Why Is Writing Hard?

I write for a living. For several years, I taught writing for a living, as both a college professor and a developmental editor. And the question I hear more often than any other is “Why is writing hard?”

Why is writing hard? Why do people struggle with writing? Can writing be taught?

The question “why is writing hard?” presumes, first, that writing is hard. This assumption lurks in related questions as well.

It even appears in the question “Can writing be taught?” – a question I heard asked more often, and answered in the negative, in university writing departments than anywhere else. The assumption was that generally speaking, writing cannot be taught. Those of us who find writing easy were born this way. We have something the vast majority of people don’t – something that can be winnowed out and honed by other good writers, but that cannot be taught by them.

I think that’s nonsense.

At the same time, however, I’m often at a loss to explain how it is I learned to write well. My own experience with writing is innate and organic. I don’t know where or how I learned to do this; I just know I can.

So I started looking into the research.

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Thought With an Audience

Every time I asked this question in a freshman composition class, the consensus was the same: “To express yourself.” “To get your thoughts down on paper.” Each class also agreed, though less strongly, that “expressing yourself” was the easy part of writing.

But if the goal of writing is to “express yourself,” which is “easy,” then why is writing hard?

Expressing yourself in writing may be the beginning of the process, but it isn’t the end. In a 1979 article in College English, Linda Flower asserts that “expressing what you think” in writing fails to account for the public nature of writing. Our own thoughts tend to be full of shortcuts comprehensible only to us. We know what we mean, so there’s no need to define or explain key images, words or phrases.

When we transcribe those thoughts into writing, however, we’re placing them into a context that allows them to be accessed by other people. Other people, however, have no access to the contents of our brains except what we give them.

To write effectively, then, the writer must be able to take the perspective of the reader. By “stepping into the reader’s shoes,” the writer can determine which ideas need to be defined or explained for the written expression of their thoughts to make sense.

Failing to factor in the audience’s perspective “is the source of some of the most common and pervasive problems in academic and professional writing,” says Flower.

Why is writing hard? Writing isn’t merely thought; it’s thought with an audience.

Teaching Students to Fear Writing

The process of taking a student from “putting their thoughts on paper” to “creating a work that accounts for an audience” is, in essence, the process of teaching students how to write. That process, as taught, is a complex one.

In a 1979 article in Language Arts titled “Andrea Learns to Make Writing Hard,” Donald H. Graves details the process by which an eight year old named Andrea learns to write.

“Three months ago writing was effortless for Andrea,” says Graves. “It was as if there were no decisions to be made…. The subject predetermined the words. All she had to do was put them down.” Once written, Andrea’s words didn’t change. The first draft was also the final draft.

Over the course of three months, however, Andrea learned to revise, to think through word and sentence choices, to experiment with the ordering of ideas. To do so, says Graves, Andrea had first to let go of her attachment to “neatness,” or to thinking of the single written draft as something she couldn’t change or mar with revision notes. She also had to accept and implement directions from her teacher, including directions to insert changes into her written draft, to prewrite (here, by drawing the story before writing it), and to draft multiple versions of key sentences or paragraphs.

By the end of the three-month period, Andrea has adopted all of these activities into her own writing process. The result has morphed from a single draft to several pages of notes, alternate versions of topic sentences, and similar flotsam generated in the writing process.

Andrea’s process is similar to the process I’ve seen emerge from other student writers over the years. It suggests to me that the very process of teaching revision is one of the things that makes writing seem “difficult.” Beginning writers see writing as a one-step process: Write down the words in your head. As they advance, however, they begin to see writing as a more complex process.

You’re Doing It Wrong

The more complexities are required of a writer, the more difficult the task can seem. As educational therapist Regina G. Richards notes, “Many students feel writing takes too long. For some, writing is a very laborious task because there are so many subcomponents which need to be pulled together.”

Yet a complex process is not inherently a difficult one. Many complex tasks are time-consuming without being difficult (a point my own fourth-grade teacher was fond of stressing when we complained about tasks like copying out definitions from the dictionary). And many students master complex processes in other subjects, such as long division, without developing a lifelong antagonism with their “difficulty.” So what makes writing different?

In a 2009 article, Heidi Andrade et al. articulate an attempt to create clear, useful assessment tools for middle schoolers’ writing. Among the criteria included were measures that allowed teachers to mark down errors that “make the writing hard to understand.”

