“Writing is hard.” At least, that’s what a lot of writers like to say. I used to say this too. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying writing is easy or that it’s never hard, but I do think if writing is “hard” it’s your writerly instincts trying to tell you something, and listening to those instincts can help minimize how hard it is to write.
Because I am a writer, I care about the specificity of language, and what I’ve come to realize is that there’s a difference between writing being “challenging” and writing being “hard.” Challenging is often a good thing. It means I’m pushing myself and my writing. It means I’m growing. “Hard” often means that I’m not doing something right.
Ultimately, you’ll have to decide for yourself what the difference is for you (or if that this even applies to you,) but for me, it’s an important distinction–one that’s been vital in shaping my writing life and process.
So, here’s how I tell the difference between challenging and hard (and how I avoid hard at all costs):
How to tell if writing is challenging
To me, the challenge comes when I know what I want to say, I just haven’t figured out the best way to say it. Maybe I’m trying a different approach to a topic, or maybe I’m writing about a difficult emotion that I can’t seem to get just right. Whatever the reason, I don’t feel completely lost, I’m just struggling.
Why is challenging good?
Challenges to me are typically more of an expression problem than anything else. The best way I know how to get past it is by chipping away little by little. Maybe I can’t fully express what I’m trying to say, but I can try to get closer. And I keep trying to get closer until I eventually figure out how to express my idea as fully as possible. This may take time, and it most definitely isn’t easy, but it’s worth it. It pushes me to dig deep, and to uncover new ideas and implement new techniques. Ultimately, it will make me a better writer, and often a better person, which (if you’re like me) is half the point of writing in the first place.
How to tell if writing is hard
If writing is hard it’s more of a lost-in-the-woods feeling for me. It’s feeling like I can’t move forward. Not that I don’t want to move forward–that I can’t move forward. Maybe the scene I need to write isn’t all that clear in my head. Or maybe it is, but now that I’ve written the scene before it, the current scene feels terribly off. Whatever the problem is, pushing on feels like moving through quicksand and I don’t feel like forcing myself to chip away at the problem is making the story any better.
What can hard mean?
If writing is hard it’s almost always a mental or writing process problem. It means there’s something I’m not doing right on a more fundamental level. Maybe I’m forcing a scene that doesn’t belong. Or maybe I’m I can’t make a scene work because there’s a key ingredient (character, emotion, plot element) that I’m missing. Ultimately, for me, when writing is “hard” it’s my writerly instincts telling me I’m making bad story choices or going in the wrong direction and I need to take a timeout and reassess.
Now sure, sometimes my head’s just not in the game. When I’m too tired or mentally drained everything about writing is hard. That to me is a sign that I need to take a day off and try again when my mind is sharp (and if I still having a problem, I know it’s the book, not me).
How to change your approach when writing is hard
If writing is challenging, the only thing you can do is to keep chipping away at it and celebrating every small victory. But for me, this really never works when writing is hard. It’s a little like trying to drive down a dead end road. Wanting to move forward won’t change the fact that the road I need to drive on is literally not there. I need to find a new direction.
To fix this, I take a time out and brainstorm. I free write, I take a walk, and I brainstorm the number of different possibilities the book or the scene could take–nothing is off limits or too outlandish. Or I work on something else to take my mind off things. Or sometimes I just take some time off from writing to let my brain rest. I also read blog posts and books about other writer’s approaches to see if there’s something new I can try to get to the bottom of my problem. The one thing I don’t do is to keep writing when it’s genuinely hard.
I’ve learned if I don’t take the time to understand the problem, I’m never going to get to the bottom of my issue. Approaching my writing struggles this way has made me significantly more productive and my writing life has become noticeably happier. I hope you have the same success if you give this a shot!
I hope this helps you avoid “hard” writing as much as possible!
Now it’s your turn: Have you noticed a difference between “challenging” and “hard” in your own writing? How do you navigate your story when writing is hard? Tell me about it in the comments!
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