Saturday, February 15, 2014

When Writers Procrastinate

Otto von Bismarck famously said: “Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.”

Megan McArdle suggests that the same principle applies to good writing, and to many other kinds of work.

A writer friend of hers described his process:

I once asked a talented and fairly famous colleague how he managed to regularly produce such highly regarded 8,000 word features. “Well,” he said, “first, I put it off for two or three weeks. Then I sit down to write. That’s when I get up and go clean the garage. After that, I go upstairs, and then I come back downstairs and complain to my wife for a couple of hours. Finally, but only after a couple more days have passed and I’m really freaking out about missing my deadline, I ultimately sit down and write.”

When students study writing in school, they do not witness this process. They do not see the revisions and the edits. Since they mostly see the end product, they tend to believe, McArdle continues, that it all flowed directly from the writer’s mind on to the page in its final form.

They do not learn an important basic principle: It takes an enormous amount of work to make something look effortless.

To sustain this illusion, children are now being taught that talent is all that matters. They believe in inspiration, not perspiration. They have been told, from their youngest days, that they are special, uniquely talented and utterly brilliant.

McArdle does not name it as such, but this delirium derives from American self-esteemism. Children learn that unearned praise is more important than competition. 

Often enough, those who excel are not the most talented. They are those who work the hardest.

Research has demonstrated, as I have been at pains to report, that a child who is told he is exceptional tends to be lazing about exercising his abilities. A child who is told that he has limited talents and that he can develop them by making an extra effort will do better on actual tasks.

Effectively, we have replaced a work ethic with a love ethic. Or better, with a love-yourself ethic.

McArdle explains:

This teaches a very bad, very false lesson: that success in work mostly depends on natural talent. Unfortunately, when you are a professional writer, you are competing with all the other kids who were at the top of their English classes. Your stuff may not—indeed, probably won’t—be the best anymore.

If you’ve spent most of your life cruising ahead on natural ability, doing what came easily and quickly, every word you write becomes a test of just how much ability you have, every article a referendum on how good a writer you are. As long as you have not written that article, that speech, that novel, it could still be good. Before you take to the keys, you are Proust and Oscar Wilde and George Orwell all rolled up into one delicious package. By the time you’re finished, you’re more like one of those 1940’s pulp hacks who strung hundred-page paragraphs together with semicolons because it was too much effort to figure out where the sentence should end.

Apparently, this is called the impostor syndrome. Writers, for example, do not hand in work because they are afraid of being exposed as impostors.

On the other hand, the writing process itself is none too pretty. And it never runs smooth. As in many other areas of life, the proof is in the product. If the work product is good, it does not really matter what went into getting there.

If the case of the writer McArdle described, he was not really procrastinating. Perhaps, all that walking around and doing chores and talking to his wife was part of his work process.

If he gets his work in on time, I, for one will not tar him as a procrastinator. In fact, the notion that a writer can sit down and just write is entirely unrealistic. Writers do better when they embrace their process rather than beat themselves up for not spending all their time at their desks.

Why do writers distract themselves, walk around the room, turn on the television, chat with their friends, surf the web and perform a variety of meaningless tasks while they are working on a piece?

Several reasons suggest themselves.

First, writing is a sedentary activity. Sitting at a desk for long periods of time is bad for your circulation, bad for your brainpower and bad for your health. Getting up and walking around is the least you can and should do.

Second, writing is a solitary activity. Unless you are dictating to a secretary, writing is unnatural. It isolates you. Eventually, your writing will be read by someone, but for the present, you are alone with your work. Being alone does not facilitate thought; it demoralizes. Don’t feel bad about finding ways to take breaks and connecting with other people.

Third, good writing involves a great deal of editing and revision. It does not just flow. It is cobbled together through numerous drafts. To perform this task well you need to be able to look at your writing with fresh eyes. You need especially to gain some distance between how you were feeling when you were writing and how you feel when you read it over.