Yet, as Flower notes, the first step in most students’ – indeed, in most people’s! – writing process is to get their own thoughts on paper, irrespective of an audience. “Express your own thoughts” is, in a sense, the default state of writing. It is also, by its very nature, the most difficult for an audience to understand, because every point of reference is still the sole property of the writer.

In other words, when children find this sort of default writing marked down as “hard to understand,” the message they receive is “your natural instinct or approach to writing is itself an error.” 

These students are no longer starting from a “natural” or “default” state; rather, they are set back into the realm of actual error and the emotional unpleasantness that results from that.

“Accusations of laziness, poor motivation, and a reprehensible attitude are often directed toward deficit writers. The results can be a serious loss of incentive, a generalized academic disenchantment and demoralization,” says Melvin D. Levine (qtd. in Richards).

Yet often, these writers are not being “lazy.” They are operating from the default writing expectation or state because they lack the tools to do anything else  – and because they’re told that when they try, they’re “doing it wrong.”

What’s the Answer?

The answer, I think, cannot be to stop teaching writing as a process of reaching an audience. With the sole exception of the private diary or journal, all writing exists to be read by others.

Rather, I believe writing can be made easier by first acknowledging that “expressing yourself on paper” or “getting the ideas down” is not an error, but a natural starting point. After all, a writer who does not clearly understand their own ideas won’t communicate them effectively to others. Writers who write in terms only they understand are doing the natural first step in the writing process.

Once ideas are clear to the writer, then, perhaps teaching revision ought to be done in terms of the audience. Many of my own students reached college with the idea that “creating multiple versions of a thesis statement” or “coming up with an attention-grabbing first sentence” were writing steps that ought to be done, but with no clear idea why. When I explained to them that the entire purpose of these steps was to make sure your audience stayed with you, the lightbulb went on – and their papers improved.

Finally, perhaps it’s time for writers and writing teachers to step away from the page altogether. Taking the perspective of others is a skill. Like other skills, it improves with practice. Role-playing and similar tools may help writers bridge the gap from “my own ideas” to “ideas I share” without making the process feel like a total slog.


Writing doesn’t need to be impossible, but it is certainly work. Please consider buying me a coffee or sharing this post on social media.

Writer’s Block: What It Is and How to Beat It

I write several thousand words a day, both for a living and for my own amusement. And so I get asked about writer’s block more than anything.

“How do you get over writer’s block?” “What’s your secret for never having writer’s block?” “What is writer’s block, anyway?”

I often hesitate to answer these questions because I haven’t had the answers. Writer’s block has never been a longstanding problem for me. In fact, I usually suffer from the opposite problem – I want to stop writing and go do other things, but I’m driven to continue.

Fortunately, other people have done research on writer’s block. Here’s what they know.

writers block

Writer’s Block: What Is It?

When people ask about beating “writer’s block,” they’re typically talking about an inability to write that is separate from the desire to write. They want to write, but when they sit down to do it, nothing comes out.

Often, writer’s block occurs independently of the knowledge or ability to write. People with writer’s block know how to start a project; they may, in fact, have started many writing projects in the past and finished them successfully.

Writer’s block can also occur independently of having a topic or idea in mind. A person with writer’s block may know exactly what they want to write about. They may have both the internal motivation (“this is important!”) and the external motivation (“I’m on a deadline!”) to write.

And yet…they’re stuck.

Tips for Beating Writer’s Block

The logical first step in any case of “writer’s block” is to make sure that writer’s block is what you have.

In other words:

  • Do you have the desire/motivation to write a particular thing?
  • Do you have the tools, time and space to write the thing?
  • Do you know what you want to write the thing about?
  • Do you know how to start this kind of written thing?

If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” fix that first and see if it resolves the problem. If the answer to all four is “yes,” the problem is likely one of writer’s block.

What Kind of Writer’s Block Do You Have?

Not all writer’s block is created equal. In a 1998 article in Canadian Family Physician, Patricia Huston sorts writer’s block into three levels of severity: mild, moderate and recalcitrant.

Huston suggests different treatment strategies for each level of blockage:

  • Mild writer’s block may be resolved by evaluating and revising expectations, conducting a task analysis, and encouraging oneself to continue.
  • Moderate writer’s block may be resolved by engaging in creative exercises, like brainstorming and role-playing.
  • Recalcitrant writer’s block may require therapy.

