- First, just write! That's the best thing anyone can do to become a better writer. Ten thousand hours of practice can build mastery in almost any skill, so the first thing you can do to help yourself is to write regularly - preferably, about whatever comes to mind, so you're not trying to practice when you're on the spot.
- Try morning pages. The best tool I know to help people get into the habit of writing is to write morning pages - writing, each day, ideally when you get up, three pages in a notebook. Write bla bla bla if you have to - you'll get bored of it quickly, and will write what comes to mind.
- Take a creativity course. The book The Artist's Way is one of the most famous of these, and it's what inspires me to suggest morning pages. Actually, I've never finished this course - I always get so energized just trying it that I get sucked off into my own projects. Try one that works for you.
- Read more than you write. You can't consciously choose the words that come out as you write them; they come from your subconscious. So it's important to feed your subconscious with a lot of interesting material to help you generate a lot of interesting material of your own.
- Read great writing of the type you want to create. What you enjoy reading most might not be the writing you want to emulate most, so hunt down the great writers of the type of writing you're aiming for, read them, and try to figure out what you like about them - and what makes them tick.
- Read great books on writing. The first two I always recommend to people are Ayn Rand's (yes, that Ayn Rand) The Art of Fiction and The Art of Nonfiction. More than any book I've ever read, the Art of Fiction boils down what makes good fiction writing. John Gardner's On Being a Novelist is another great, but there are so many of these it's hard to pick one.
- Read great books on style. The two I recommend to people the most are The Elements of Style by Strunk and White and Building Great Sentences by Brooks Landon. Strunk and White is the classic, and Building Great Sentences is its antidote. If you have to pick one, pick Building Great Sentences - hands down.
- Do writing exercises. There are many, many of these - The Artist's Way has some, at Barnes and Noble you can find dozens of books like 500 Writing Prompts or Creativity Bootcamp that have others; the important thing is to try different writing styles on.
- Try timed challenges. Write to the End (writetotheend.com) tries 20 minute writing challenges; Shut Up and Write ( meetup.com/shutupandwritesfo ) tries (I think) an hour; National Novel Writing Month (nanowrimo.org) tries 50,000 words in a month. These cure you of the notion you need to wait for your muse.
- Join a writing group. Not a critique group - those are dangerous until you get more confidence in and acceptance of your own writing (and a thicker skin). I already mentioned Write to the End and Shut Up and Write, but there are many more (even some at Google, such as the Creative Writing Lunch).
- Take on writing projects. Write novels, write stories, write essays, write memoirs, write documentation, write songs, write plays, write poetry, write haiku, write impenetrable postmodern explorations of what it means for something to be writing - but take on a writing project that has a beginning, middle, and end ...
- Finish what you write! This is so important I wanted to write this earlier, but the problem is, it depends on what you're writing for. If you just want to improve your skill, reading Strunk and White might do it - but if you want your writing to go further, you need to finish what you write.
- Don't edit while you write! Some people do this very well, but most people have two modes: producing text, and refining text. Unless you're very confident in your ability to not rework the first paragraph of something forever, make sure you first finish, then edit. But before you do that ...
- Let your manuscripts cool off. It's hard to have perspective right after you've finished something. At least sleep on it, if you have time; ideally, come back to a story after a week or two and see if what you wrote before still makes sense to you and does what you wanted it to. In the meantime ...
- Work on something else. Start something new. Creating a new work has an almost magical way of solving problems you have in the work you have cooling on the back burner. Your skills improve, you're not invested in your old ideas, and you come back with a fresh start.
- Revise your work! Give your manuscript at least a once over. I guarantee, it's not perfect. The books Self Editing for Fiction Writers or The Elements of Editing can help you with this task. It's worth working on something a bit until you can't see anything obviously wrong to it.
- Share your work with a friendly audience. You're not ready for a critique group yet; they're often way too harsh. What you want are three friendly reviewers: a coach to help with your skills, a critic to help find flaws, and a cheerleader to praise goodness - and if the cheerleader complains, listen very closely to them.
- Revise your work again before sending it out. Listen to your friendly critics. Revise your work. Make it the best it can be. Then you're ready to send it out - to a critique group if you have to and if you have one, but ideally, to where you want the work received or published.
- Keep your work circulating until sold. This may not apply to bloggers, writers of memoirs, and internal communications, but if you've got something you want to send to an external audience, send it to as many places as you can. Some great books went to dozens of publishers before getting accepted.
- Don't argue with your critics. Whether it's a friend, a critique group, or an editor, they're not critiquing you to hurt your feelings. Listen carefully, and perhaps if there's some small misconception, feel free to clear it up, but ask yourself - why wasn't your story so clear that they got it the first time?
- Solve the problems your critics raise, but don't feel compelled to use their solutions. Humans are great at confabulating fake reasons for the feelings they have. Don't feel the need to use every suggestion your critics raise - but if two or more have problems at the same spot, listen closely.
- Learn from your genre. Whether it's writing a thesis, writing documentation, or writing science fiction stories, there are documents out there on the pitfalls of the genre and the techniques from success, from How to Complete and Survive a Doctoral Dissertation to the Evil Overlord List.
