Can Quarantine Boost Your Creativity?

One of the most frequent questions I see on Quora is how to be more creative, or how to have more ideas, or how authors and artists generate their ideas.

My stock advice has always been to get bored. My famous ten-step creative process begins with it.

I recommend it because it works for me. My brain-monkey absolutely cannot sit still for more than a few minutes before it starts screeching and flinging the stinky, sticky poop of boredom to fertilize my idea garden.

Quarantine is an Aegean stable of boredom. Boredom is stacked to the ceiling. You’d need two rivers to clear out all the boredom. If there were ever a time grow some first-class ideas from a pile of boredom manure, now is that time.

But just because I think something is a good idea – and even recommend it on Quora! – is no proof it’s actually a good idea. I can’t be trusted for advice on what to do in quarantine. I cut my own bangs last week.

So I did a little Googling. Here’s what to know about boredom and creativity.

quarantine creativity

The human brain needs boredom to function optimally.

Boredom may not feel pleasant, but it’s essential for proper brain function. Engaging with external stimuli, without a break, can result in cognitive overload, which has a negative effect on memory, mood, and executive function (the ability to plan, predict, and execute your own daily tasks), say Erin Walsh and David Walsh in an article for Psychology Today.

Many people think that creativity is their personal dump stat, only to surprise themselves with their ability to generate ideas under the right conditions. A lack of creativity may actually be a lack of available brain power – because it’s all being spent on staying busy.

You can be “productive” while you’re bored.

One of the reasons boredom has fallen by the wayside in so many lives is that, culturally, we in the US prize being busy. We’re skeptical of anyone who has the time to get bored. We associate happiness with productivity, so we strive to be productive, or at least occupied. Staying busy has even become an American status symbol, according to one study in the Journal of Consumer Research.

The drive to stay busy – whether for status, to make ends meet, to avoid dealing with other psychological issues, or as an end in itself – can become so overwhelming that it causes serious health problems. It can also be an extremely difficult habit to break.

Even if you’re not in a workaholic frame of mind, you may find it difficult to sit alone with your thoughts. If so, you’re not alone. In one 2014 study, researchers gave participants the choice of sitting alone with their thoughts for six to 15 minutes, or enduring a mild electric shock. Many of the participants chose the electric shock.

“Most people seem to prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative,” the researchers wrote.

Fortunately, you don’t have to flip the switch from “constantly busy” to “doing nothing.”

In a 2014 study in the Creativity Research Journal, Sandi Mann and Rebekah Cadman asked participants to generate possible uses for a pair of plastic cups. Participants were divided into three groups. One group was simply asked to think about the cups question. The second group was first asked to copy numbers from the telephone book, then asked about the cups. The third group was asked to read the phone book, then asked about the cups.

The participants in the third group – reading the phone book – outperformed those in the second group, who in turn outperformed the first group. By experiencing boredom, the participants’ minds seemed to become more eager for a way out, generating ideas more readily as a result.

Undemanding tasks like taking a shower or going for a walk can help incubate more creative solutions to problems. These tasks can convince your inner critic that you’re “doing something productive,” allowing your mind to wander more freely and creatively.

You are doing something productive when you embrace idleness. Your brain may just take a little convincing.

Too much boredom, however, is a bad thing.

Some boredom – enough to give your brain the “elbow room” it needs to daydream – can boost creativity. Chronic, unrelieved boredom, however, is linked to a number of health problems, including depression, anxiety, and substance abuse, as well as to a propensity to crave high-fat, high-sugar foods. It may even be linked to an increased risk of premature death, particularly when combined with other factors like a sedentary lifestyle.

Often, this type of boredom isn’t linked to a lack of things to do, but the feeling that what needs to be done lacks meaning or purpose. Unlike the “approach” state boredom that engenders creative thinking, chronic boredom becomes an “avoidance” state that has a negative impact on innovation.

What boredom does for you might depend on who you are.

While many studies have found that boredom has a creativity-boosting effect generally, not everyone appears to respond in the same way to boredom.

In a 2019 study in the Academy of Management Discoveries, researchers Guihyun Park, Beng-Chong Lim and Hui Si Oh studied the effects of boredom in the workplace.

The researchers found that “boredom did not universally increase creativity for a product development task.” That is, not all the participants saw creativity-boosting benefits from being placed in a state of boredom.

Rather, the participants whose creativity benefited most from boredom all shared a set of common traits. They were more likely than their peers to have a high learning goal orientation, a high need for cognition, high openness to experience, and a high internal locus of control.