Huston also suggests a number of strategies for preventing writer’s block, such as writing at the beginning of projects (often called prewriting or freewriting), working with a supportive writer’s group, and “cultivating an ongoing interest in writing.”

Revise Your Expectations

If you know what you want to write and how to do it, the problem isn’t a lack of rules or guidelines. But do you have too many rules and guidelines?

In a 1980 article in College Composition and Communication, Mike Rose discusses several writing students who struggled with writer’s block, comparing them to similarly-skilled classmates who had no such struggles.

Rose found that the blocked writers were often derailed by their adherence to overly-strict writing rules. Their writing “had to” look a certain way, or they couldn’t continue. In some cases, they couldn’t even start.

The strict rules these writers struggled with included:

  • The first sentence has to grab your audience’s attention. If you can’t write an attention-grabbing first sentence, you can’t continue.
  • An essay has to have three or more points. If you can’t make at least three points about your topic, the essay isn’t finished or doesn’t “count.”
  • You must have a clear plan and outline before you begin. You cannot start writing just to see where a topic leads; you have to know where the end is before you start.
  • An essay must be full of “scintillating insights,” so you have to collect cool facts, quips, quotes, etc. before you start. Then you must work them into the paper, even if some of them don’t seem to fit.
  • “Always try to ‘psych out’ the professor” by writing a piece that brilliantly subverts expectations while also meeting those expectations. If you can’t do that, your paper can’t possibly be good enough.
  • All the rules of good essay writing have to be used at once. For instance, you must use transitions for flow and evidence for weight, and you must balance these perfectly as you write.

When used as guidelines, rules like these can help an essay stay recognizable as an essay while also effectively conveying the writer’s knowledge of a given subject area. “Always” and “never,” however, are rarely useful rules in writing.

For instance, one of my high school English teachers insisted on the “attention-grabbing first sentence” rule. While I was willing to play along for the sake of my grade, I didn’t force myself to write that first sentence before I went on.

Instead, I’d start my first draft with a thesis statement, then move on to the points I wanted to make, then the conclusion. Once the conclusion was finished, I’d use its summary of the points made in the essay to inspire an attention-grabbing first sentence.

I used this method throughout my academic career. I still use it today. And I still get compliments for how well my articles are “tied together.”

Resources

ReadWriteThink: Essay Map – a user-friendly way to organize ideas.

EndNote – organize sources and references.

Hemingway App – helps you analyze the readability of a draft. You don’t have to make perfect sentences; you just need to write down any sentences, then put them through this app.

InstaGrok – put in any topic, get an interactive mind map linking it to other topics. Great for when you “want to write about ___,” but don’t know where to go from there.

Get Creative

Rose notes that over-planning can trip up writers of non-fiction essays and articles. The desire to plan perfectly may lead to paralysis.

The same thing can happen to fiction writers, whether or not they see themselves as the planning type.

Author Mercedes Lackey notes that “writer’s block” may actually be the writer’s subconscious recognizing that, for some reason, the story cannot continue in the direction it’s going. Sensing that the story won’t work, the subconscious puts on the brakes.

This kind of writer’s block “can happen whether you are a meticulous outliner or a seat-of-the-pants writer. You are about to make a big mistake, and your subconscious is stopping you,” says Lackey.

This type of block may be best resolved with Huston’s strategies for “moderate” writer’s block: Get creative. Ask, “what else could happen here?”, and generate ideas before evaluating or criticizing them. Try role-playing one of your characters to see what other reactions they might have.

For me, the “two for one” method works well to generate new plot ideas and potential character arcs. It follows one rule: Every solution to a problem must generate two new problems. 

Typically, I’ll run 30 to 50 iterations of this as an idea-generation method. In the finished story or novel, of course, it won’t go on forever; eventually the characters find a way to wrap up enough loose ends to bring the story to a satisfying conclusion. As a means to figuring out the story and the characters’ responses to conflict, however, it can be powerful – and a lot of fun.

Resources

Seventh Sanctum – plot, character and setting generators

The John Fox – story idea generator

Reedsy Plot Generator – over 1 million components. Click various components to lock or unlock them, then generate again to fine-tune ideas.

When Writer’s Block Isn’t

Writers spend a great deal of time not writing. Writer procrastination and delay is a running joke in writing communities. It’s the reason so many writing-related hashtags on Twitter are full of people making fun of themselves for tweeting instead of writing.

