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Jerusha Cowless, agony aunt: "It isn't faith in my writing that I've lost. But it's getting ever harder to believe that I'll get a second book published."

Getting through the door in the wall

I've blogged before about procrastination, whether it's happening because your Inner Critic has found a dozen reasons for you Not Getting On With It, or he's declaring that it's all been done already, or he's dressed up as someone else to persuade you. Or sometimes you've dealt with all of those and still can't write, because you've simply run out of fuel

But, assuming your Inner Critic has been gagged and bound, you're brimming over with ideas and energy for the next piece of writing work, you've cleared the house and the diary of humans... so many of us still find that we still can't get going. Suddenly we need another cup of coffee and some desk-tidying and email-answering; or we can only manage ten minutes or so, before we're reaching for the forums for writers or mums or steam train enthusiasts, for Facebook and its kin, for Scrabble, for a bit of very trivial research, for the blogs, and if all else fails, there's always Solitaire. And then you've finished your coffee, so you'd better go and make another, to drink while you start writing. And then when you get back you'd better just check FB and a couple of other places before you start...

We've all been tempted and most of us succumb, and there's no denying that the Internet has made it a hundred times worse, because the tools we need to write are also the tools we can use to avoid writing. A well known agent, joining Twitter, was startled to see just how many of her authors were tweeting away, in the hours when she'd foolishly assumed they were beavering away on their overdue manuscript. The trouble is, it's just too easy to kid yourself that you're only diverting for a moment: you're not really Not Writing. Not really. Oh dear me, no.

I've been known to go downstairs and unplug the router. You can get programmes to shut down your internet access for a set amount of time. I find even just disconnecting the internet does mean that when I'm tempted re-connect I'm more conscious that I'm Not Writing. But that doesn't always stop me re-connecting, and sometimes I genuinely do need to be online, for some stages of revisions, in particular.

So what's going on? I think the answer actually simple, but something that many of us don't, at bottom, believe: writing is hard work. It takes full concentration, full thinking, full creative/editorial effort, cutting off mentally from what's going on around us. It's not too fanciful, I think, to see it as a necessary immersion. Using your brain is hard work in biological, not just metaphorical, terms: you can measure the blood-sugar used up when you're sitting perfectly still with your brain running at full tilt, and it's a lot more than running it for normal life. It's hard work. And avoiding hard work (like desiring fat and sugar) is a clever bit of evolution, because energy - blood sugar - is a precious commodity, whether it comes from pounding yams or running down deer. It's hardly surprising that our reptile brains are programmed to avoid work and foods that have no obvious, immediate reward. It's only our more developed brains that know that sometimes we need to write, and eat salad, for the sake of the rewards they'll bring later. 

If you've ever tried free-writing (Dorothea Brande-style, or Julia Cameron's morning pages) you'll know that it takes a bit of self-persuading to keep going with this apparent rubbish or blank-minded repetition. And then - in my experience at about the ten-minute mark - you seem to get through the wall. I've even found that around that point my pen often writes a door, or a window... and it's beyond that, that things really get mad and properly interesting. 

But to get to that point, whether with free-writing or your actual project, takes a bit of courage: courage to stick with the dull rubbish, courage to fend off all the reasons for Not Writing that you thought you'd got rid of half an hour ago, courage to immerse completely in the imaginative world of the writing. It can feel like drowning, and as a water-phobic I don't say that lightly. So we approach the work (because we genuinely want to do it), do a little, shy away as we approach the jump into total immersion but do enough to call it work, poddle off to Facebook for a bit, curse ourselves, go back to the work, push hard to reach the approach again, work a little, shy away, poddle off... 

Only of course what that means is that you never do get through that door in the wall. Instead, you're trapped in the cycle of pushing yourself to approach and shying away. It feels like you're working but you never actually jump into total immersion, and so the writing really is hard work: the imagination never flowers, the words never flow, the characters never just start saying things... Some words get on the page, but they're horribly hard work and often they're not as good as they could be. Every tiny click of the brain-cogs has to be made to happen by sheer force of will, like using a starting handle on an old car, and not just to get the enging goine, but to get the car all the way to its destination. You look as if you're writing, and it uses huge amounts of energy, but to no very good result because you're not really writing, any more than someone sitting shivering on the side of the pool with their legs in the water is swimming.