In other words, people may be more likely to find that boredom helps them generate ideas if they’re already active learners, curious about the world, and inclined to seek solutions within themselves.

Boredom isn’t the only emotional state that boosts creativity.

While some boredom can be productive, boredom isn’t the only emotional state that can help you generate ideas.

In a May 2014 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers Karen Gasper and Brianna L. Middlewood found that when people felt either bored or elated, they produced more creative mental associations than when they were distressed or relaxed.

What’s interesting about these results is that both elation and boredom are classified as “approach” states, or states in which the person is ready to engage with something. By contrast, distress and relaxation are “avoidance” states, or states in which the person retreats from engagement. It appears that we’re more likely to think of something new when we’re already in the mood to engage.

If there seems to be no room in your head for anything except the concerns of the day, it may be time to take ten minutes and let your mind wander. If even the concerns of the day can’t seem to concern you, however, the problem may be too much boredom – or your brain telling you that you’re on the wrong path.


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Everything on My Patreon is Free Right Now Because #*$& You, COVID-19

Today I relaunched my Patreon. With one difference:

Everything I post on Patreon for the near future is free. 

Welcome to my PATREON RELAUNCH BLOG PARTY, brought to you by SOCIAL DISTANCING! Here’s what you need to know.

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Why relaunch Patreon?

Two reasons. One is selfish, the other is…mostly not.

THE NON-SELFISH REASON: Right now we are, as a species, in the middle of a crisis that the vast majority of us now living have never seen the like of before. And while each of us is responding in our own way, one source of comfort and connection many of us have turned to is art.

Yes, TikTok videos and memes count.

The recent explosion of creators dumping works to the Internet for free underscores art’s importance to humanity, particularly in times of great stress. Art gives us an outlet for our feelings. It brings us together. It helps us maintain perspective.

THE SELFISH REASON: I’m going more than a little stir-crazy under this shelter in place order. I’m sure you can relate. By relaunching my Patreon, I put pressure on myself to stop scrolling Twitter or dwelling on my potential demise and MAKE ART.

After all, you’re all counting on me.

Is It Really Free?

Yes. Every post will be public for the foreseeable future. I don’t intend to paywall anything until the vast majority of us are back to work.

I’m aware this means I may be making public posts for a long time. It may be as long as 18 months, since that’s the current best estimate for a working COVID-19 vaccine.

What if I Want to Pay You Anyway?

You are welcome to subscribe at any tier, at any time. I appreciate the vote of confidence, and I’m glad you have the disposable income to help support art!

Be aware, however, that tier perks will be postponed as long as everything on the Patreon is public. I’ll get back to them once I return to paywalling work. So if you, say, join the $50 tier now, you’ll get the books listed – just not until the shelter in place order in my home state is lifted, at the earliest.

Want to send financial support, but can’t commit to a monthly subscription? You’re welcome to send me what you can, when you can via Ko-Fi.

Want to show support, but have even less money for essentials that usual? Share the Patreon link with your friends!

Does This Mean ALL Your Work Is Free Right Now?

Alas, no.

The work I post to Patreon is free. My blog has always been freely available. And you can, of course, follow my brain-dumpings in real time on Twitter.

My published books, however, still have price tags on them. That’s because the books support more than just me – they also help my publisher and editor keep their doors open and the lights on.

I do, however, highly recommend following my Patreon if you’re curious about the books, or if you’re not ready to commit to buying them for any reason. You’ll get a good look at what goes on in my published works before you decide to acquire them.

This FAQ Doesn’t Answer My Question.

Drop me a message in the comments here, or DM me via Twitter. I’ll do my best to answer between handwashing sessions.

Stay healthy. Enjoy art. Take care of your loved ones. ❤

A Ten-Step Creative Process That Absolutely Works

Today in my Quora inbox:

What sort of approach or strategy do you most often use in your creative work as a writer, from the very early beginning stages and onwards?

I found this question baffling at first. Asking about “process” seems antithetical to creation itself. I don’t have a process! I channel the inspiration of the gods themselves!

Except I do, of course, have a process. All creatives do.

I can’t guarantee my process will work for anybody else. (Notice that the headline doesn’t say who “a ten-step creative process that absolutely works” works for.) I frequently disappoint aspiring creatives by regaling them with a discussion of my methods, only for them to list 5,000 ways those methods won’t work for them.