This type of “writer’s block,” however, isn’t a hurdle. Rather, it’s what Donald M. Murray calls “essential delay” – the soil from which writing sprouts and blossoms. Writer’s block is a state of being stuck; essential delay is a state of preparation. If essential delay is wintertime, writer’s block is Narnia’s “always winter and never Christmas.”

The good news? It’s possible to turn a case of writer’s block into a state of essential delay, using the same strategies recommended by Huston, Rose and Lackey. Murray finds several different processes occur during essential delay:

  • Information-gathering. Professional writers “collect warehouses full of information, far more than they need, so much information that its sheer abundance makes the need for meaning and order insistent,” says Murray. When the need for meaning and order reaches critical mass, essential delay turns into writing.
  •  Insight. When various ideas start to coalesce into “a single vision or dominant insight,” writing may commence as a way to test that vision or insight. For instance, finding a problem that can be solved by writing may help a writer overcome the delay imposed by having a lot of ideas with no common theme.
  • Need. Writers often experience two needs: The need to write, and the need for the audience to listen. Until these needs coincide, however, the writer may stay in the planning or musing phase.

Planning and organization also play a role in the essential delay phase. In some cases, they’re necessary to move a writer forward – as long as they don’t absorb all of your attention.

When All Else Fails

When all else fails, use writer’s block itself as the source of creativity.

My favorite example of this by far is Dennis Upper‘s paper in the Fall 1974 issue of the Journal of Applied Behavioral Analysis. Titled “The Unsuccessful Self-Treatment of a Case of ‘Writer’s Block,'” Upper’s paper is a masterwork on the effects of writer’s block on otherwise trained and productive professionals. (I suggest you read the entire paper for yourself; it’s quite short.)

My own best piece of writer’s block advice is this:

Don’t let yourself think that writing the piece itself is the only thing that counts as writing.

Brainstorming, freewriting, outlining, doodling mind maps, reading the thesaurus entry for a particular word in order to see how that concept is connected to other concepts, falling down the Wikipedia hole – all of these are part of writing. Your “writing time” is just as productive if you spend it freewriting about a character’s motivations than if you spent it actually writing the story in which that character appears.

The trick is to find the balance between these activities and actually writing the piece you intend to show an audience. That’s what separates those who write from those who merely aspire to do so.


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How Does an Author Begin Writing a Book?

“How does an author begin writing a book?” is another of the Most Frequently Asked Questions I (and a lot of published authors) face.

Every author comes at it a bit differently. Here’s how I do it.

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The One-Liner

I begin with a one-line concept. Most of these come to me years (or in a couple cases, decades) before I actually begin writing the book.

My current concept list for future novels in the Non-Compliant Space series, beyond the starting trilogy, looks like this:

  • what Molloy did next
  • time travel murder adventure
  • blockchain dystopia
  • the founding of Interstellar Science (Mai’s story)

(That last one is one of the concepts I’ve had in my head for literal decades; I started thinking about that one in 2001 or so.)

Character and Conflict

From the one-line concept, I decide who the main characters are, then start kicking around possible central conflicts.

For me, central conflicts always arise from who the main characters are. Whatever the plot ends up being in “what Molloy did next,” for example, is going to depend entirely on Captain Molloy’s attitude and behavior toward the central conflict. So we already know it’s going to be snarky and prone to flying off the handle for reasons no one talks about.

“Time travel murder adventure” already has a cast pre-determined by the first four books, and given who the cast is, I expect most of the plot in this one to be interpersonal shenanigans.

“Blockchain dystopia” has no characters at all so far, which means it’s fair game to fold into any of the other options so far. I can’t see Molloy caring at all about a blockchain-based dystopia, however, so it’s probably not going to feature as the central conflict in “what Molloy did next.”

Outlines and Suchlike Discontents

Once I have some idea who’s involved and how they’re going to react to the central conflict, I start outlining.

The first outline is usually a page long-ish paragraph summary of the main plot. If I manage to work up any sub-plots at this point, they get their own paragraph.

From here, I turn to the beat sheet method outlined in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! I write messy paragraph summaries as needed until I have some idea how the plot fits onto the beat sheet. This is the point at which sub-plots usually work themselves out for me; not only does the beat sheet explicitly leave space for them, but this is also where I see how they feed into the long decline from the Midpoint to the Dark Night and how they’re essential to the Finale.

