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.

How to Write an Ad for a Freelance Writer (and Get Responses From Writers You Actually Want to Hire)

  I’m a freelance writer who hates and fears cold-calling with the fiery passion of a thousand suns (who isn’t)?  I do it, but I also spend a great deal of time answering ads for freelance writers on Craigslist and similar sites.

It’s easy to fire off my resume in an email, and I’ve landed some choice gigs this way.  I’ve also run across some major duds.

So, if you’re in the market for a freelance writer, here are some tips for writing an effective freelance writer ad – one that will pull in the sort of competent help you’re (presumably) looking for.

1.  Tell us what you want – specifically.

The more vague a freelance-writer ad is, the less likely any professional freelance writer is to answer it.  Without a clear overview of the work you want done, we writers can’t figure out whether we’re equipped to do it, making us less likely to go through the fuss and bother of answering your ad.

A good ad for a freelance writer should explain, at a minimum, the topic area, the specific project or projects, and what the project or projects will be used for.  For instance, here is a terrible ad:

I need a writer for my website.  Email me.

I wouldn’t answer this ad.  Most writers won’t.  This ad offers zero information on what the website’s focus is, what kind of web writing the author wants done, or what the writing needs to do (sell things?  provide directions?  outline the site owner’s detailed turtle-based conspiracy theories?).  There’s also no direction on what this person wants to see when hiring a writer.

Here’s the previous ad, improved:

I run a website that details my turtle-based conspiracy theories in a series of Elizabethan sonnets.  I need a writer to produce five more sonnets explaining my new theory that tortoises are incapable of plotting total world domination.  Please send your resume and one writing sample that is an Elizabethan sonnet (does not have to cover turtle-based conspiracy theories).

Now your potential star freelancer knows what you need, how long you’re likely to need freelance help, and what the writing is supposed to do – as well as what information you want to see.

Everyone knows the *real* turtle conspiracy is actually hedgehogs.


2.  Check your spelling and grammar.

I cannot tell you how many ads I’ve seen that read like this:

i nede ppr on eLizzabetan sonetes plz email

(Translation: “I need paper on Elizabethan sonnets.  Please email.”)

Counterintuitively, most freelance writers won’t answer this ad.  Why not?  Because, while it’s obvious this person needs a writer – and badly – the amount of work we’re going to have to do just to understand what this person wants is astronomical.  It’s not worth it, especially when there are hundreds of other potential clients out there who can communicate what it is they need.

Before you click “post” on your ad for a freelance writer, run spell check.  Have someone read it over and correct obvious spelling and grammar mistakes.  Writers won’t generally hold the finer points against you – if you were a writer, you probably wouldn’t need to hire one, after all – but we need you to communicate clearly what it is you need a writer to do.

And, if that’s not enough, consider this: an ad that hasn’t even been spell-checked screams “easy to exploit.”  Even if you’ve never hired a freelancer before, don’t advertise that fact – there’s always somebody who will gladly charge you two or three times the going rate because you don’t know better, and you don’t need to be ripped off.

3.  Research pay rates.

Despite my previous advice on not being taken for a ride, remember this: the pay rate for professional writers is probably higher than you think.

Remember my LOL Your Freelance Writing Ad post?  I took the writer of that ad to task for this very thing – failing to check the going rate for a writer with “a proven track record as a well-written blogger or published author, who loves the process of investigative journalism and research,” and instead offered a laughable $0.03 per word.  Then the ad suggested that $0.10 per word was a “premium” rate!

A few writers starting out in the business may take $0.10 per word, particularly in exchange for some much-needed experience.  But no professional writer with a “proven track record” will write for $0.10 per word, much less $0.03 per word.  Offering them will just cause laughter.

Not sure what amount of money would be a fair trade for the kind and quality of writing you’re looking for?  Ask writers to send you their rates.  They’ll typically run from $0.10 per word for beginners up to $1.50 per word for top-notch professionals (National Geographic is famous for paying $1.50 per word).  Decide where the quality of the writing you need should reasonably fall, and prepare to pay accordingly.  And remember – you get what you pay for.

4.  Relax.

Even when an ad explains what the client wants in plain language, it may get passed up by experienced freelancers because its writer comes across as controlling – or worse, defensive.

LOL Your Freelance Writer Ad guy provides a stellar example:

CURRENT PAY IS $30 per article, so we are obviously not a cheap content-farm paying $10-$15 but if you’re looking for a premium $100 an article gig, please DO NOT write to me to insult me.

Aside from the utter failure of math here (600-1000 words for $30 *is* “cheap content farm” rates, and $100 for 1000 words is “entry-level writer” rates, not “premium” rates), the author of this ad clearly has a chip on his or her shoulder.  Even if I was willing to write for the rates offered, would I want to do it with someone so defensive about the job they’re offering that it oozes into the ad itself?  Of course not.

You may not be able to pay well.  You may never have hired a professional writer before.  You may be the reincarnation of Ernest Hemingway, who is only looking for an outside writer because your partner threatened to pull his venture capital from your turtle-conspiracy-theory-distribution startup if you didn’t.  That’s fine; it happens.  But don’t let it show up in your ad.

Google Image Search didn’t know what to do with “turtle conspiracy theory distribution center” either, so here is Lady Liberty hanging out with Brazilian Jesus.

The best way to write an ad that works is to explain clearly what you need, ask for a resume or writing sample, and leave it at that.  Save the concerns for when you’re negotiating with actual individual writers.