- Learn from the style guide. If you're aimed at a particular market, whether it's a science fiction magazine accepting William Shunn's document format, or a book publisher who wants the Chicago Manual of Style, or it's the American Psychological Association, read the style book. With a grain of salt, of course.
- Learn from publication. Once something is published, take a look at the published work. I can guarantee you, you'll find something about it you'd do differently now, whether it's a typo or a new way to phrase things. Think carefully about this difference and what it can teach you.
- Find a great critique group. By this point, you've been exposed to enough information to have your own opinions and to make up your own mind - and that's the right time to engage a whole bunch of other opinionated, thoughtful people to get their ideas of how to improve your work.
- Find a great workshop. These are harder to get into, but put you in touch with great writers of your particular genre or style and can really take you to the next level, if that's what you want.
- Find a great program - or embark on a great project. If you really want to be a writer, some people suggest a MFA program or other longer-term, intensive course. I simply prefer to take on little projects like 21 book urban fantasy series; these force you to learn some of the same things. :-D
33 search results for “better writer”
Recently a colleague asked me if I had any advice on being a better writer. I thought I’d posted about that, but it appears that I hadn’t, so I tried writing up my thoughts. That was too much, so I summarized. That was too much, so I summarized it AGAIN. And then it was short enough to share with you:
The super short version is to be a better writer, just write!
I often recommend morning pages - writing three pages about random topics at the start of your day, even "bla bla bla" if you have to - you'll get tired of writing “bla bla bla" quickly, and this will help cure you of the feeling you need to wait for your muse.
This advice comes from the book The Artist's Way, which is a great course to take; I also recommend Strunk and White's The Elements of Style and Brooks Landon's Building Great Sentences on grammar and style, Ayn Rand's The Art of Fiction and The Art of Nonfiction on writing and structure, and The Elements of Editing and Self-Editing for Fiction Writers on editing.
I also recommend that you read a lot more than you write, especially writing of the kind you want to emulate; take a look at it and see what makes it tick.
For fiction and other similar writing I recommend finding a writing group first, not a critique group; there are several good ones in the Bay Area including Write to the End and Shut Up and Write.
For the kind of internal communications you're talking about, you might try looking at marketing and documentation literature or the great writers internally that you admire - also popular writers, technical and nontechnical, in the computer field.
As for blogging, my recommendation is to just blog - try to do it regularly, at least once a week or so, about whatever comes to your mind, so that you create both a growing store of content - and again, a habit that helps you just write.
I’ll try to expand on these recommendations, but if I had to boil it down even further, I’d say: just write!
(Self-deprecating note: this blogpost is a rough draft of an essay that I’m later planning to refine for the Write to the End site, but I’ve been asked to share it, so I finished it up and am sharing it as is. When the full article is cleaned up, I’ll link to it … but in the meantime, enjoy, and try not to wince too much).
So for way of introduction to the Write to the End group, I’ve been asked by a lot of people recently “How can I become a better writer?” — a question for which I’ve generated a bit of stock advice I frequently sum up as, “Just Write!” But, when I dug a little deeper, I found almost half of the people asking me that question were really asking the question, “How can I overcome Writer’s Block?” Well, I have some theories. And I’m going to tell you about them. But more importantly, I’ve got some techniques which I’m going to share with you, and even better, I’m using one of them right now: if you sit down to write and get writer’s block, then write down very explicitly why you sat down to write, and what kind of writing you hope to have produced when you get up again. If you don’t know why you want to write, and you don’t know what you hope to produce before you get up again, congratulations! You’re done. Get up from the page and go have a soda, something really nice, not diet, like with Italian flavoring or an ice cream float. If you do know what you want to write, or what you want to have written, congratulations! Actually writing that down can get you … um … on the order of 227 words, according to Scrivener’s count, probably 300 by the time you’re done. The hope is that getting yourself writing ANYTHING will get your pen moving, and saying what you want to write will get you rolling in the right direction; however, if you finish saying what you want to write and remain stuck, then be really explicit about what you want to say next and what you feel is your barrier to writing more. That’s the big thing I want to leave with you: if you have writer’s block trying to write something, you can overcome it by either describing what you want to write, or why you want to write it, and springboarding off that with more questions and answers, until, in the end, you’re just writing.
Huh. A notch over 350 words. I underestimated.
Now, I know some of the people who are reading this are technical writers, and so I want to warn you up front that there’s a problem with my approach that doesn’t apply to fiction writers: describing what you want to write is not a substitute for the thought that needs to go into the technical meat of whatever it is you’re writing. For example, if you’re trying to, say, write a design doc for your teammates, you may think that outlining the project, its goals, its problems, and its possible solutions is enough to make a design doc—but it’s not. That’s what a fiction writer calls an outline. While there are fiction stories that are essentially nothing but outlines, and even more that are outlines in narrative, fiction generally isn’t an outline, but is instead people in places, talking and doing things, told in a particular way — or what we technically call character and setting, dialogue and action, and scene and narration wrapped in that stylistic veneer we call voice. But technical writers, we can get tricked by outlines of technical items into thinking we’ve said something about a problem — so it is really critical that after you get a rough outline down that you go back over it, extract the important ideas, to think about they fit together, and to identify the key ideas that are not obvious about the problem — and those key ideas are what should go into your design doc or project proposal or product requirements document or launch announcement or marketing communication or scientific paper or anything else. The value of your document is not the structure of the problem, which is often well known, but the original thought that you bring to the table.