Once I have characters, a plot, and a sense of the beats, I can start drafting.

More Scribbling

I typically start each beat with several paragraphs summarizing what happens in that beat. Each paragraph is a scene. If I need to extend this ahead two or three beats, I do.

Then I write the scenes. If I get stuck anywhere, I go back to freewriting paragraphs until I get unstuck.

I repeat this process until I’ve written all the scenes and put them in order. That’s the zero draft.

Almost a Book

Then I retype the entire zero draft into Word. That’s the first draft.

Then editing, a process that, like sausage-making, is best left undescribed.

At some point in this process, I may or may not put on pants. The pants-wearing phase is optional (at least until I have to talk to another human being in meatspace).

The process of finishing a book is somewhat different from the process of starting it. I’ve covered that in detail elsewhere on this blog, including this detailed three-part description of my actual writing process.

But that’s how I start.

What Is Neurodivergence?

On this blog, I deal with questions and challenges “on writing, neurodivergence, and the creative process.” Lots of folks have heard of the first and third, but fewer have heard of the second.

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What Is Neurodivergence?

From “neuro-,” meaning “pertaining to the nervous system,” and “divergence,” meaning “the process or state of things becoming different,” neurodivergence refers to the state of having a brain, nervous system, or both that operates different from the typical. The word neurotypical is often used to describe the “typical” from which one diverges.

Neurodivergence overlaps with, but is broader than, the world of existing diagnoses for neurological or psychological conditions. Autism, ADHD, multiplicity, and schizophrenia are forms of neurodivergence; so are epilepsy, cerebral palsy, and multiple sclerosis. Acquired or developed neurodivergences exist in the form of traumatic brain injuries, white matter lesions from chronic migraines, dementia, Alzheimer’s, PTSD, and alterations from substance use (legal or otherwise). And there are almost certainly forms of neurodivergence that we can’t see on scans and haven’t created diagnostic criteria for. (Folks with more than one neurodivergence are often called “multiply neurodivergent.”)

Does neurodivergence’s “opposite,” neurotypicality, exist? It’s tough to say. No two human nervous systems are identical, so choosing any one nervous system from the several billion currently existing on the planet and calling that The Neurotypical Brain(TM) would be tough to do, at best.

Neurotypicality does, however, exist as a social and cultural norm, with profound implications for medicine, education, employment, and everyday life. If you were ever taunted on the playground by kids calling you “weird,” “crazy,” “stupid,” “cuckoo,” “spaz,” “retard,” or “messed up,” congratulations: your classmates were telling you that “normal” is a thing and you weren’t it.

Neurodivergence and Creativity

Everyone “knows” there’s a link between neurodivergence and creativity, or innovation, or genius…but no one knows quite what it is, or what fosters it, or why.

My interest in the relationship between neurodivergence and creativity is more practical, because my experience of creativity is more practical. Having ADHD has taught me that a thousand ideas a second are useless if you can’t see even one of them through to its final form.

That’s why, here, I write about the practical side: how to channel various neurodivergences in the directions you want to go in order to get work done.

It’s why I’ve written a three-part series on how I drafted my first novel in 10 months with undiagnosed, untreated ADHD.

It’s why I’m keenly interested in questions of emotional labor, particularly the emotional labor that autistic and other neurodivergent people are pressured to do on a daily basis in the name of keeping neurotypicality firmly rooted in the center of “normal” – and how this burden disproportionately falls on women and on people perceived as women.

It’s why I write a lot – both here and in my published works – about finding and maintaining the sort of inner and outer structures that allow neurodivergent creatives to find their “even keel,” which may or may not look like what the rest of the world calls “mental health” but which allows the individual to manage their life and dial down the distress that can otherwise tank creativity. Lowering the mental and emotional cost of being neurodivergent matters, to our creativity and to our well-being.

It’s why I’m adamant that creatives need to be paid, and not in “exposure.” Creatives of all neurotypes often struggle to pay the bills while still creating, and the fight can be even tougher for neurodivergent creatives, who need to pay the bills and create while also navigating a world that often actively opposes their neurotype…or worse, exploits it.

When exposure is what you’re paid in, it’s also what you die of.

Writing on Neurodivergence: The State of the Conversation

Googling “neurodiversity” nets millions of results, ranging from academic works to badly-spelled anonymous forum posts. Googling “neurodivergence” turns up considerably less work.

