I can't start writing anything. Why is so, and how do I change this ?
November 24, 2014 9:29 AM   Subscribe

I have a lot of trouble writing stuff. I feel it's getting worse, to a point where it's problematic in my worklife. I don't understand why it is so, but I'd love to change this. Pointers, methods, experiences are all welcome, as I can't help but feel more than a bit weird about this.

So, once I start writing, I have little trouble doing it. But It's becoming more and more difficult for me to start writing.
Some examples:
- I need to write an important report for work. I keep pushing the deadline, even though I know exactly what I need to write in it. I have a fully formed outline, I know how to fill in the blanks, etc. I'm not doing that right now although I should be
- I postpone writing emails that are fully formed in my head for several days for no particular reason
- I can't write any piece of code from blank - bugfixing and changing someone else's code is fine, but starting a new thing seems near impossible.
- I haven't written in my diary for a couple of weeks (used to do it daily)
- I even procrastinated writing a check the other day.

I have no issue doing the rest of my work: coordinating people, doing presentations, trainings, meetings, managing projects, fixing code, etc

I'm also reasonably happy with my life at the moment - There is nothing that has changed recently in my stress level, I exercise, and feel I have a fairly balanced life.

To a certain extent, this has always been an issue for me - but for a long time, it was part of a procrastination package in which I sort of knew that event if I started things at the last minute, I would still be able to squeeze them in. Now that I have the power to shift deadlines however, this is becoming a bigger issue for me as I get very anxious about any kind of writing task, and tend to push deadlines way over whatever is acceptable, to the point that I feel I'm often slowing my whole team down.

So I would like to change that, but I sort of struggle at the how. In particular, what I feel I can't force myself to do except at a great cost (either because it takes me too much time, or because I ask someone to watch over me and pester me to do it), is starting up each sequence: write the outline, then write the content, then review it, etc... I feel that I'm reasonably fast at each part, but it takes me twice or three times the time to start it, than to actually do it (at least it feels very much that way).

Am I alone in this ? (re-reading it feels a bit crazy, but I actually feel I'm stuck at a physical level, e.g when I sit down to write, I will immediately start doing something else.)

How do I get out of this mode ?
posted by motdiem2 to Work & Money (16 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
I have moments of this, though for me it most often happens when I know it's going to be hard or boring or I'm going to be dealing with pushback later.

I generally use a timer and make myself spend 15 minutes on it (though 5 minutes will also work - I sometimes start these things when I know I've got a meeting in a few minutes and I'm just killing time) and if necessary I get a reward for doing my little bit. It tends to flow after that.

I think it's one of those things where anxiety begets anxiety, and if you can just give yourself a string of wins to prove it's not so bad, it will largely disperse on its own.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:41 AM on November 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I get this. What helped for me is to make my first version "[file] insane draft.doc" and then just write on the subject really quickly, not thinking, practically stream of consciousness. Go back to it a bit later and it's almost as if someone else wrote it so now you can edit it until it makes sense...
posted by KateViolet at 9:52 AM on November 24, 2014 [8 favorites]

Are you sure you're not burned out, or dealing with some other unresolved personal issue?
posted by starbreaker at 10:31 AM on November 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

I start in the middle. Sometimes I don't even write a whole sentence, just a phrase. After I have few phrases written, I go back to the beginning and start rewriting and refining.

Or I'll grab a piece of scrap paper and write a plan. This is usually a bunch of labeled boxes and "put this here" kinds of phrases.
posted by rakaidan at 10:42 AM on November 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I find that just turning everything off - no Internet, no cellphone - and giving myself permission to write an "insane draft" as KateViolet suggests above is the best way for me to get words on paper. I'll write things like "I need to write about foo today. Foo is mostly boring but one thing that's interesting to me about it is how it relates to bar." and so on.

Write early in the morning before your brain is awake. Morning pages are great. When I do three a day it helps a lot. I've used the web app 750words for this to great success. There's also an app that I can't remember the name of (I read about it on metafilter recently though so hopefully someone else remembers!) that hides your words from you until you hit your word count goal. That might help a lot.

Writing is rewriting. Write garbage the first time and refine. That is so much easier than writing well on the first go!

The secret to writing is to do it every day. Good luck!
posted by sockermom at 10:49 AM on November 24, 2014 [4 favorites]

"It turns out procrastination is not typically a function of laziness, apathy or work ethic as it is often regarded to be. It’s a neurotic self-defense behavior that develops to protect a person’s sense of self-worth." Quoted from this essay, which I think might make you feel less alone, citing The Now Habit, which gives more detailed reasons why people procrastinate.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 10:59 AM on November 24, 2014 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I've experienced similar problems, to the extent that I'm surprised I'm commenting on this thread.

The best (nontherapeutic) solution I've found is to begin writing in a sort of "pre-draft" mode, similar to the "insane draft" referenced above. Begin writing a draft that no one will ever see, in a simple notepad or wordpad document, that sounds silly and extremely unpolished. For instance, I particularly hate writing about myself and my skills for cover letters. So I start out by writing a pre-draft in which I make fun of myself. "Dear Head Honcho for Whom it May or May Not Concern: You should so totally hire me because I can juggle five kiwis at once and paint pretty pictures." Eventually, I get sick of sounding stupid in my pre-draft, so the pre-draft naturally morphs into a real draft.

