It sounds pretty bad.

What our chores and our writing have in common, then, is their requirement for boring, everyday discipline. This, I suspect, is what people mean when they say they hate writing: not so much the actual typing of words as the act of sitting down at one’s desk (or, more realistically, one’s couch), and opening a blank document. Like most chores and obligations — like trying to get oneself to the gym — the low point is just before you begin. And like most chores, the satisfaction derived from writing is all too short-lived. Especially when you’re writing for the ephemeral internet, or writing anything that will be discussed on the internet. “There’s so much out there that your stuff is competing against,” says Young. “People can really like it, and then two hours later they really like something else.”

Here, then, is where writing distinguishes itself from chores to become even worse: writing is personal, even when it’s not autobiographical. Writing feels directly tied to a writer’s self-worth in a way that less communicative professions don’t, says Young. With writing, she says, “you personally design and create something, and then you have to make sure other people like it, and you don’t have any control over that.” When people don’t like your writing, they effectively don’t like you.

The only thing worse than not being liked, of course, is no response at all. That praise (or feedback of any kind) is irregular and infrequent in writing is, of course, what makes it feel even better when one does receive it, and what makes it important to (try to) enjoy the process itself. Writing is inherently paradoxical this way, says Young — what we hate about it is also what we love about it. The empty page is awful and overwhelming, except when you know you have something to say. Creating one’s own work schedule sucks, except when it rules. Typing whatever just to have something to give your editor is embarrassing, except on the rare occasion that paragraph turns out really well. When it feels good, it feels really good.

I must admit here that, for the most part, I enjoy writing, and I think it may be because I’ve decided it’s the only way to stay sane. Praise is great, but the only person who will always read my work is me, so I might as well find reliable contentment in churning out my daily 500 words. In her book Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott tells readers they must enjoy this part of the process, because everything else (the publishing, the reception, the comedown) is unreliable and unlikely to last, and while that’s easier said than done, any writer who wants a long career has to try.

Shooting for modest daily enjoyment also means we can’t dwell too deeply in the lows: Young says writers would do well to romanticize them just slightly less, which supports my thesis that writer’s block is not a thing.

“The research that’s been done on people who are successful writers shows that they don’t sit around worrying about their block,” says Young. “They just sit down and they write something.” Writer’s block is just a name for procrastination, which happens to everyone, and means one of two things, Young says: either you don’t like doing the thing you need to do, or you’re afraid of failing at it. Perhaps, then, when writers say they “hate” writing, they actually mean they’re afraid of failure. And in an industry as precarious as ours, that seems like a perfectly logical position to take.

Why Does Writing Suck?