The problem does not lie as much with a fear of being an impostor as with the discovery that while you were convinced that you were churning out page after page of brilliant, mellifluous prose you were writing self-indulgent, barely grammatical junk.

Good writers must have strong stomachs.

Inexperienced writers often believe that the quality of their work has a direct relationship to how they felt while they were producing it. If you feel great while you are writing something, if you feel that you are in a groove, you might naively believe that you are doing great work.

If you cannot detach yourself from that feeling, you will fail as a writer. If you cannot deal with the disconnect between the quality of your work, as seen through objective eyes, and the feeling you had when you were writing it down, you will never succeed.

It’s an acquired skill. Good editors will teach it to you. A good editor will tell you to put your writing aside for a few days or a week or a month. When you come back to it you will discover, to your eternal chagrin, that it is really, really bad, and that its quality has nothing to do with the way you felt when you were writing it.

This applies to many other types of work. The idea that seemed so brilliant when you were working it out last night turns out, in the light of day, to be banal.

Scientists are better equipped to deal with the process than are many writers. They are taught to have an objective reference, not a subjective standard. They know that their hypotheses are only as good as the experiments that prove or disprove them. They are trained to allow reality to pass judgment on their talent.

Apparently, young Americans have lately been showing that they do not have the psychological and emotional skills to cast a cold eye of judgment on their work, be it writerly or unwriterly work.

McArdle describes it:

About six years ago, commentators started noticing a strange pattern of behavior among the young millennials who were pouring out of college. Eventually, the writer Ron Alsop would dub them the Trophy Kids. Despite the sound of it, this has nothing to do with “trophy wives.” Rather, it has to do with the way these kids were raised. This new generation was brought up to believe that there should be no winners and no losers, no scrubs or MVPs. Everyone, no matter how ineptly they perform, gets a trophy.

In a strange way, today’s young people do have a work ethic. Yet, their work ethic does not allow themselves to put themselves out, to take an initiative, to take a risk. They are allergic to being judged.

Today’s new graduates may be better credentialed than previous generations, and are often very hardworking, but only when given very explicit direction. And they seem to demand constant praise. Is it any wonder, with so many adults hovering so closely over every aspect of their lives? Frantic parents of a certain socioeconomic level now give their kids the kind of intensive early grooming that used to be reserved for princelings or little Dalai Lamas.

A golden credential is no guarantee of success, and in the process of trying to secure one for their kids, parents are depriving them of what they really need: the ability to learn from their mistakes, to be knocked down and to pick themselves up—the ability, in other words, to fail gracefully. That is probably the most important lesson our kids will learn at school, and instead many are being taught the opposite.


David Foster said...

The CEO of Nestle UK recently complained that few recent engineering graduates are "willing to really roll up their sleeves” and engage with unskilled and semi-skilled operators." She also observed that they are lacking in interpersonal skills and have little or no knowledge of the food industry.

The executive, Fiona Kendrick, is supporting the launch of a new masters-level program in food & drink manufacturing engineering. Maybe this will address her third issue..the industry-knowledge issue...but will not help the engagement and interpersonal-skills issues, and is IMO likely to do exactly the opposite.

Dennis said...

David Foster,

This is not an unusual problem for engineers. Many of them have a hard time relating to the people who have to make their ideas work. It is one reason why the Navy had the Engineers at Sea Program so they could experience what the user had to deal with under combat conditions.
I was asked to oversee a project that the Marine Corps need for clearing minefields. The engineer and the depot maintenance people were at loggerheads.
The first thing one noticed is that they we talking at each other, but no one was listening. It only took 2 months to get the item to factory acceptance testing and approval.

Almost all analysts have to do what many writers do because it requires being able to bring a lot of information together with consideration to how it affects the ultimate mission. I used to get up, walk around the building, go to lunch, talk to people and stare at the ceiling. After some time procrastinating it just flowed and then came the hard part of writing it all up.

Anonymous said...

The best teacher I ever had (for 3 years) was my HS English teacher, Mrs. Rigsby. A severely attractive Southern lady, every student was afraid of her. Except me.

