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Is the 'just write' advice ALWAYS correct?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Incanus, Mar 24, 2020 at 5:06 PM.

  1. Incanus

    Incanus Auror

    The advice to just sit down and write is, generally speaking, good, especially when starting out. A beginning writer needs to get comfortable with accumulating words and sentences on a page, to get a feel for language expression, and to find out what unforeseen things big and small they may be doing wrong.

    But I believe I reached a point last year where it simply made no sense to ‘just write’. I felt that if I did not stop and reevaluate what I had been doing, I would simply go on making the same kinds of mistakes over and over again. I realized that the approach I was using was not working for me. This was not a problem I could write my way out of, because poor writing decisions were the source of the problem in the first place.

    I needed to find a different starting place to write from—a different perspective, a different mode—but I had no idea what it could be, or how to find it. I eventually found something so I could get going again, and I hope it’s something I can continue.

    So I’m wondering if anyone has ever been in a similar spot, but ended up ‘just writing’ their way out of it. Is ‘just write’ the solution for any and all writing problems? It seems to me to have a limitation on how useful it is.
  2. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    According to the experts - not the writers, but the people who study learning and growth - the answer is:

    FIRST you learn just enough about what you're doing to be able to self-correct as you go, and THEN you practice as much as humanly possible.

    Understanding what that first part means for writing a novel is tricky though.

    Whenever I've suggested that people need to keep writing, I don't like to suggest that they force themselves to write on the single, same project. I switch to a fanfiction, for instance. I don't usually find it helpful to write if I don't understand what's going on in my story. That has worked for me a couple times, but not as a rule. I'm not generally a discovery writer.
    Last edited: Mar 24, 2020 at 5:33 PM
  3. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    I came to this particular spot when I started my current novel. It wasn't necessarily by choice. I'll spare you the long story, but life made it so I couldn't push ahead like I normally did. So instead of fighting it, I rolled with what I could do. I realized writing my usual 1-2k of prose wasn't going to happen, so I set a low goal of 250 words. I then planned and outlined like a mother. I had a very detailed outline before I started. And before I start any scene, I further flesh out my outline for that section, and I made doubly sure I understood the purpose of that scene and how it would link up with what I've already written.. Anytime I ran into an issue, I would pause to think about it, and would not proceed until I had solved the problem to my satisfaction.

    For me, the results have been surprisingly successful. I'm more surefooted as I proceed. And when I go back to refresh my memory on something, I've found, at least on first blush, that my prose and the story in general is probably not going to need much in terms of editing, just some polish, and maybe a tweak to a detail here or there, and maybe small additions to bring out certain themes more. The major story points, I'm finding I'm satisfied with, and I'm just heading into the last act.

    I think I'm going to work like this for the next while even though I'm writing more than the 250 words a day now. I'm actually having to slow myself down some days. I feel there's something for me to learn while doing it this way. I have no problems finishing stories. Finishing stories is never in doubt now. Now, it's about making them better, and I think focusing on the decisions I make and making them better, while asking myself better questions about my story, on the get go is important for me now, more so than forging ahead to the end. Not sure how long I"m going to work like this, but I can foresee a time when, I'm making better initial plans, which will allow me to forge on ahead at a faster pace, faster than the pace I worked at before.

    But at the end of the day, it's about find what works for you. If you find one way isn't working as well as you'd like, nothing wrong with trying another way. My process is constantly evolving. I don't think I've planned and executed two novels in exactly the same way.
  4. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    "Just write" is amusing as a phrase. I learned long ago that the word "just" is rarely needed in a sentence and you'd think writers would be aware of this. The imperative "write" is as affective--arguably more so--than is "just write."

    That niggle having been raised, and here I realize that this very command is in my sig file, the instruction could use some elaboration. Does it mean we ought to write anything? Jingles? Despairing entries in a journal? All work and no play make Jack a dull boy?

    Does it mean "keep writing on your current project and write nothing else," or does it mean "keep writing on *some* story, it doesn't matter which?"

    Does it include writing research notes, world-building essays, detailed character sketches?

    Here's another run at it. Whether newbie or long-published, we ought always to be trying to tell stories. That's the craft. That's what sets fiction apart from other forms of writing, and it involves a particular (and particularly murky) set of skills. These, like any art, have commonalities that can be perceived by outside observers, bless 'em, but in hard practice the skills must be learned by each artisan in their own way and time.

    And that's the source of the imperative. Because improving story-telling skills takes time and time spent in other endeavors, even those that involve words. Therefore, writing fiction is vital to the improvement of writing fiction. Note that "write" does not mean "keep writing the same way you did yesterday." Two important corollaries are: keep trying new stuff, and get feedback.

