Why ‘Just write!’ is terrible advice

by Suw on January 20, 2023

‘Just write!’ is an incredibly popular piece of advice given frequently and in many different guises to people who want to write but, for whatever reason, are not.

It’s a terrible thing to say and not just because if it was that simple, we’d all be extremely productive and procrastination wouldn’t exist. Instead, the world is littered with people who desperately want to write, who have maybe written in the past and stopped, or who’ve tried and haven’t got anywhere, or who have yet to put pen to paper, who are being told that the failing is their lack of willpower. In my experience, that’s rarely the case.

I have a lot of experience of failing to write. I’ve had periods where I’ve just had no ideas, or I’ve had ideas but been unable to work on them, or have started a project but then it’s fallen by the wayside… plus any other permutation of not writing you can think of. I’ve had writers block. I’ve got so deep in the research weeds I couldn’t start writing. I have had periods of clinical depression where I couldn’t even think, let alone write. I’ve been too stressed, too tired, too busy, too poor and too scared to write.

Where others are experts in writing, I am an expert in not writing. And it was never once down to a lack of willpower.

Fundamental to ‘Just write!’ is the idea that there are no barriers between an author and the words they need to put down on to the paper (or screen) except their own willingness to sit their bum on a chair and get on with it. Any failure to write is a failure of character. You just must not want it enough. You’re not dedicated enough. You’re not persistent enough. You’re not committed enough. You’re not willing enough to make the sacrifices.

That is, however, bullshit. Every time I have had a problem writing, it’s been because there were other things going on in my life that got in the way. I didn’t have the tools – or sometimes the self-awareness – to fully understand what was going on and how to fix it. I’m better at it now, primarily because I hit 50 nearly two years ago and, not to put too fine a point on it, that milestone scared the living shit out of me as I realised that the idea that I had time to spare was demonstrably, cruelly wrong. I am closer to my death than my birth and I have no time to waste. I knew I had to find the tools, and fast. And I have.

But the impact of ‘Just write!’ on the nascent author’s confidence can be devastating. There’s nothing worse than feeling that you ought to be doing something, something that you want to do, and then someone tells you that your failure is all your fault and only your fault. It’s a double helping of shame and humiliation – emotions that you probably already feel in spades without additional help.

So, instead of suggesting that people ‘Just write!’ – whether that’s said outright or disguised as ‘Well, you just need to find the time’ or ‘You just need to sit in front of the computer’ – I suggest that it’s healthier to be encouraging and to point people to resources that might help them get over or past whatever is blocking them. Don’t assume that you know what’s in their way.  They may not even know themselves what’s wrong, so your chances of diagnosing it are slim.

Instead, here are some useful, universal, words of advice to offer up instead:

  • Suggest that they read whatever your favourite writing advice book is. For complete beginners, I would suggest Gareth L Powell’s About Writing, which is a lovely introduction to becoming an author that’s pitched specifically at people who’ve never or rarely put pen to paper. For someone who has written before but is struggling with understanding the mechanics of stories, I’d recommend The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr.
  • Tell them that writing is as much about creating a habit as creativity, and James Clear’s Atomic Habits will help them understand how to do that effectively.
  • For some people, treating writing as a project can help them make progress, and Charlie Gilkey’s Start Finishing is great for understanding how to structure and successfully complete a project.
  • For others, life just gets in the damn way. For these people, let them know that it’s OK to spend some time not writing. Getting through life is always good prep for a novel and at some point they might look back and see it as a useful experience. Maybe suggest they buy themselves a nice notebook and jot down their experiences as and when they can, so that they’ll having something to draw from in future.

But whenever someone talks about wanting to be a writer, even if you fear that they aren’t being earnest, there’s always a way to be encouraging and supportive that doesn’t involve telling them to ‘Just write!’. If they don’t take your advice and end their days having never fulfilled their dreams, that’s not on you. But at least you didn’t pile on the guilt. You did no harm. And by being compassionate, sympathetic and supportive, you might do some good.

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