So your mileage may vary. Please consult the manual before driving. Do not feed this advice to babies or small children.

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Phase the Early: Ideas

Perhaps the most queried-after item in the whole “creativity” topic. Where do you get your ideas? How can I have more ideas? 

Step One: GET BORED.

Boredom is my friend. Boredom is where the really juicy creative nonsense comes from.

I took up running on the elliptical in order to get bored. I put a stationary bike in my basement so I can get bored. I’ll put my phone out in my car in 0F weather to force myself to get bored. I show up to dentist appointments an hour early to get bored.

It only takes a few minutes of boredom for my brain to start making up the most bizarre nonsense in order to alleviate its own boredom.

Step Two: MACBETH HATH MURDERED JUDGMENT.

All ideas at this stage are worth entertaining. No matter how truly terrible they are. In fact, the worst ideas are the most worth entertaining.

Last summer, I took several dance classes at the Music for All Summer Symposium with Vincent Thomas, who teaches at Towson University. We started every session with four agreements, the first of which was “To be full of my own value and free of judgment.”

Step Two is my “full of my own value and free of judgment” stage. If an idea comes up, I’ll play with it. The kookier the better.

Phase the Middle: Not-Terrible Ideas

The transition from the early to middle stage occurs when a single idea recurs enough times that I realize I’ve been thinking about it more than once. It doesn’t want to let go.

And since it won’t let go, it gets to move on to Step 3.

Step 3: JOT IT DOWN.

If an idea won’t go away, I write it down.

Writing it down tricks the idea into thinking I’m actually going to do something with it. The vast majority of ideas fall for this scam. They then get shoved into a closet, where I look at them once every 20 years.

The most persistent ideas, however, are too smart to fall for it. They keep coming back even after I’ve written them down. These ideas get to move on to Step 4.

Step 4: A LITTLE JUDGMENT IS OKAY.

I say “judgment,” but I mean “discernment.” This is where I start thinking about how the idea would work in practice.

What would the end result look like? What are the practical steps required for me to make it work? Is it worth the time and effort required?

Some ideas aren’t worth what I’d invest to do them. For instance, I have a long-pestering idea for some bathroom wall art made from repurposed pages of Moby-Dick (to do with my kraken shower curtain). But learning the skill to execute what’s in my head will take time and effort I’d rather spend on other things, like getting these novels out of my head.

Phase the Late: Making Art

If an idea survives steps 3 and 4, it gets one free ticket into the late stage.

Step 5: RESEARCH.

Step 4 is about whether the idea is feasible for me, personally and individually, to execute. Step 5 is about whether the idea is feasible within a broader social and economic context.

Is there a realistic marketable version of this idea, and if so, what does it look like? Is there some related topic or idea out there that is way cooler and more interesting? Are there 500 other artworks on this idea (hint: Yes! Always!), and what do they look/sound/feel like?

Step 5 is Wikipedia rabbit hole o’clock. I cram related creative works until I just can’t hold any more.

Step 6: OUTLINING/SKETCHING/NOODLING AROUND.

Now that I know WAY TOO MUCH ABOUT EVERYTHING related to this idea, what will my iteration look like for reals?

This is where I generate a bunch of really terrible proto-versions of the idea. Once again, judgment is locked out of the room. Quantity, not quality, is the goal here. 15 different marching band show ideas on the theme of “Angels”? 20 sketches of the same sleeping cat? Hell yeah, you can never have too many of those.

Step 7: REFINEMENT.

Write, draw, dance, polish, edit, repeat, repeat, repeat, whatever.

Blood is sweated, sweat is cried, tears are bled.

I become convinced that creating art in the first place was the worst idea I have ever had. Seriously, why can’t I just be a nice, boring insurance adjuster? O Muse, why dost Thou torment me so??!?!

This is the phase in which I start to question why I haven’t taken up a less self-destructive habit. Like skydiving. Or smoking opium.

Step 8. TENTATIVE PRESENTATION.

After blood, sweat, tears, and not nearly enough day drinking, a draft is born! And like someone who has just given birth, I’d be more excited if I wasn’t utterly exhausted.

I show the draft to people who love me, who love the art, and who have zero fear about telling me exactly how much the work sucks. They tell me exactly how much and in what ways the work sucks. I can’t believe I’m friends with these people.

I get spiteful: Oh yeah, well, I’ll show YOU whose book needs to explore its themes in more depth! I tear into revision with a vengeance, and I question why I ever thought I’d ever do anything else with my life except creating art.