And that brings us to the primary reason for writer’s block, at least for experienced writers, that is: not having thought clearly enough about what comes next.
But wait! Because I’m writing this extemporaneously — a big-ass word for saying I’m pulling this out of my orifice — I’ve forgotten to tell you about the other kinds of writer’s block, which is somewhat important in case you’re possibly getting bored and want a quick way to figure whether slogging on through the desert of this essay in search of water that will quench your particular search is a vain hope or not, but which is actually far more important because some of those kinds of writer’s block can KILL YOU. Well, actually, no, that’s not very likely, but they can get you to kill your story and end up back at stage one.
So how can you get blocked? Let’s tick a few of these off so we can hold your interest while I drag out the big red warning sign. First, sometimes writer’s block is caused because you just don’t want to write — Ayn Rand used to call this “white sneakers disease” because she knew a writer who’d’ve rather cleaned their sneakers than write. Ayn Rand thought that, technically speaking, this wasn’t a block, but nevermind, since people have developed a good technique for resolving “white sneaker’s disease,” and that technique is called BIC — Butt In Chair. If you think you want to write, and you are not writing, then stop whatever you are doing, go put your butt in chair in front of a pen, piece of paper and writing surface, and sit there until you get bored enough to write something, or find that you cannot and AHA NOW this is writer’s block, congratulations, move on to the techniques for tackling writer’s block proper.
Second, as I said earlier, experienced writers can have writer’s block because they haven’t thought through what comes next. Third, inexperienced writers can have writer’s block because they’re cognitively overwhelmed — which is the real point of this essay, and which is why I started the essay off with one paragraph specifically tackling this problem in case that was all that you read, but, don’t fear, if “inexperienced writer staring at a blank page feeling just that, a blank” describes you, then hang in there, I’m writing this essay specifically for you and will come back to this in detail.
But the fourth kind is the real dangerous kind of writer’s block, a particular kind of voluntary writer’s block which can hit writers of any stripe, both unmotivated and motivated, inexperienced and experienced; in fact, it almost hit me writing the second section of this essay, and if I’d given into it, I never would have written the words you’re reading right now — because I would have spent the same time editing the first section of this essay, and that right there is Writer’s Block of the Fourth Kind: editing while you write.
Trying to edit while you write is particularly dangerous for reasons I’ll get back to when I explain Why Novices Feel Fear At The Dreaded Blank Page, but the more immediate reason is that you can spend arbitrary amounts of time editing without adding to your draft. Now, there are some writers who edit while they write all the time — especially poets, who may spend as much time working over ten words as it takes me to write a thousand words —but right there that shows you that if you’re trying to cough up a ten thousand word story, it doesn’t behoove you to drill down on a perfect first sentence. There’s a reason we call our writing group Write to the End: it’s because we believe you should finish what you start before you try to edit it, or you will never finish anything at all.
Okay, that’s a first pass at why Writer’s Block of the Fourth Kind is dangerous: it can stall you out, and worse, trick you into thinking you’re actually writing. But what if you don’t have anything to edit? What if you’re suffering from Writer’s Block of the Third Kind, the Dreaded Fear of the Blank Page? This feeling of blankness is the feeling you get when you’re cognitively overwhelmed, and to understand the reasons I separate it out from Writer’s Block of the Second Kind, AKA Not Thinking Through Your Shit, we need to talk a little bit about cognitive psychology — specifically, working memory and cognitive skill acquisition.
You see, when a writer sits down at the page, we may imagine we’re creating worlds — but we’re not gods, and can hold only a finite amount of information in our heads at one time. Our working memories can only manipulate a handful of chunks of discrete information at a time — famously estimated in cognitive psychology as a short term memory holding roughly seven plus or minus two items. Of course, it ain’t that simple when you dig into the details, but as a rough rule of thumb, it holds — and that explains both writer’s block for experienced writers and the Dreaded Fear of the Blank Page for inexperienced ones.
When faced with a blank page, you can easily see how you could get blocked not knowing why you want to write, or what you want to write about, or what’s the meat behind the structure of the idea — there’s just nothing in your short term memory to put on the page. But why do so many inexperienced writers who know the answers to all these questions nevertheless come to me complaining that they feel a blank when sitting down at the page? Well, that’s easy: I’m a psychic magnet for those kinds of problems — just kidding. The real reason is that inexperienced writers have, by definition, a set of skills which are not fully developed — and we don’t actually have short term memories that hold information, we have working memories which are both the product of and are used by our skills.