    All this is good advice, which by inscrutable but universal law means I pretty much don't follow it. I struggle and flail my way through a story no matter how thoroughly I plan it, and I seem unable to go about it any other way, at least as far as the actual writing is concerned. I've got better at planning, and I've got better at editing.
  5. Azeroth

    Azeroth Dreamer

    I think so.

    I've always had a chaotic relationship with writing. I have a mood disorder, so when things to turn to excrement in my day to day life, writing goes out the door and I can go months without doing it. It's been four months since I've written, and after such a long time, it's hard to get motivated and start writing again, simply because I'm rusty and don't know where to start.

    Such dilemmas cause a writer to lose confidence, leading to that dreaded procrastination and not getting anywhere with it because I'm spending time thinking about it rather than actually DOING.

    So yeah, "just write". Whether you're doing up some worldbuilding, notes, commencing your first draft. Whatever. Just DO IT. It's one step closer to the goal as opposed to procrastinating and stressing about it.
  6. The Dark One

    The Dark One Maester

    Well, go back through any of my posts on the matter (as if anyone would...) and you'll note I've always been an opponent of the "just write" imperative.

    Of course you have to get some words on paper, or you're not a writer. But if they're not good words that make you proud, you're not really a writer either. You're a scribbler.

    If something isn't working, my advice would be to work on something else. Keep having ideas and starting projects until something grabs you and carries you away.

    A further point - while poorly conceived or executed ideas will throw up nothing but obstacles the further you go, well conceived ideas attain their own momentum after a while and become unstoppable. When you find yourself on that runaway train the ideas keep flowing thick and fast - it's exhilarating.

    If your train's not moving, don't get out and push...get off!
  7. Night Gardener

    Night Gardener Sage

    I think so... but there is some method and discipline to it that develops idiosyncraticly to the author overtime...mostly be trial an error. It's more circular: just keep writing, AND just keep thinking. The more you write, the more sophisticated your thought process becomes; and with it an awareness of what your story needs, has, and what it is lacking. I also prescribe the "write my way out" or, 'into' problems. Whichever the story needs. (I'm presently trying to add more conflict and problems to my WIP.)

    I do also recommend taking breaks in whatever way is the most constructive and refreshing. If that's watching movies, reading, starting a side project related or unrelated to the current WIP, going for walks, hanging out with your cat and a cuppa tea, whatever. I think it's deeply beneficial to defrag your mental hard drive on a regular basis. If you concentrate too hard and too closely, things can get out of focus. Distance can bring clarity and renewed perspective. Burn out is real.

    Just keep writing, just keep thinking. It can be spontaneous or structured, and again that is up to the author. If you're thinking about your work, and trying to figure out stuff on paper, how can that be unproductive? Even if you end up hating something, guess what? You found something you know you hate, now explain to yourself why you hate it. Write yourself a point by point debreifing if you have to. That's at the very least a direction not to travel. Figure out where to go next. Stream of conciousness writing (or recording) can be beneficial because sometimes you wander into exactly what you need. Write yourself questions, prompts, leave yourself notes in the margins. Just keep writing.

    Just keep thinking. My WIP is a background program always running in the back of my mind. I jot down ideas, save images and song lyrics to come back to later when I need a hit of inspiration. It's immersive and active sometimes, and other times more vague and passive.

    To be transparent, my formal creative writing instruction tapered off after high school. I had some wonderfully offbeat professors for other creative endeavors and the concept development skills I acquired translate well for writing fiction. And, I've cultivated a system of daydreaming, writing exercises and techniques that really work for me.
    I have doubts and periods of 'ugh wtf is this hot mess?!", but I hardly ever feel bogged down creatively for long.

    I also edit and destroy and teardown to start over. Completely unafraid to deconstruct an idea. I refuse to feel trapped or obligated by or to anything I have written. It's the same as repainting sections, or priming and sanding off a painting back to a blank canvas. If it's not working out, I won't force it. If it cannot be salvaged, I know I can start over. So, I will. It doesn't matter if I spent 100s of hours on it, and discover that I need to start over. Because I just
    spent 100s of hours on how I (now) know I *do not* want this painting or writing to be. That's not exactly time wasted, that's developing a better vision and striking the canvas to a better execution of my idea. With writing, stuff that got stuck goes into a folder. It may never see the light of day again.

    To be fair, I probably don't write these days in a conventional or logical way to some people. But I can also tell you that I used to. I used to try and sit down for long, long blocks of arduous and agonizing writing time. I would try to produce near-finished chapters; take hours to write a few paragraphs, agonizing over every word, every detail, scrutinize too hard. I would have an outline for reference, but if I didn't produce something that was close to perfection, save for basic spellchecking and grammar, it felt "unproductive." I would give myself deadlines, like it was going into print tomorrow and the editor wants it yesterday. I approached it the same way I was approaching my job and work. And guess what? I was training myself to hate writing creatively.