The term “neurodivergence” (and its adjective form, “neurodivergent”) was coined by Kassiane Asasumasu to address a problem with the word neurodiversity: namely, that while “neurodiversity” describes groups very well, it doesn’t describe particular individuals within those groups.

A group that has neurodiversity, or a neurodiverse group, will contain at least one person who is neurodivergent, but that person as an individual is not “neurodiverse” (unless they are a multiple system whose members have a variety of neurotypes, which is more common than you’d think!).

And when you Google “neurodiversity,” things get even more fraught, because that word gets used to mean multiple things: a basic biological fact, a subset of the disability rights movement, a way of speaking about neurodivergence that doesn’t put our ideas about neurotypicality on a pedestal, …and so on.

Confused? Nick Walker wrote the seminal piece on the subject, which has been translated into several languages. For an even more 101 version, see my 2016 article at Un-Boxed Brain. Michelle Swan has an excellent piece for those who diverge in directions that psychiatric science hasn’t yet put a label on. And for a short but devastating list of ways in which we build boundaries around the “normal” by pushing the neurodivergent out of it, check out this piece by Gillian Giles.

As part of my research on autism and rhetoric, I’ve been writing about neurodivergence, and the ways we talk about it, for several years. Two of my publicly-available academic articles on it are available:

I’ve also been cited in Melanie Yergeau’s Authoring Autism and Julia Miele Rodas’s Autistic Disturbances, both of which deal with rhetoric and neurodivergence.

How to Get Better at Art By Producing Fifty Pounds of Crap

Art & Fear, by David Bayles & Ted Orland, has been one of my favorite books of creativity since my now-spouse introduced me to it in graduate school. In particular, I’ve come back to this story again and again:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.

His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”.

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

Which brings me to a seemingly unrelated topic: Why do I keep spamming my blog audience with terrible Christmas songs?

Simply put: I’m trying to make fifty pounds of terrible pots.

Beginners are frequently the loudest about their struggle with “perfection paralysis,” but it can plague creators at any stage in their learning curve. For those of us in the performing arts, attempting to switch from performance to choreography or composing can cause a mental Blue Screen of Death. We’ve always executed what we were told to do; what should we do when there’s no one telling us how?

I became interested in composing back in high school, but it wasn’t until recently that I had both the tools and the time to try my hand at it. I’ve been playing music since my mother taught me how to plunk out the chorus to “Jingle Bells” on the piano when I was five, but except for a brief course in blues improv in high school, I’d never tried to write any.

And the sheer volume of my knowledge of music served to stall me out – big time. With thousands of hours of playing and hundreds of hours on music theory behind me, I should be able to produce something good on my first try, right?

…If you believe that, go listen to the Bad Carols, in order.

They get consistently better as you go down the list. The first one, in fact, is crap compared to any of the others. I didn’t really hit my stride until “Skin Carol” at the earliest, and I wasn’t close to happy with a piece until the melody of “By Candlelight Swans Three.” Halfway through “In Christmas Hot Damn” I switched gears to writing an arrangement of “Riu, Riu, Chiu,” which I also currently hate.

I had to get past my belief that I had to produce something good. I had to produce just anything.

And I was getting bored with just asking Botnik’s predictve-text keyboard to generate histories of various holidays. I wanted to do something more involved with the tool.

Hence “Christmas Carols Nobody Asked For.” They didn’t have to be good – in fact, limiting my lyrics to those generated by predictive text pretty much guaranteed they wouldn’t be good. They just had to appear regularly. And the automatic deadline of December 25 made it fairly easy to ensure they’d happen on time.

I generate a lot of creative work, every day. It’s literally my job. And I recommend this method for improving in any creative genre.

Want to be a better writer? Assign yourself half an hour a day in which your only goal is that your pen/fingers never stop moving across the page/keyboard. If you write “I’m a terrible writer and I should go walk into the sea” fifty times in that half hour, so be it. Eventually, you’ll learn what you need to know from that and try something else.

Want to be a better choreographer? Write 32 to 64 counts (4-8 sets of 8) at every rehearsal/practice session you have. If you can’t decide on a piece of music, set your playlist to random. If all you do is plies for your first 32 counts, fine. Eventually, you’ll learn what you need to know from that and try something else.