Yes, that’s right — I tricked you! I started talking about working memory, then smoothly slipped to talking about short term memory in the same sentence, because for a long time cognitive psychologists made the same mistake. We imagined that humans had a short term memory like a buffer that passively held information, like a briefcase, but when you carry through the implications that model breaks down, and that’s not really how the cortex of the brain is organized anyway. It’s better to think of the brain’s fixed storage capacity as less a passive buffer and more of an active internal dashboard reporting the state all the brain’s cognitive systems. Now, there are no photogenic cartoon characters monitoring that dashboard like in Inside Out—in part because of licensing issues with Pixar, but mostly because it would involve an infinite regress—if there’s a little character monitoring your internal dashboard, who’s monitoring their internal dashboards? Cognitive psychologists call that homunculus fallacy, and so a better image of the mental stage of the mind is an empty spherical cockpit filled with instruments projecting their findings to each other. Your consciousness is just the part of your mind that is easily accessible to other parts of your mind. For example, you can recognize a person’s face, but unless there are really obvious features, like Salvador Dali’s mustache that points all the way up to your eyeballs, you can’t describe a face in sufficient detail for someone else to recognize it, because the details of your facial recognition system aren’t accessible to conscious awareness.
In most animals, the instruments of the cockpit are fixed by the design of the system, like the gas gauge on your car, which reports the status of your fuel tank, or the flashing light on the fast return switch of your TARDIS, which shows that the Ship is trying to return to its previous destination.What distinguishes humans is that many of its screens are programmable, the same way your car’s GPS can update itself when the manufacturer pushes an update, or the way your TARDIS reconfigures its controls to match your personality every time you regenerate. Over time, the systems of the cockpit collect information, slowly improving over time with respect to the problems for which they were designed, like a GPS picking up new roads. But the human mind isn’t a car, with an army of of engineers designing updates that get pushed to it over a wireless network, or a TARDIS, with a billion years of engineering designed into its architectural reconfiguration system to help it adapt. No, the human mind has to update itself from scratch, often adapting to skills for which it has no evolutionary precedent — like, for example, writing.
You’ve got dials on your dashboard for hunger, sound, even speech, but writing is something humans made up from whole cloth. And when you’ve got to learn a skill for which you’ve got no precedent, no inbuilt system that can just pick up new roads, your mind has to fall back on more powerful general problem solving techniques. These techniques involve representing the information we know about a problem explicitly, collecting the implications of that knowledge from our long term memory, and putting all that data together into new conclusions. Once again, the components of your dashboard notice these leaps from information to conclusion, storing it to make it available to solve new problems. This process is called automatization, and it’s called that because it’s transforming explicit information that you’re representing in your conscious dashboard into skilled knowledge you can use automatically without conscious awareness.
You’d think that automatization wouldn’t help you, since you’re trying to store new information, but all you have are existing systems - but one of the fundamental tricks of computing is that any sufficiently powerful process can simulate just about any other process, and the cockpit of your glorious machine—in which all the systems you’ve accumulated over a billion years of evolution can talk to each other—certainly qualifies as a very powerful process that can simulate almost anything. SO, if you keep learning basic facts about a new skill, and keep storing them in whatever systems you have that are even remotely compatible, over time, your overall cognitive system will learn a new, automatic skill—but hang on. To represent the information about a problem, to dredge up its implications, and draw conclusions, your mind needs scratchspace—temporary storage to hold this information so your general problem solving processes can work it over, and that information must be accessible your conscious awareness. Learning a new cognitive skill needs your dashboard. It needs your highly limited working memory.
But wait! Weren’t we using that to hold what we wanted to write about?
Exactly. Now you’re starting to see the problem.
As a novice writer, you may know how to physically write—how to generate words on the page in response to prompts, like writing down items for a grocery list for your spouse in response to spoken requests, or writing down the contents of a shipment from the Queen of Sheba as it comes off the boat—but when you’re writing an article or story, what you’re actually doing is the separate and more complex task of composition — the task of creating new sequences of words. Take a simple example, composing your Captain’s Log. You can’t just hit a button on the Captain’s Chair and start jabbering about what happened on the planet: the task involves creating a specific set of words in a specific sequence which is stereotyped. You start with “Captain’s Log”, followed by the stardate, followed by a sentence reporting the location or situation, followed by one or two more sentences discussing the key questions of the mission and whatever red-shirted disposable crewmembers were eaten by the monster of the week. That structure itself is information, information which you need to call to mind, somehow, in order to organize the words that you speak, and if you’ve been rattled by a bunch of red-shirted disposable crewmembers being eaten by the monster of the week, you might have trouble gathering your thoughts. An experienced Starfleet captain like Picard or Kirk, however, will have no trouble—because for them, the structure of the log is automatic.
The way that cognitive skill learning works is through the transformation of declarative knowledge to procedural knowledge: that is, the process of automatization takes information you express explicitly and turns it into information that’s the output of a skill. That means if you are skilled at a task, you don’t need to pay attention to it: the actions of the task will happen, well, automatically; but that also means that if you are not skilled at a task, you’re relying on your general purpose processing power to perform it—and that the information you need to perform the task will compete with what you know about the task.
