Why Is This So Hard?

I don’t claim that writing well is easy. In fact, much of my work as a coach has to do with getting writers to notice the difficulty of what they are doing. That’s the only way they’ll be able to overcome it. But what is the difficulty that writing implies? What’s so hard about it? I suspect that many students and scholars fail to make progress because they don’t really answer this question. Or they answer it imprecisely. Or they simply get the answer wrong. However hard they struggle, therefore, they gain no ground. They’re fighting an imaginary foe.

I notice this every time I work with a writer who has not followed my very simple rules. These rules are neither hard to understand nor difficult to follow. They merely require you to do some simple things. They do not require that you be a particularly knowledgeable person, nor an especially competent writer. They just require that you write in a particular way about the things you do know.  If you follow them, the writing you produce will show how good a writer you are. It will be an example of how well you write. For reasons that I am only slowly beginning to understand, this prospect horrifies some people.

For most of their lives, I suspect, they have been able to “get around” the difficulty of writing rather than learning to write well. They have not become good at writing; they have found ways of getting their writing done without acquiring the requisite skills. The difficulty remains. So when I give someone an opportunity to demonstrate their ability to write, they feel a brief moment of terror. Their natural approach to a “writing assignment” is to try to conceal their inability to write.  Some people have become rather expert at this art. If you want to become a better writer, I’m afraid you’ll have to unlearn this. First learn to see the difficulty.

That’s why you should decide what to write the day before. The decision should not take you longer than five minutes to make. Just pick one thing you think you know well enough to write a paragraph about. Write it down in a simple declarative sentence and make an appointment with yourself for tomorrow to spend 27 minutes composing a paragraph of at least six sentences and at most 200 words. Notice that the difficulty is not, now, knowing what you’re talking about. You’ve removed this difficulty simply by choosing something you do know something about. Also, once the decision is made, the difficulty isn’t any longer what you should write about. That, too, has been dealt with. The only difficulty that remains is the writing.

Getting started is not hard. If you’re following my rules, you just sit down at the time you decided you would and begin typing. You type the sentence you wrote the day before. You then look at the sentence and try to feel again like you felt yesterday. “I know this!” Now … what’s the difficulty? Well, first of all, remember it’s not really your difficulty. The sentence is true and you already know this. The real difficulty can only be appreciated by thinking about what your reader will feel when seeing this sentence.

Will your reader find it hard to believe, hard to understand, or hard to agree with? Your problem, which you have 27 minutes to solve in the space of a paragraph, is to help the reader believe, understand or agree with your claim. You already do all these things, so there’s no difficulty in your own mind. But your reader will need you to provide evidence, or explain your terms, or tackle their objections. Writing well means helping your reader deal with the difficulty of believing or understanding or assenting to your claims. You are trying to give your reader the advantage you have on the claim in question.

Next week, I will look at the three difficulties one at a time, and try to say something entirely useful about how to face them. Throughout, however, I will assume that they pose no difficulties for you: you believe what you say, you understand your words, and you agree with yourself. That’s not the hard part. The hard part is the writing.

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