Step 9: ABANDONMENT.

As they say: A creative work is never finished, only abandoned.

Eventually, I kick the piece out to its final destination – my publisher, a marching band director, my bathroom wall, whatever. I promptly forget it exists. Months later, when I get an email informing me that my short story was accepted or that some band director wants to give me cash moneys for making their 150-piece ensemble imitate starfish, I wonder how the heck it got addressed to me.

I’m not into short stories or starfish dancing anymore, see. I’m onto something new.

Step 10: REBOOT.

I find the most mindless activity I can (Sims, anyone?) and do it until I start to get bored. Boredom is my friend. Boredom is where the really juicy creative nonsense comes from….


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Creativity by Markov Chain, or Why Predictive Text Isn’t the Novel-Writing Shortcut You’re Looking For

Over the past year, I’ve played with Botnik‘s predictive text generator to create everything from alternative histories of popular holidays to terrible Christmas carol lyrics to the median New Year’s resolutions. It’s fun, it’s silly, and it is far more labor-intensive than most people imagine computer-generated texts would be.

Most of the conversations I see around AI and text generation assume that writers are going to be put out of business shortly. They assume that AI can not only generate text but generate it well, without human intervention.

These assumptions are…a bit overdone.

Here’s why predictive-text novels won’t be the next big trend in literature.

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What’s a Markov Chain?

Predictive text is typically powered by a Markov chain, an algorithm that tracks a set of defined “states” and determines the probability of jumping to the next state from a current position in any one state.

For instance, if you wanted to create a super-simple Markov chain model of a writer’s behavior, “writing” might be one state and “not-writing” might be another. (This list of possible states is called a “state space.”) At any given time, the writer is either “writing” or “not-writing.”

There are four possible transitions between “writing” and “not-writing”:

  1. writing to writing (“must finish paragraph!”),
  2. writing to not-writing (“what’s on Netflix?”),
  3. not-writing to writing (“once…upon…a…time”), and
  4. not-writing to not-writing (“why yes, I WILL binge all of The Witcher, thanks”).

Thus, the probability of making a transition from any state to any other state is 0.5 (here’s a visual representation). At least at the beginning.

Markov chains also have a limited ability to learn from data inputs. For instance, one could program a two-state Markov chain to predict whether you will write or not-write on any given day, based on last year’s calendar. (If you’re like me, your Markov chain will be more likely to predict that you’ll write tomorrow if you wrote today, and more likely to predict not-writing tomorrow if you didn’t write today.)

What Does This Have to Do With Predictive Text?

Predictive text algorithms are Markov chains. They analyze words you have input in the past (or in the case of Botnik, how often words appear in proximity to other words) in order to predict the probability of you jumping to a particular word from the state “the word you just wrote.”

Why Writing With Predictive Text is Hard

You don’t need to understand the nuances of Markov chains to grasp that a book written by one would be tough to produce – but that understanding does make it easier to explain why.

Markov Has a Short Memory

As mentioned above, Markov chains have a limited ability to adjust their predictions based on factors like how frequently a state appears or how often it appears relative to (as in, before or after) other states.

The key word in that sentence is limited.

Markov chains don’t have any memory of the past. They can tell you which word is most likely to appear after this word, but they can’t tell you whether that prediction has already appeared 500 times or not at all.

In online predictive-text memes, this means that some results get stuck in an endless loop. For instance:

Predictive text meme Tweet

Predictive text meme Tweet that reads “Trans people are going to be a good time to get a chance to look at the time to get a chance to look at the time to get a chance to look at the time….” A response reads “Ok but did you get a chance to look at the time?”

This was a response to a predictive-text meme on Twitter that challenged people to type “Trans people are” into their phones and then hit the predictive-text suggestion to generate a result. This Twitterer’s predictive text got caught in a loop pretty quickly – it doesn’t recognize that it said “time to get a chance to look at the” already. It takes another human to save the joke here: “Ok but did you get a chance to look at the time?”

What Does This Mean for a Predictive-Text Novel?

A Markov chain’s predictive limitations pose two problems for long-form creative text generation:

  1. The Markov chain can get stuck. The more common a word is, the more likely it is to get stuck. “A,” “and,” “the,” “of,” and similar function words can easily trap the chain.
  2. Novels depend on memory. Story development requires attention to what came before. Predictive text, however, can only predict what word is most likely to come next. They can’t do that in the context of prior theme, character or plot development.