The problem is even worse because the act of writing relies on many sources of knowledge. Let’s review for a moment what some of those are, and I’ll throw in some you may have not thought of yet:
- Purpose: Why you’re writing (for creative expression, because your boss asked you)
- Goal: What you want your writing to do (to be fun, to help your teammates, etc)
- Content: What you want to write about (the specific information you contribute)
- Form: What kind of thing you’re writing (a story, an article, a blogpost)
- Style: What tone of voice you want to use (lighthearted, formal, quirky)
Each of these is better thought of as a skill for generating answers to questions, rather than a source for information—and if you’re not practiced at the skill, you’ll have to store information about it in working memory, competing—but wait a minute, let’s go back to content for a moment. Think about it. To answer the question about what you want to write, you need to generate several pieces of information:
- Content: What you want to write about
- Structure: What topics do you need to cover?
- Questions: What questions should your piece answer?
- Ideas: What do you think about the questions?
- Answers: How does that translate into answers?
I’m not trying to be pedantic here—I’m making an important point, or I think I am. What you want to say involves several kinds of information: the general topic of your piece, the specific issues you want to address, whatever thoughts you have, and how to express them—but each of these types of information is, itself, a skill, which, if it is not practiced, will compete with whatever it is you have to say.
This is why inexperienced writers dread The Blank Page: because they’re actually drawing on half a dozen skills, none of which are practiced, and those are driving their ideas straight out of their head. This is why my wife, who’s a great artist but not an experienced writer, a woman who’s put a great deal of thought into eco-friendly art, who knows why she wants to write, what she wants to accomplish, and can easily spend forty-five minutes talking to me about her ideas, can nonetheless get totally stymied when she sits down to write, staring at the blank page. And this is why I separate the Writer’s Block of the Third Kind—the inexperienced author’s Dread of the Blank Page—from the simpler Writer’s Block of the Second Kind—the experienced author’s Lack of Shit Together—because if an experienced author is willing to sit down and think hard about their problem, once they get their ideas, their skills will take straight over—but if an inexperienced author tries the same thing, their very skills may drive their ideas right out their heads.
That’s why inexperienced writers may need different tools to write other than “Just Write” or “Butt in Chair” or “Stop and Think”. In cognitive skills acquisition, one way you can teach a complicated skill is to teach it in parts—we call this scaffolding. Rather than try to become a great basketball player all at once, you instead practice dribbling, taking shots, holding the ball, playing one-on-one, then pickup games—slowly building up a body of skills that eventually become the foundation for real mastery. Writing is the same way; if you’re having trouble getting started, focusing on sub-skills and developing them can give you the scaffolding you need to get started.
One scaffolding technique I’ve recommended to people is morning pages—a technique recommended in The Artist’s Way to write three pages longhand the first thing in the morning. There are a lot of reasons to do this beyond scaffolding, but it gets you past the problem of composition by giving you a safe environment to write, and it can also help you express your ideas. If even this is too hard, you may be blocked on the simple act of writing, and I recommend you try writing “bla bla bla” until you get bored with it. This doesn’t work for everyone, but you could also try the “Finding Forrester” technique of taking an existing story and typing it in until you get tired of their words and start writing your own.
Another scaffolding technique is what I call the inventory method. I hinted at this at the start of the article: ask yourself explicitly the questions you need to perform the task of composition:
- Why do you want to write?
- What do you want your writing to accomplish?
- What should people learn or feel after reading your article or story?
- What is the most important specific idea that you contribute to this topic?
And so on, and so on, with the whole list of questions that I had earlier.
If even this is too hard, there’s another method I call the one page assessment. Get a piece of lined composition paper—and I mean this literally, this is for totally blocked people, so I want you to literally do these steps physically—and draw a line down its center so it has two columns. On the left, write out, one per line, the numbers one through ten, and then the words “Who what when where why how;” on the right, write out the days of the week and the months of the year. Now, for the numbers one through ten, write the top ten most important thing about your project—these can be single words or sentences, but rack your brain until you can get ten single words—and then write brief answers to each of the “Who what why …” questions below. When you’re done with that, for each day of the week or month of the year, write something significant about your project—either in the story you’re telling, or about when you as a person can work on it, or whatever (you can also do this with other breakdowns, like states or countries or oceans or planets—whatever categories work for you). When you’ve filled the sheet, pick the five things most important from the page, flip it over, write down these five as your headings, and try to write at least one sentence about each of the five things you picked.
The purpose of this exercise is to take away the need to do composition AND the need to generate questions, just focusing you in a very general, nonthreatening way on properties that affect your problem. If you make it through the page, consider doing it again, with your own headings this time. Process repeats, until you’re generating full outlines.
On the note of outlines, the technique I used for my first novel was what I called a recursive hierarchical outline. I knew I wanted to write a novel about a genetically engineered centaur, so I wrote that sentence down in a Microsoft Word document. Then I copied that sentence, italicized it, and wrote a paragraph about that sentence detailing the plot. Then I copied that paragraph, italicized it, broke it into sentences as new headings, and expanded each of those sentences into a paragraph. I repeated the process until I had a good outline; then I expanded it further until I had sections and finally paragraphs—at which point, I just started writing.