Want to create a better vlog, host a better podcast, draw better Lovecraftian horrors? Generate five new ideas every single day. Hell, make it ten. Make it twenty. If the first hundred are all variations on “Interview [insert Lovecraftian horror here],” fine. Eventually, you’ll learn what you need to know from that and try something else.

A lot of beginners, in particular, fear that if they just start with the basics – simply writing “My mind is a blank and I suck at writing” over and over, or drawing the same anime characters again and again – they’re wasting time. They’ll never move past those basics. Their masterpiece novel/manga/interpretive dance will never materialize.

As the ceramics class proved, however, the masterpiece won’t materialize if you don’t make fifty pounds of crap first.


If you found this post useful, help a fellow artist: share this post on social media or buy me a coffee.

How to Start Freelance Writing With No Experience

One of the most common questions I hear as a freelance writer is “I want to start freelancing, but I have no experience. How do I break into the industry?”

I’ve thought about this question a lot. I’ve written about it a lot as well. And the more I think about it, the more I think “How do I start freelancing with no experience?” is the wrong question.

Here’s why it’s the wrong question, why we ask it anyway, and what to do about it.

Here’s why “how do I start freelancing with no experience?” is the wrong question.

Many – probably most – people come to freelancing with experience having been an employee, but not having been a freelancer. As a result, these people tend to think of freelancing as employment, just with lots of different employers.

This is totally understandable! It’s normal! But it’s also doing the new freelancer a disservice.

As a freelancer, you’re not at the mercy of one employer. You don’t have to convince one company to take you on, throw a bunch of resources at you and hope it works out. As a freelancer, you are a business approaching other businesses with a value-add proposition.

That’s really important, so let me repeat it:

As a freelancer, you are a business approaching other businesses with a value-add proposition.

So the question isn’t “what do I do if I have no experience”? It’s “what value do I bring to the table”?

Here’s why we ask it anyway.

Experience on past freelance projects is a form of value. In fact, it’s a nicely-packaged form of value. That experience becomes shorthand for reassuring value-add concepts like:

  • I know what I’m doing.
  • I understand this topic area.
  • I can employ the conventions of projects like this.
  • I speak the jargon of this topic area and/or industry.
  • I know how to meet deadlines.
  • I add enough value that other people think my skill worth paying for.

That’s why a lot of places looking for freelancers seek experience. It’s why freelancers that have experience make sure to mention it. “Experience” is a way to communicate a lot of different aspects of value in four syllables.

It is also wildly misleading.

Packing down any set of complex concepts into a single word leaves out a lot of detail. It leaves that single word open to misinterpretation by both parties. For instance, “experience” can cause client misconceptions like:

  • This person just knows exactly what I want.
  • This person has done progressively more difficult projects.
  • This person has a well-ordered system for dealing with upsets, mistakes, third-party fumbles, deadline miscalculations and a host of other problems.

While experience makes it more likely you have (some of) those abilities, experience does not guarantee you have any of them. For instance, your “ten years of experience” may involve having done the same type of project over and over for ten years. You didn’t gain ten years’ worth of learning or development; you simply repeated one year of learning and development ten times.

In other words, “experience” isn’t a land-a-new-client free card. In fact, if you understand what that word stands for, you can beat out experienced freelancers to land a client.

Here’s what to do about it.

“Experience” is a small word that packs a lot of expectations into it. By unpacking the word, you can demonstrate that you offer a client value worth paying for.

Start by asking yourself these questions:

  • When have I been responsible for similar projects in my life? Can I show the results, such as by uploading them to a digital portfolio?
  • What’s my knowledge of the client’s topic area? If I don’t have any, what experience do I have learning new topic areas quickly?
  • Do I know the jargon of this type of freelance work (writing, graphic design, coding etc.) and/or can I speak the jargon of the client’s industry (SaaS products, law, dentistry, etc.)? If not, how can I demonstrate my ability to learn that jargon quickly?
  • When have I had to meet deadlines in the past, and what were the results? Can I show the results (for instance, with that digital portfolio)?
  • How have I been “paid” for exercising this skill in the past? Payment isn’t always about money. For instance, have you received a high grade in a class on graphic design? Did you create a brochure for a local charity that got lots of praise? Has your fanfiction been upvoted a billion times?

If you have nothing whatsoever to show in your answers to these questions, you’re not prepared to freelance, full stop – because you have zero skills to show in these areas.