    And after an epiphany that "I have to ditch the term/research/thesis/press release/ printer's deadline in perfect MLA format and this is due now now now mindset" because if I didn't, I was going to turn something that was supposed to be fun and freeing into an anxiety attack. In my free time.
    ( Unpaid anxiety is not my thing. ) I changed my methodology back to my creative roots and away from ridgid academic and professional applications.

    I'd like to think it's one of the better decisions I've made: keep writing, keep thinking.
  8. The Dark One

    The Dark One Maester

    Okay, lots of good advice in this post, but there's one thing I'd be interested in delving into...

    You say you're trying to add more conflict or problems to your WIP?

    Well, everyone's different of course, and I don't pretend to have all the answers...but why isn't the conflict hardwired into the story's premise?

    For me it all starts with the plot and the main characters are always born in the same moment the plot is born because aspects of their personalities (protagonist, antagonist and bit parts) must help drive the plot. So necessarily they take their places either side of the main plot conflict and the story is driven from there.

    You may well work very differently from that, and quite successfully, but my authorial brain does not compute the idea of "adding conflict" to an existing work.
    Night Gardener likes this.
  9. Incanus

    Incanus Auror

    Some really great responses here. Thanks everyone.

    There can be no doubt that no two of us approach these issues the same way. But I find it useful to compare what I’m doing to what others are doing, or have done. I’m open to just about anything.

    But—I’m finicky. And that makes the ‘just write’ suggestion particularly difficult to adhere to. I currently have one story idea that I deem worth working on. I’ve had only one story idea for the past year. I’m a picky, picky reader, and even more picky as a writer. So, I have no other project to turn to should the current one flounder. Also, many ‘exercises’ don’t appeal to me—I don’t really do character sketches, and I kind of dislike stream-of-consciousness writing. I can’t really do ‘story-prompt’ writing either. To me, these kinds of things amount to ‘scribbling’, and don’t feel productive. I can work on story notes and world-building stuff, but I don’t consider that writing—it is not prose put to fictional purpose—I consider it ‘thinking’ or ‘developing’.

    In other words: I’m stubborn, particular, hard-to-please, and difficult-to-inspire.

    Maybe I shouldn’t have said I’m open to anything.

    I should probably clarify what I meant by not being able to ‘write my way out of problems’. I don’t mean problems or conflicts within the story, the things that my characters have to deal with. I mean problems with storytelling, like plot/character development, exposition, execution of ideas, what to show, how much to show, when to show it. Once these things get broken, you can’t write your way out of them. You can perhaps edit your way out of them, or drop the whole project (such as my first, awful novel. It cannot be fixed through editing).

    Well, at least the new project seems to be gaining some momentum. I hope I can keep it up.
  10. FifthView

    FifthView Istar


    ...so how about "very write" instead? Heh.
    Firefly likes this.
  11. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    Taking guidance from Mark Twain, that would become "damn write". But, really, perhaps this criticism of the overuse of "just" is unjust. <g>
    FifthView likes this.
  12. I've not written anything of significance since my divorce back in 2015. (Until now)
    The ex kept my pc so all 12 books I had been working on for years are gone.
    The whole Just write really did nothing to help me at that point.
    However, I'm in a pretty good place mentally again, and I have someone who while he's never read anything I've written was willing to give me a little room for a few days to type out a few pages.

    He then allowed me to read them to him, and he now insists that I finish the book and has made room in our busy days to ensure I have at least 1 whole hour free from distractions. He even bought me a set of headphones for the PC so I can listen to tunes and block out the toddler's incessant overly loud daily doings.
    High praise from a guy who mostly grunts, works out and watches Japanese "Cartoons" (I've been told not to call them that as apparently it is degrading to him...I now refer to them as "his shows") LOL

    So "Just write" might not be right for you, but for some people it does work.
    I used to sit down with music and a pen and just write everything that floated through my head, and somewhere in between all the ADD littered trash would be one of two words or phrases that I liked and could build something around.
  13. Prince of Spires

    Prince of Spires Troubadour

    Re-reading the original post, the topic is mainly about how people improve.

    There is the famous 10.000 hour rule (actually more a universal observation). Which is that pretty much all experts the world over need around 10.000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert.

    The key-concept is deliberate practice. If just doing something was good enough then almost everyone would be a world expert. Everyone would run like Usain Bolt, could become a world renown musical instrument player and master story teller. But not every time you run or write counts towards those 10.000 hours. You need to consider what you're doing right and wrong, you need to focus on improving your craft, you need feedback. So in effect, you should not "just write", to improve you need to write deliberately.