Another way to get at this information that’s locked in your head is the interview method—having a trusted friend ask you questions, and either writing down your answers or recording it for transcription later.
Finally, Bjarne Stroustrup, the creator of C++, recommends the template method—if you want to write an article on a topic, find a similar article to use as a template, and use that to help establish your questions and find the rough structure of your outline. Since he built a whole career around basically doing that to C by turning it into C++, and since he’s done it with several books and articles since then to great effect, I guess this approach has worked well for him.
The point of giving all these potential scaffolding techniques is that each writer is different, and no technique is guaranteed to work for you. We can see why this is—everyone has a slightly different set of internal equipment, and even for equipment that’s the same, everyone has a different history of learning and a different set of skills that work with facility, or not, on any given problem.
So, to sum up, the ways of tackling writer’s block are:
- Writer’s Block of the First Kind: What We Have Here is a Failure to Motivate.
Solution: Butt In Chair
- Writer’s Block of the Second Kind: Not Thinking Through Your Shit.
Solution: Stop and Think
- Writer’s Block of the Third Kind: The Dreaded Blank Page.
Solution: Cognitive Scaffolding
- Writer’s Block of the Fourth Kind: Editing While You Write.
Solution: Write to the End, then Edit
So now you see why I sum up my writing advice as “Just write—bla bla bla if you have to so your pen’s moving—because the more you write, the easier it gets, and the better you get; but if you sit down to write and get writer’s block, then write down very explicitly why you sat down to write, and what kind of writing you hope to have produced when you get up again, and then you’ll know how to proceed.” This sums up all of the problems in one Butt in Chair, provides a Cognitive Scaffold, incorporates Stop and Think—in fact, it tackles just about everything except the editing bit, which might be summed up as “Don’t critique yourself, finish your damn story!” And as for that bit …
That’s why I go to a writing group called Write to the End.
I am very interested in promoting creation. I think the world would be a better place if more people wrote, drew, painted, sculpted, danced, programmed, philosophized, or just came up with ideas. Not all ideas are great, and it's important to throw away the bad and keep the good - but the more ideas we can generate, the more we can test.
One of the biggest problems I see in unprofessional, unpublished or just unhappy creators is not finishing. It's very easy to start work on an idea - a painting, a novel, a sculpture, a program, a philosophy of life. But no matter how much you love what you do, there's always a point in creating a work where the act of creating transforms from play to work.
Whether you stall out because the work gets hard or because you get distracted by a new idea, it's important to realize the value of finishing. An unfinished idea can be scooped, or become stale, or disconnected from your inspiration. If you don't finish something, the work you did on it is wasted. More half finished ideas pile up. Your studio or notebook becomes a mess.
If you don't finish, you never learn to finish. You're learning to fail repeatedly. The act of finishing teaches you how to finish. You learn valuable skills you can apply to new works - or even to a new drafts. I know an author who was perpetually stalled out on a problematic story - until one day she made herself hit the end. Now it's on it's fourth draft and is really becoming something.
The tricky thing is you have got to put the cart before the horse: you've got to finish before you know whether it was worth finishing. This does not apply to experienced authors in a given genre, but if you're new to a genre, you have to finish something before you worry about whether you can sell it or even if it is any good.
You don't need for something to be perfect to finish it. I know too many amateurs who don't want to put out the effort to finish things because they don't know whether they can sell it. No. You've got a hundred bad programs in you, a thousand bad paintings, a million bad words, before you get to the good stuff. Suck it up, finish it, and move on.
Procrastination is a danger. This is the point in the article that I got distracted and wrote a quick email to a few other creators about ideas this (unfinished) article had inspired. Then I got back to it. Then I got distracted again doing the bullet list below and went back and injected this paragraph. The point is, it's OK to get distracted - just use that time wisely, then get back to it.
Finally, sometimes you just need help to finish the first time. The biggest thing is to find a tool which can help you over that hump when it stops being fun and starts being work - some challenge or group or idea that helps you get that much closer to done. To help people finish, I'm involved with or follow a variety of challenges and resources to help people finish:
- Write to the End: It's not a critique group; it's a writing group. We meet almost every Tuesday at a local coffee house and write for 20 minutes, read what we wrote, and repeat until they kick us out. We normally hit three sessions, so I usually get an hour of writing in every night - and hear a half dozen to a dozen other writers. Inspirational. Our web site contains articles on writing, including my new column The Centaur's Pen.
- National Novel Writing Month: A challenge to write 50,000 words of a new novel in the month of November. This seems daunting, but Nanowrimo has a truly spectacular support group and social system which really helps people succeed at the challenge. Even if you don't "win" the first time, keep at it, you will succeed eventually!
- Script Frenzy: Write 100 pages of a script (play, screenplay, or comic script) in the month of April - another event sponsored by the creators of Nanowrimo. This is an event I haven't yet tried, but am planning to tackle this year to get back into screenwriting (as part of my 20-year plan to get into directing movies).