For instance, while I’ve been a freelance writer for a decade now, I wouldn’t even begin to seek out freelance work in graphic design. I rely on Canva templates for my featured blog images; I don’t compose those myself. I can talk about graphic design; I can resize and lightly edit photos in Photoshop; I can talk about basic color theory. But ask me to design your logo or branding color scheme from scratch, and I’m going to shake my head.

I don’t have the skills to do graphic design projects well – so I don’t offer that service to clients.

However, if you know graphic design software, concepts and lingo well, and if you’ve had enough exposure to a client’s line of work to have some idea what it’s all about and why good graphic design would matter, you may be equipped to look for freelance clients, even if you’ve never had a freelance graphic design client before.

If this sounds familiar, it’s time to move on to the next set of questions:

  • Can I talk to clients about my ideas, listen to theirs, and find ways to meet in the middle?
  • Can I show growth in my skills over time?
  • Have I thought/read/learned about the most common roadblocks in a freelance project, and do I have a plan for addressing them?

The first one is a matter of confidence. As a brand-new freelancer, you may just have to “fake it till you make it.” If you love the kind of work you’re doing, however, you’ll find it easy to get enthusiastic in conversations about it.

The second one can best be done by setting up a freelance portfolio, which is easy for writers to do on sites like WordPress (see mine above). For graphic designers and coders, there are sites that specialize in showcasing visual works and/or code.

The third one is something you can learn, often from online sources like this one. You can’t be prepared for every weird eventuality, but you can learn what the most common problems are for freelancers and prepare for them. You can learn what should go in a freelance contract and how to read contracts that clients offer to you.

If you can express your value and understand how to interact with clients as another business, you can freelance. Yes, even if you have no freelance experience.


If this article is helpful to you, please consider helping me by sharing on social media or leaving a tip. Best wishes on your freelance adventure!

Do Shelter Cats Really Find Good Homes? Three Cats Weigh In

I recently received this answer request on Quora:

Are the homes that cats find in shelters really good ones?

In the interest of mitigating my obvious human bias, I asked my three cats this question.

Their answer? Definitely not.

The human who adopted us from the shelter is a total garbage nightmare. Get this: She only gives us canned food twice a day. The rest of the day, we have to survive on kibble. Kibble!

The torture doesn’t stop there. Just this morning, the horrible human brushed us. That wasn’t so bad, but then she also trimmed our nails. How dare she!

Every night, the oldest cat gets wrapped in a towel and given a pill. What is the purpose of this pill?

Trick question: It has no purpose, other than to torment the cat by keeping her alive so that the human can pill her again tomorrow.

You’d think even a human would find other things to do now and then, but no. The agony continues day and night.

For example, we cats aren’t even allowed to run back and forth across the bed at five in the morning! We have to do that in the rest of the house instead!

What is the point of existence if you can’t trample someone in their sleep every night?!

It’s not just the human, either. The local wildlife is in on the cruelty, as well.

For instance, there’s a local squirrel who sits on the fence and stares at the cats. Does this squirrel come inside and get eaten like a good prey animal? Of course it doesn’t! How rude!

And don’t even get us started on the birds. Those feathered jerks sit on the feeder all day long, just on the other side of the glass that separates them from the cat tree (which, by the way, the human vacuums once a week with that awful monster that lives in the closet).

Even our toys are in on the torment. Yesterday, the kitten knocked a stuffed mousie down an air vent, and the mousie didn’t even come back when called.

The audacity!

Worst of all: Once or twice a year, for absolutely no reason at all, the human puts all three cats into boxes and drives us TO THE VET.

And if a cat gets sick? There’s an even bigger chance they’ll have to go TO THE VET.

The human clearly preys upon feline weakness.

“But it can’t be all bad!” I hear you cry. “Surely you get petted every now and then? Treats? Catnip?”

Oh, you sweet summer child.

The human, delighted by feline misery, frequently pets the cats with only one hand. Worse, sometimes the human will do this while using the other hand to cruelly thwart the cat’s attempts to snatch human food off the human’s plate.

What did kitty ever do to deserve this?

Does the human tell us we are good cats and pretty cats? Of course she does. Do we understand English? No, we do not.

As for catnip, let’s just say this: The human hoards it in the backyard and in a little jar in the pantry, and she can’t even get high off it.

UGH. WHY ARE HUMANS ALLOWED?


Help end feline suffering: donate to the Gracie, Melody and Pippa Toy and Treat Fund.