Why I Hate Writing

TL;DR: it’s frustrating.

This is not my first attempt at blogging regularly. I don’t particularly enjoy the process of writing, but I do enjoy the satisfaction of having written. It’s a bit like working out: the pleasure is in the accomplishment, not the anticipation or the process.

I believe that frustration is caused by exertion of serious effort in pursuit of a goal, while making no noticeable progress towards that goal. Wikipedia says that it arises from, “the perceived resistance to the fulfillment of individual will”. Writing frustrates me because I am trying to get something of value, but it’s difficult to do.

The value I see in writing is that it forces me to think clearly about a topic. My thinking, and I guess most other people’s, flits quickly from idea to idea. It’s not a linear or well-ordered process. It doesn’t occur in discrete chunks with clean borders. The best 2D representation of it might be a mind-map.

To carve something readable out of that mind-map, I have to:

  1. work out everything I want to say,
  2. structure the way in which ideas are introduced, and
  3. check that the arguments I am using make sense.

It’s an iterative process. I throw out some of the arguments, and focus in on what remains. The real thesis only emerges after some editing. The end result hopefully covers enough to be worth reading, while being focussed enough to preserve reader attention, as well as well-argued where it needs to be.

Of the three components listed above, I think that the last of those parts, checking the details of the argument, is the most useful. Writing down why I think A implies B forces me to consider it carefully. Sometimes my opinion doesn’t change, sometimes I see that I was wrong. Far too often, I see that this part of the argument is more complicated than A -> B. Possible exceptions need to be hunted down, possible counter-arguments need to be defeated as soon as they arise  in the mind of the reader. This needs to happen without disrupting the overall flow of the piece: the reader should still know how the parts add up to the whole.

So that’s why it takes a lot of work to produce even a short post, but it’s not why I hate it. I hate it because it is intensely frustrating. When I try to focus on turning my thoughts into readable prose, I experience a serious emotional tension. I want to complete the piece, and I also want to down tools and walk away from it.

I want to down tools because there’s a great mental effort involved in concentrating on one subject for long enough to be able to make progress. My brain searches frantically for distractions while I am writing. Since I was never a good student, this reminds me of trying to revise for an exam, although I think the cause is quite different [1].

The feeling also reminds me of playing chess. I’m neither a strong nor an active chess player, and when I get into a too-complex or near-lost board position, I feel a sense of revulsion for the game I am playing. The game is taking all of my concentration and mental effort, but that isn’t enough.

Writing is a battle between my normal thought process and the requirements of clear communication. In this battle I am both the owner of the non-linear thought process, and the arbiter of the requirements of clear writing. Since I’m on both sides of the battle, it’s inevitably a serious mental effort.

[1] In revising, the difficulties were caused by my disorganisation, but in writing the difficulties are inherent.

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