- 24 Hour Comics Day: It's a challenge to produce a 24 page comic in 24 hours, usually held the first weekend of October. I've tried this 3 times and succeeded once. It's taught me immense amounts about comic structure and general story structure and even improved my prose writing.
- Blitz Comics: Because I failed at 24 Hour Comics Day, me and my buddy Nathan Vargas decided to "fake it until we make it" and to put on a boot camp about how to succeed at 24 Hour Comics Day. We produced a Boot Camp tutorial, a 24 Hour Comics Day Survival Kit - and along the way taught ourselves how to succeed at 24 Hour Comics Day.
- Other Challenges: There are a couple of events out there to create graphic novels in a month - NaGraNoWriMo and NaCoWriMo - though both of these are 2010 and I don't know if either one is live. (If they're not active, maybe I'll start one). There's also a 30 Character Challenge for graphic artists to create 30 new characters in a month.
Finally, I want to finish with what inspired this post: the Cult of Done. I won't go too deeply into the Done Manifesto, but from my perspective it can be summed up in two ideas: posting an idea on the Internet counts as a ghost of done, and done is the engine of more. Get your stuff done, finish it, and if it's still half baked, post it to force yourself to move on to newer and better things.
The plane is landing. Time to get it done.
Credits: The BlitzComics guy is penciled, inked and colored by me and post-processed by Nathan Vargas. Joshua Rothass did the Cult of Done poster and distributed it under a Creative Commons license. This blog post was uploaded by Ecto, which is doing well (other than an upload problem) and is probably going to get my money.
Hi, I'm Anthony Francis, and I teach robots to learn, particularly deep reinforcement learning for robot navigation as well as the intersection of memory, emotion, and planning for contextual control.
I write urban fantasy about a woman who can bring her tattoos to life and steampunk about women scientists and adventurers, as well as space opera featuring a young centauress explorer. I also draw a webcomic about a girl who can travel to any possible story.
On this site, I also have resources on how to become a better writer, on how to overcome writer's block, on the science of airships, my thoughts on how religion intersects with artificial intelligence, and even a collection of recipes and thoughts on food.
If you're looking for a good place to get started, my first novel, FROST MOON, won an EPIC Ebook award, and my team's work on PRM-RL won the ICRA 2018 Best Paper Award. Otherwise, I hope while you are here in the Library that you find something informative, interesting or at least entertaining!
P.S. This is a "sticky" post designed to introduce the blog; keep scrolling down for more recent content, or check out the site menu, tags or categories to explore more.
Recently, someone asked me if I had any advice for young writers. I just had a minute, so I could only give them one sentence - and I so wanted to say “Just write!”
But that’s not fair. Writer’s block is the biggest problem people have when they ask me how to be a better writer - and so it’s not enough to say “Just write!”
So the sentence I gave was: “Just write - start with ‘bla bla bla’ if you have to, just to get your pen moving - because the more you write, the easier it gets, and the better you get!”
And that sums up what I think about writing - literally the most important things I think you need, in a single sentence. But if you gave me just two words, I’d say: “Just write!”
So just write!
So the turkeys are out again! Love to see these fellas in the yard. But they're not the only big ungainly birds out there. I've been reading a lot of writing books recently, and some of them have really great advice. True, in each good book there is, usually, at least one stinker.
But most of the good ones build on the two related ideas that "whatever works, works," so you can adapt their advice to your own needs - HOWEVER, "some things usually work better than others," so if you are having trouble, here are some tools you can try.
One thing I draw from this is a refutation of the idea that if an artist achieves their artistic vision then there's nothing wrong with that piece of art. Phooey. It may be great for them that they achieved their vision - heaven knows, I so rarely do that - but what they envision itself may be flawed.
Dwight Swain, who wrote Techniques of the Selling Writer, talks about this in audio courses built on his book. As a novelist, he claims you often don't know how good an idea is until you get a chapter or three into the story, and that if you find your idea doesn't work (or that you don't care about your protagonist), quit.
There's no shame in this. But if you've got the time, talent or treasure, you can sometimes push a bad idea to its logical conclusion without ever questioning the foundation. For example, hiring Samuel Jackson, but directing him to act woodenly as if he's in an old Republic serial (I'm looking at you, George Lucas).
What you focus on as your artistic vision is itself a matter of choice, and achieving your artistic vision does not mean that you'll end up with something that is aesthetically effective. Hey, as always, you're free to do you, but that doesn't mean that the rest of us are going to get what you've got.
Well, we're back at a con at last! And as usual, I'm posting my schedule at the last minute. At least I got the chance to see some people I haven't seen in person for two full years!
And here is my schedule:
Title: Star Trek Essays
Description: There are thousands of worlds within Star Trek, & thousands of topics to talk about. Where do we start? Join a panel of published writers & producers to discuss what's worth discussing in Trek essays, articles, & videos.
Time: Fri 11:30 am Location: Galleria 2-3 - Hilton (Length: 1 Hour)
(Tentative Panelists: Kyle Mackenzie Sullivan, R Alan Siler, Anthony Francis)
Title: Teaching Robots to Learn
Description: When you tell a machine to learn, all bets are off on what it will learn to do. In this panel, we'll discuss techniques used today to teach robots to recognize objects, to grasp them, to navigate autonomously around people, & even to imagine the future.