    The other side is the learning curve of it all. When you're just starting out pretty much any practice you get will help you improve. When I picked up the guitar last summer, just playing some chords and simple tunes was enough to improve. But at some point you reach a plateau, where you know everything there is to know if you're just doing it on your own. And at that point you need to change your approach to continue improving. This can be following a course, getting active feedback, changing your way of working, that sort of thing.

    This is why professional sports players, even the best of the best, still have a coach. Roger Federer needs that feedback just as much as someone starting out to keep improving (or keep up his level).
    Firefly and The Blue Lotus like this.
  14. The Dark One

    The Dark One Maester

    Very sad to read your story Blue Lotus.

    You couldn't get your laptop back...or even the stories emailed to you?

    Anyway, none of my business.
  15. Darkfantasy

    Darkfantasy Inkling

    The 'just write' advice has never ever worked for me. I would ask a question because I couldn't get past a problem in my story and that was because something was missing. I was too inexperienced to know what was missing or identify the problem, so I'd ask others. And they'd say 'just write it'. BUT I CAN'T! It was very frustrating. A problem was preventing me and just writing was only getting things more in a muddle. And for me, when I have no idea where I'm going it's very hard to write.

    I an sit down and write anything off the top of my head. But when you're writing a novel and you get stuck you can't just write anything as it needs to fit with what you've all ready written or needs to go in a certain direction.
    The Blue Lotus likes this.
  16. enoch driscoll

    enoch driscoll Acolyte

    I totally understand that struggle for creativity vs plot. One way that i have stopped myself from being overwhelmed by one or the other is by giving myself a very hazy and mysterious plot, just section headings like "caverns below", "the way of the mage", or "hidden beasts." Then i can write a story with at least some idea of what will happen(so its not jumping all over the place). that way i can still enjoy reading my own fantasy novel, but it still makes sense for other readers.
    The Blue Lotus likes this.
  17. The dude kept everything. My dog, cloths, Gifts from my grandmother who passed away... everything. He was a real pos. I hope his new wife enjoys my hand-me-downs and leftovers. LOL
    anyway, it's over and I've moved on :)

    I will eventually try to rebuild those works from the emails I have between a writing friend and I.
    I'm just not up to the task at this time.
  18. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    Instead of asking others, I always tried to finding the information myself? Because IMHO, sometimes, a lot of times, you just can't depend on another person. There are books and podcasts with loads of useful information. I found these resources way more useful to my development than asking people. Not that asking people is useless, just it has its limits depending on who you're asking. There are writing books that I've reread several times and podcasts that I listen to over and over, because as I learn and make my mistakes, I realize there's more to glean from what's said in those books and podcasts than I got at first blush.

    And I found reading those books and listening to those podcasts gave me more than enough guidance to keep me going, because they constantly gave me loads of solutions to try on the problems I was facing. I make and have made lots of mistakes, but because of that, I got lots and lots of practice trying to tackle problems. Sometimes I solved them. Sometimes I couldn't, at least not right away. My first book was messed up. I didn't have the skills to fix it, so I moved on. But as I was writing my second book, and learning and thinking of solutions to my current problems, solutions to the problems I faced in the first book started to come without me even looking for them.

    So, yeah, I agree, just writing isn't enough. You have to be actively trying to learn at the same time.
  19. Incanus

    Incanus Auror

    Some more good responses here.

    But first, Blue Lotus: I’m sorry to hear about your situation. That sounds… exasperating to say the least. But also, putting it behind you as best you can sounds healthy. Good luck!

    Yes, I think a lot of this discussion is ultimately about learning and improving. Which can be quite tough at times.

    I more or less used the ‘just write’ approach, in the general sense, to get through my first novel, and I’m (mostly) glad I did. The novel is junk and unfixable, but I finished. But the projects I worked on afterward were only marginally better, and had some of the same problems. I reached a point where ‘just writing’ was no longer the best way forward. The only way I could see to find a new approach was to put everything aside and take a break. Then I s…l…o…w…l…y made my way back to it by coming up with new ideas for a story, which required a new approach and writing style.

    Again, I’m glad I did it this way, for the most part. I missed generating prose a lot, and felt totally unproductive, and felt like I was getting older and not accomplishing anything. And yet, I can see no other way to have arrived at where I am now without taking the time away from writing. In a way, it is sort of like taking some time off between finishing a novel, and beginning the editing process: a new perspective is almost certainly required.

    Conclusion: ‘just write’ is often a good way to go, right up until it isn’t.
  20. Darkfantasy

    Darkfantasy Inkling

    I was referring more to things you can't research

    Sorry for brief reply on my phone x

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