The results, therefore, are more likely to be incomprehensible than anything else – at least without careful editing. (I’ll get to that below.) For some examples of absurdist Markov chain results, see r/SubredditSimulator, which consists entirely of Reddit posts by Markov chains.

The Raw Material Blues

While generating last year’s various holiday posts on Botnik, I quickly discovered that the raw material fed to the predictive text generator makes a huge difference in the quality of the output.

If you’ve read the post series, you may have noticed a trend: In each one, I note that I fed “the first page of Google search results” or “the first twenty” Google search results” to Botnik (those are the same number, by the way). Why so specific?

It appears that the minimum size of the text bank Botnik requires to produce text that is funny but not incomprehensible is 20:1. In other words, if I wanted a blog-post-sized text, I needed to put in at least 20 texts of equal or greater length.

Twenty to one might even be undershooting it. Most of my predictive-text posts are around 500 words, while the top Google results from which they were generated tended to be 1,500 to 2,000 words.

What Does This Mean for a Predictive-Text Novel?

I haven’t tested this ratio on anything longer than a blog post. I do not, however, have any reason to believe that the ratio would be smaller for a novel. In fact, I predict the ratio would be larger for a coherent novel that looked sufficiently unlike its predecessor to survive a copyright challenge.

In every holiday blog post I generated via predictive text, the generator got “stuck” in a sentence of source text at least once. In other words, the Markov chain decided that the most likely word to follow the one on screen was the next word that already existed in a sentence somewhere in my source text.

When generating text from Google’s top twenty blog posts on the history of Thanksgiving, for instance, it was pretty easy to pick up on these sticking points. I didn’t have the entire source text memorized, but I knew my Thanksgiving history well enough to recognize when Botnik was being unfunnily accurate.

For a predictive-text novel of 70,000 words, one would need:

  1. Approximately 1.4 million words of source text (minimum), or about twenty 70,000-word novels, and
  2. A sufficient knowledge of that source text to recognize when the predictive text generator had gotten stuck on a single sentence or paragraph.

Point 2 has some creative opportunities. A predictive-text novella based on Moby-Dick, for instance, might benefit from repeating a large chunk of Moby-Dick verbatim (said novella would need to stay under 10,455 words to fit within the source text limitations, if you’re wondering). But the writer would still have to know Moby-Dick well enough to recognize when predictive text was simply reciting the book versus when it wasn’t:

 We, so artful and bold, hold the universe? No! When in one’s midst, that version of Narcissus who for now held somewhat aloof, looking up as pretty rainbows in which stood Moby-Dick. What name Dick? or five of Hobbes’ king? Why it is that all Merchant-seamen, and also all Pirates and Man-of-War’s men, and Slave-ship sailors, cherish such a scornful feeling towards Whale-ships; this is a question it
would be hard to answer. Because, in the case of pirates, say, I should
like to know whether that profession of theirs has any peculiar glory
about it. Blackstone, soon to attack of Moby-Dick; for these extracts of whale answered; we compare with such. That famous old craft’s story of skrimshander storms upon this grand hooded phantom of honor!

A Future for Creative Writing?

I learned with the first predictive-text holiday post that I couldn’t accept the predictive-text generator’s first suggestion every time, nor could I click suggestions at random. I was still writing; it’s just that I was choosing the next word in each sentence from a predictive-text generator’s suggestions, not from my own much larger vocabulary.

Many conversations about predictive-text creative writing suggest or assume that predictive-text will eventually take over our own creative processes – that it will supplant writing rather than support it. Not in its current form, it won’t.

For me, some aspects of writing via predictive text are actually harder than writing on my own. The Markov chain frequently backs into function-word corners and has to be saved with the judicious application of new content words. Punctuation is typically absent. Because the algorithm has no idea what it wrote previously, it doesn’t know how to stay on topic, nor does it know how to build coherent ideas over time.

Everything it couldn’t do, I had to do – and I had to do it with my next word choice perpetually limited to one of eighteen options.

That said, I love the idea that predictive-text authoring could arise as an art form within writing itself. Predictive text generators challenge us to engage with the art and craft of writing in new ways. They set new limitations, but they also suggest new possibilities. In so doing, they create an opportunity to engage with writing in new – and often hilarious – ways.

Anyway, here’s Wonderwall:

So maybe
Ya go to sadness baby
Cause when you tried
I have wasted dreams


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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.


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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.