Time: Fri 04:00 pm Location: Atlanta - Sheraton (Length: 1 Hour)
(Tentative Panelists: Anthony Francis)
Title: To Series or to Stand-Alone?
Description: Fantasy readers fall in love with the characters & worlds we build. How do you sustain the interest in a series--or would this idea work better as a stand-alone?
Time: Sat 10:00 am Location: Embassy EF - Hyatt (Length: 1 Hour)
(Tentative Panelists: Anthony Francis, Moderator: Nancy Knight, A. J. Hartley, J. Gregory Keyes, Seressia Glass, Dakota Krout)
Title: Author Signings:
Time: Sun 01:00 pm Location: International Hall South 1-3 - Marriott (Length: 1 Hour)
(Tentative Panelists: Clay Gilbert, Patricia L. Briggs, Anthony Francis)
Title: Dead at the Keyboard
Description: Panelists discuss strategies to combat writers' block, stress, fatigue, boredom, insecurity, & deadline anxiety.
Time: Mon 11:30 am Location: Embassy EF - Hyatt (Length: 1 Hour)
(Tentative Panelists:Moderator: Nancy Knight, Keith R.A. DeCandido, Anthony Francis, Peter David, Trisha J. Wooldridge)
Title: My Favorite Author, Book, Series, Character...
Description: Authors discuss their favorites among their own works & offer insights into their favorites in other authors' writing.
Time: Mon 01:00 pm Location: Embassy EF - Hyatt (Length: 1 Hour)
(Tentative Panelists: Anthony Francis, Moderator: Bill Fawcett, Trisha J. Wooldridge, James R. Tuck)
Hope to see you there!
P.S. I have been drawing more or less every day, but I have also been moving, so you get a drawing another time.
tl;dr: to get good at something, you've got to put in a lot of practice
Hail, fellow adventurers! You may have been wondering what's up with the "Drawing Every Day" on this website. Or, hey, maybe you just got here. But I've gotten far enough into it that I feel comfortable taking a short break from developing this habit to tell you about this habit I'm trying to develop.
I've loved comic books since I was a child. I've drawn since I was a young kid. I even started working on comics in graduate school, consciously refining my art until I was able to launch a webcomic, f@nu fiku, partially inspired by anime, manga, and the FLCL anime.
Then I broke my arm. And while I was recovering, someone stole my laptop. I took the opportunity to switch from Windows to Mac, and, as luck would have it, got my first book contract for FROST MOON. By the time I got enough free time from editing and book launches to go back to the webcomic and pick up where I left off, I found out my hand-crafted webcomic software wouldn't work on the Mac.
The real blow, however, was hidden: my confidence in my artwork had collapsed.
I went from fearlessly putting together two-page spreads way beyond my ability, doing bodies and perspective, and changing my layout theory at the drop of a hat, eventually producing pages that appeared in an art show - to being unable, or more precisely, unwilling to draw at all.
I had become intimidated by - embarrased by - my art. My wife is also an artist, and is familiar with the phenomenon. She and I talked about the reasons behind this at length, and like writer's block preventing writers from writers, one of the things that really affects artists is simply getting started.
If you've only done a handful of drawings, well, then, every one is super important, and there's pressure to make it perfect. But if you've done lots of drawings, then each one is an experiment, and if it doesn't turn out good, well, then, you can always draw another one.
We moved recently, and I made it a priority to set up an art studio. But things by themselves don't create good habits - believe me, I know: purchasing a keyboard and bass guitar all those years ago didn't turn me into a musician, because I didn't build the proper habits around them.
But how do you build a habit if you're too intimidated to get started? At the Write to the End writing group, we tackle it by sitting down to write for 20 minutes, no excuses. At Taos Toolbox, Walter Jon Williams pointed out that this seemingly small amount of writing per day could produce a novel.
So I started to come around to the idea: what if I drew every day?
There's this theory in cognitive science that quantity begets quality. A famous example from the book Art and Fear alleges a ceramics professor graded half of a class on quality, the other half on quantity - but the students who produced more pieces also produced the better work.
There are no secrets: if you want to get good, you've got to put in the work. (Well, there are secrets, but the secret is, you have to put in a hell of a lot of work to take advantage of them). This is such a common thing in webcomics that it has its own TV Tropes page on Art Evolution.
I really want to draw again. I want to make science fiction webcomics like the ones I grew up loving in the 80s and 90s. But to do that, I've got to draw. So, once I finally got settled here and the holidays were in the taillights, once I finally got the Cintiq working ... I started drawing every day.
14 days running so far (counting complex drawings that took 2-3 sessions as 1 per session). How long does it take to cement a habit? 2-3 months, it sounds like from the online research; so, a good ways to go. If I keep at it, I'll have +70 more drawings, five times as many as I have so far.
I bet I'll see some changes.
I bet if you have something you want to change, start working on it every day, and keep it up for 2-3 months, you may see some changes too.
Best of luck with that! Wish me luck too.