For me, it's an issue of anxiety, combined with unreasonable perfectionism, and the fact that writing is just not my forte. You say that you are reasonably happy, but it does sound like you have a significant amount of anxiety - even if it only surfaces in relation to writing. I've found that addressing my anxiety in a therapeutic setting has done a lot to improve this type of avoidance. Hence me commenting on metafilter, for a change!
posted by emoemu at 11:00 AM on November 24, 2014 [3 favorites]

I definitely get this kind of writing anxiety, and I have found the best way to just start writing is to write about how I don't want to be writing, how I don't know what to write about, how this is stupid and lame and I am stupid and lame. Usually after a few paragraphs it morphs into "I just wanted to write about X, Y and Z but ugh and also blah," and then turns into the actual writing that I couldn't do earlier. Sounds similar to the pre-drafts mentioned above.
posted by rhapsodie at 11:48 AM on November 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Similar to the "insane draft," this gif is exactly how I start writing. Every day.

Laughing makes my anxiety go away, and it's nice to see words on the page.

The first word that gets me started nearly every day? "Mustard."

I have no idea why.

It makes me laugh.
posted by functionequalsform at 1:35 PM on November 24, 2014 [8 favorites]

Have you done any writing that you're proud of? Sometimes, when I have bad writer's block and feel like I have no talent at all, I'll re-read something I wrote that actually works and it'll remind me that I can actually do this.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 2:16 PM on November 24, 2014 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I'm assuming the problem comes in with picking up the pen in the first place - or putting your hands on the keyboard, right? You suddenly think of something else you just have to do right at this moment? Pretty classic writer's block if that's the case and I'm sure there are plenty of folks who can help with that here.

My interest is a little different, though: Any chance that the problem is not picking the pen up but actually getting it to move once it's touching the paper? Are you freezing up just before you begin to form the first letter? Or are you on the keyboard, ready to go, need to begin with a capital D and your finger just will not hit the D - it just won't.

Are you freezing up, or more likely, unable to concentrate and make yourself sit there and write something instead of checking your e-mail or going out for a cup of coffee? They're two very different problems.
posted by aryma at 2:31 PM on November 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

When I don't know how to start, I do something that gives my mind free time. Going for a walk or hanging out the washing are my classic mental times for planning the first two sentences of what I am going to write. Then I write them down, and whaddaya know, I've started.
posted by Youremyworld at 3:20 PM on November 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have a similar issue with writing projects. The reason I don't like to start them is because I find they take an extraordinarily long time for me to complete. I.e. I'm afraid of how much time will be gobbled up. My solution has been the pomodoro technique. I only commit to say three twenty minute sessions. I'm always surprized at how much I get done in a little amount of time when I use this method.
posted by OlivesAndTurkishCoffee at 3:35 PM on November 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

Not sure if directly relevant but I asked a question on the green a couple months ago regarding the time it takes me to write emails specifically. I received some really great advice which I now carry with me (scroll down to bottom for my synopsis/takeaways)
posted by ista at 9:31 PM on November 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

From a pure producticity standpoint also nthing pomodoro... I really like the ClearFocus app which gives you 3x25min "sprints" with 5min breaks followed by a longer 15min break. And even turns off WiFi to minimize distractions.
posted by ista at 9:34 PM on November 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you so much for your feedback, it has re-energized me.

I'm commenting globally on answers, and marking as best answers the one who resonated the most with me, but all your answers where really helpful.

- Several suggested a timer/pomodoro - For some reason I stopped doing that a few month ago, going to give it a try again. I also like the idea of really short time periods, like 5mn before a meeting, as I usually tend to wait until I have more time, which doesn't really happen.

- Writing a first draft with funny words/stupid sentences sounds like a good idea too. I tend to do that in my head anyway, so why not write it down. For the record, my starting word is "The bears" - and I find this as hilarious as mustard.

- Turning off everything (Wifi, devices, etc) is also a good idea, I think coupled with short timer period, it could be achievable

- Walking, mindless reverie etc work wonder for me to reduce stress/anxiety, but I have trouble then actually getting back to work....I sort of try to keep those to reward myself after work, rather than the other way around, but maybe I should switch...

- starbreaker, emoemu I don't think I'm burned out, but I do have a therapist appointment in a couple of weeks where I plan of tackling this subject - it sort of seems to me that the act of writing does crystallize a lot of anxieties for me.

- aryma what you're saying is intriguing - The sort of classic writing block, I can identify and it certainly happens to me, but I also do experience what you're describing (I just never separated the two), which is that when I'm sitting in front of the keyboard, with my hands on the keys, I sometimes can't bring myself to type, and have to trick myself using it. I would love to know more about this...
the best way I can describe this is that I imagine a puppeteer manipulating my hands to type word after word, while I put pressure on myself not to stop until I reach a particular milestone - something like 'I can't go and have a coffee until I've done n pages'. It's almost as if I'm observing myself doing this rather than actually doing it, because I freeze at the idea of doing it.

Thanks a lot for sharing your experiences too - knowing that I'm not alone in feeling like this makes it somewhat more manageable.
posted by motdiem2 at 5:54 AM on November 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

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