I don't think she Ever praised me. But she gave me rigorous work, including college-level Term Papers. She also gave me books from her personal library.

I worked my buns off for her. After VN, I went to see her. She was dead young of Cancer.

The occupational hazard of speechwriters is heart attacks. Michael Gerson had one at 38. I still get nightmares. -- Rich Lara

David Foster said...

Dennis..."This is not an unusual problem for engineers."

True dat, and the problem is not limited to engineers. To a considerable extent, the situation can be made better or worse by organization design. If you have a business unit, or a value-stream team, focused on a particular new product...the BU or team to include engineers, marketing people, and manufacturing will get much more effective interaction than if you have giant functional empires for engineering, marketing, and manufacturing, all responsible for multiple product lines and tossing requirements documents over the wall at each other. (As a business friend used to say, "synergy costs money.")

But I also think that there is another problem, and that is that too many people, especially new graduates, tend to over-value their credentials and under-value what they can learn from smart and experienced (but uncredentialed) people...and again, this problem is by no means limited to engineers.

Ares Olympus said...

The process of writing (or any creative art perhaps) is hard to understand, and I agree there's a strange relationship with procrastination.

I remember hearing about a recent book on motivation, basically reward systems are helpful for tasks that are mechanical but higher rewards cause worse performance for tasks that require higher mental function, including creative problem solving, which certainly would include writing.

Myself, I don't see the point in naming "American self-esteemism" as an enemy that prevent of quality work, but I might equally suggest our "inner critic" is the enemy, that causes our procrastination, so the battle is to silence the critic long enough to get SOMETHING down.

I am curious about the editing process, and see sentimental attachment is no different from writing to gardening, where there is abundance and you know it is too much, and is unhealthy growth, but just can't bare to remove what doesn't belong.

The same applies in being a computer programmer, and code bloat. You can make something wonderful and just keep incrementally adding more wonder until it is a god forsaken mess, in coding, and for users, too complex to be useful to anyone who doesn't have the patience to learn how to use it. In comparison Apple Computers tried to apply the "simplicity" argument to programs, not for what's easy or exciting for the programmer, but what most transparently allows the user to not see the program at all, but what they want to do.

Maybe gardening is a good comparison, without mother nature, we'd not have the abundance of forms to choose from, but we also have to copy natural selection with artificial selection, and knowing our purpose, we can iteratively approach something greater than any linear process could ever promise.

So in writing, nature are the muses, or perhaps by Jungian psychology, archetypal points of view, or simply moods, and each Muse has its own gifts, and if something you wrote yesterday that seemed wonderful is now dull, perhaps you're under a different muse in the moment, and this new muse has something else to teach, and can more mercilessly edit out the fluff that the first Muse wouldn't bare to leave out.

Anyway somehow I see this filtering process is how our "linear minds" can access a bigger picture than we can ever comprehend in a ordinary moment.

That's why I write at least, and I admit might not be a good writing, but it improves my thinking.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I agree with you that writing always improves thinking. It's not so clear why this is so-- except that it imposes far more discipline than does rumination.

As for the self-esteemism, McArdle does not call it such, but she does place considerable emphasis on the "trophy" culture where everyone gets a prize, regardless. Obviously, such a method must undermine motivation.

Sam L. said...

They have the last part of Dick Cheney's Unknowns: The Unknown Unknowns. They don't know what they don't know, and they won't let anyone tell them what they don't know, or need or ought to know.

Unknown said...

"...just can't bare to remove what doesn't belong."

The late Gary Provost suggested a way to get around this problem, "Make sure every word is doing a job."

Having to read words that aren't accomplishing anything, makes for tedious and boring reading. If you do this too much, your readers will stop reading.

Anonymous said...

I think I'm going to wait to write a comment...


Memphis said...

I've been trying to write my novel for almost a year now. I knew when I started how the story goes, even how it ends. Why does it seem to get more and more complicated and disorganized as I get deeper into it? Yes, writing is hard.