It’s like anything else. If you want to write well, you have to work at it. You have to do it, and keep doing it — especially when you don’t feel like it. There’s no other way.
Writing can be a magical and miserable experience. The magic often gets us started, but the misery often keeps us from finishing. What seems profound or inspiring or needed or just helpful in our heads so often appears banal, lackluster, throwaway, and utterly unhelpful on the written page. The ideas? Beautiful. The words themselves? Futile.
But the problem with perfectionistic attitudes about writing is that they often keep the would-be writer from actually writing — or at least from finishing. Paralyzing perfectionism so often keeps us from exercising the writing muscle. For example, did you notice that I used “often” twice in the last two sentences? I noticed. I don’t like it. I’d rather diversify my word choice. But I’m not going to change it, because in an exercise like this, I can’t go back and change every last little thing I don’t like. I’m an endless editor by nature, and if I kept at it, refusing to stop “perfecting,” I’d never finish what’s meant to be just a simple exercise in writing on a busy morning.
If I were writing a journal article for publication, I’d edit a lot more. If I were writing a novel, I’d labor over sentence after sentence. If I were writing my magnum opus, I’d craft and re-craft and re-craft. But I’m not doing any of those things. This morning, I’m just practicing writing; I’m just trying to exercise the writing muscle, lest another day pass and those muscles lie dormant rather than being stretched.
The goal this morning is not that I perfect every rep, but that I perform every rep.
I regularly have people ask about my blog, wondering if they should start one. They benefit from others’ blogs, or they enjoy writing themselves, or they want to have some kind of platform. It’s a different blend of interests for each person.
But one of the hardest things about having an active blog is writing consistently. Most blogs are the online version of the dusty treadmill in the basement, evidence of writing dreams that soon evaporated in the heat of more pressing concerns or that quickly froze in the cold-hearted perfectionism that kills so much potential artistry.
There are ideas far more important than writing about writing, but none of those ideas were things I had the time or readiness to write about today. But instead of not writing, I’m writing this.
You didn’t have to read up to this point, and you don’t have to keep reading. But I needed to write up to this point, and I need to keep writing until I finish. Why? Because I need to keep putting one sentence after another, with varying sentence length and with deliberate semantic variety and with proper grammar and punctuation and with logical movement between sentences and paragraphs. I need to re-read and edit, albeit briefly, so that I spend at least a minimum of time writing, so that I’m exercising the writing muscle.
It doesn’t feel great to be saying nothing profound. It’s not the most satisfying form of writing, to be writing about writing. I won’t click “Publish” and then look over my finished product with a sense of sweaty satisfaction due to hours or days of meticulous labor communicating what I feel is a vital idea.
But I will have written today. I will have exercised the writing muscle. I’ll have beaten back those atrophying mental muscles, and will have struck another small blow against my relentless perfectionism that glares at me every time I begin to type and says, “It was a great idea in your head, wasn’t it? But you’ll never say it right. The words will never be what you want. This article will never be what it should be. Keep working, but never finish. It will never be good enough.”
I’m fighting by writing, banging off the rust and dusting off the treadmill and exercising the writing muscle.
And now here we are: 750 words written. Exercise done. Writing muscle exercised.
I am confident that your life is relatively unchanged. But I’m also confident that, like a stream smoothing out a stone, you’ve been shaped in some tiny way. And I know that, as someone who wants to write, I’m slightly better off for having written.