Why Working Harder Isn’t the Answer to Your Writing Problems

The first piece of writing advice that everyone hears is the simplest: write. Do the work. Make the time. Create a practice. Write a certain number of words or pages every day.

Maybe you’ve heard the Edison quote: Genius is 1 percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration.

There’s wisdom in this advice – you must do the work. You need discipline, judgment, and command of the language. You develop the craft through effort.

Yet all of this advice is remarkably unhelpful when you’re stuck:

• You hit a problem in your writing
• You cannot come up with a fresh angle or anything new to say
• You’re staring down a deadline and are entirely dry

As writers, we juggle many different mental systems—including those involved in making us sit down and work. We also need to access parts of our brains that pull words out of thin air, dream up characters, and get great ideas at random times. We need different approaches to engage these distinct mental systems.

The Muse and the Scribe

What’s your most important writing tool? It’s not your favorite pen, the perfect notebook, or the optimal piece of software. It’s your brain.

Writing is the act of moving thoughts from your brain into the world, through the medium of the written word. It all begins in the mind – and cognitive scientists can tell us a great deal about what goes on in those brains.

For a helpful perspective, let’s turn to Daniel Kahneman, noted psychologist and Nobel Prize winner for his work in behavioral economics, exploring the flawed and fantastic ways that people make decisions.

In his wonderful book Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman creates a fictional construct of two selves to understand decision-making processes:

• System 1 is the inner self that makes decisions based on gut feelings, instinct, and simple short-cuts (heuristics). It’s as easy and automatic as possible.

• System 2 applies effort and attention to decisions. We use this system solve problems, give careful directions, or otherwise deploy logic and analysis.

We need both systems to survive and protect our mental capacity.

These systems map pretty well to our writing processes as well. We’ve got intuitive, creative systems, which I refer to as the Muse. The Muse finds unexplored connections and fresh ways of approaching subjects. It accesses the freewheeling, associative parts of the mind to infuse our words with vivid detail or inspired metaphors.

We also rely on intentional, effortful systems – the Scribe. The Scribe applies both focus and self-discipline to the act of writing. It finds the right words, assembles them in grammatically correct sentences, and structures our writing. It manages deadlines and staves off distractions.

The Scribe gets the work done; the Muse creates something worth reading.

The secret to writing success and productivity is making these two inner selves work together effectively.

Writing with the Muse and the Scribe

The advice to simply “do the work” addresses only the Scribe. If the Muse doesn’t show up and pitch in, you won’t get very far, or what you write won’t be terribly interesting.

Writing without the Muse is drudgery.

This inner duality accounts for a large number of writing problems.

Can’t think of anything to write about? The Muse is absent or uninterested in your subject. You might need to step away from the desk for a while, change your context, and try to find interesting connections or associations.

Cannot keep focused on the writing, or resist distractions? The Muse is easily distracted, getting bored and nudging aside the Scribe. The Scribe tires of fending off these interruptions. Time your writing sessions to give the Scribe a break now and then.

Every idea you come up with is lousy? The Scribe is overruling the Muse too often. The Scribe offers a critical filter, but an overactive critic can discourage the Muse from contributing at all. When this happens, the Muse gives up and leaves the room.

An overactive critic discourages the Muse from contributing. Click To Tweet

Summoning the Muse when You’re Stuck

How can you put this model into play when you’re stuck? Invite the Muse to the process.

The advice to “just sit down and work” is right—to a point. The first step is often to struggle. Identify the problems you need to work on.

But inspiration rarely appears when forced.

The Scribe has to set up the work for the Muse, then hand it off and trust that the Muse (with gentle reminding) will deliver.

Put away the work and go for a walk. Do something else, but continue to gently remind yourself of the problem you’re facing. Bring the writing back into your attention, again and again, while you’re engaged in other activities.

Cognitive science research supports this approach. In a study conducted by the Centre for the Mind at the University of Sydney, students were given four minutes to complete an inherently creative task: coming up with alternative uses for ordinary objects. One group worked for four minutes straight, another group was interrupted to do a similar task, and a third group to do something different, before returning to the original task.

All students had the same total amount of time on the task. The group that came up with the most solutions, however, was the one interrupted to do something different in the middle of the work. The break gave the associative, creative parts of their minds a chance to work with the problem while the hard-working part was distracted elsewhere.

The next time you’re stuck or feel that you have nothing worth writing, try this approach yourself. Set up the Muse with content to think about, and then hand off the project while you go do something else. Even if you don’t get a flash of insight, the next time you sit down to work, you’ll probably be more productive or find a new angle. You’ll get further than you would through sheer determination and sweat.

When treated with respect, the Muse usually delivers.

About the Author

Anne Janzer is a professional writer and author of the book The Writer’s Process: Getting Your Brain in Gear, which applies the constructs of the Muse and the Scribe to the process of writing. Find more at annejanzer.com

 

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2 Comments

  1. Excellent article. I have the same approach. If I’m stuck I know that I’m trying to force the story or the characters. I walk away, keep paper and pencil handy and do a variety of other things. I make sweaters, do the household chores, play scrabble, work out. I usually pose questions before I turn my mind to other things and I find bits of anwers popping up. I record them all and later see if any of them make a full picture. The muse is a much needed partner!

    • Making sweaters and playing Scrabble – those are pretty fun ways to summon the Muse! Thanks for sharing them, Mahrie.

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