The only way I've found to conquer this problem - and, yes, it's harder when I'm below-par for some other mental or physical reason - is first, to tell myself that the water is cold and that I will flinch from the total immersion, and the first ten minutes of swimming will be hard work: it's not lazy and stupid and unprofessional, it's human. But that first ten minutes is only ten minutes, and I can't reach the warmer, fluent freedom of real swimming without it. And, besides there are few duller and chillier things for a human to do for hours than stand on the edge of the pool, Not Swimming. Writing is much more fun that Not Writing, after all. You just have to put up with the cold for a few minutes.


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Gabrielle Kimm

What a lovely post, Emma, and so very much the experience I have so often! (I'm supposed to be writing now, but I'm reading your post instead ... oops!)


The fact that I've been editing my work for three hours before reading this post saves me from feeling guilty...not entirely, though, because I definitely sometimes succumb to the 'approach-avoidance' routine, where I pick at my writing, while really surfing online.

Sticking to the work long enough to get into the 'swimming' stage that you mentioned is really worth it, though. That's when you forget the internet even has distractions and fall in love with writing all over again.

Joe Humphreys

Most of writing is indeed hard, unglamorous work and each and every one of my WIP's (this is my third novel I'm on) has felt like a rotting albatross around my neck at some point or other. This post reminds us that it's all about persistence, persistence, persistence. Thanks for sharing!

BJ Kerry

I love the word 'Poddle'

Penny Dolan

Horrified how true this is! Slopes away to To Do Writing for more than ten minutes of freezing in the water. Thanks - I think.

Neil Ansell

Very true...I have taken to going to work in the public library where there is no internet access, no kettle, no cleaning to be done. Writing does take up a lot of mental energy for sure - I'm a full-time writer but can only seriously sit and work for a couple of hours each day (although it's all being mulled over and prepared in the back of my mind the rest of the time, so I have to force myself to take a clean break at some point in the day. A walk on the beach usually does it for me.)

Emma Darwin

Ah, but reading The Itch isn't procrastination ;-)...

Emma Darwin

I do also think picking at one's work is dangerous too for other reasons, which I explored here:

Emma Darwin

Yes, persistence... sometimes writing a novel is just very boring. When it's not driving you made.

But once you've learnt to persist, I think it's easy to pat oneself on the back for persisting at this approach-avoidance circuit, when actually you're not getting all that much done... As, indeed, I know that I sometimes persist in that way when actually I much more need refuelling, time out, whatever. After years of persisting, I'm much more likely to try and write when I shouldn't, than fail to write when I should...

Emma Darwin

Somewhere between "pootle" and "toddle", I guess...

Emma Darwin

True of me, and you - you say - and true of an AWFUL lot of others of us, to judge by yesterday's stats!

Emma Darwin

I do agree that lots of writing is going on when one's doing something else.

But I can't write without a kettle... and I don't do cleaning.

Bren Gosling

I find it easier to create new material than to do revisions, which is where I'm at now - revising my MS for an agent. "Take your time, don't rush it" - yes, I took a clean 6 week break and then in the last 8 weeks have produced 2 new chapters and now need to start cutting and revising existing stuff...and this is HARD!!! A lot more than 10 minutes at the edge of the pool Emma. Any advice ? I thought this bit would be the most straight forward but it's not(for me at least). At the moment it seems the hardest of all so far. Am I going mad?
Bren Gosling

Bren Gosling

And I've just read your piece on Fiddling etc...which is helpful...but it's STILL hard. Maybe it just is hard - full stop.

Abigail Webber

I can't tell you how much this resonated with me. Especially the moment when you have to make another cup of coffee because the one you made 'to get down to writing' has somehow been drunk whilst messing about on the internet. (I call this 'twottering' - pottering/twittering.)

Thank you so much. I am going to make myself take the ten-minute test every day and jump into that cold water.

Brilliant blog!

As I contemplate a morning of writing tomorrow--I'll think about this. Thanks!


I surf the internet a lot before starting up. It's procrastination after a point, of course. But once I do get going with the writing, the hours fly past and I look up and suddenly my time devoted to writing is over. Once I get started, I stay in the groove.

I've found that with running too (an activity I've taken up recently). I don't want to get out and pound the pavement, but once I'm there, I keep it up.

Marina Sofia

So true and so wise. I struggle with this every day. I enjoy reading what others have written or blogged or tweeted so much that it's lunchtime before I realise that I have done none of my own work.
Then, to compensate, there are days when I am thinking of nothing else except my novel, or how to improve a certain scene, which makes for very absent-minded behaviour.

Bren Gosling

P.S. Have got back into it now - "the rotting albatross" syndrome hopefully is banished!


This post really resonated with me, Emma. Writing IS hard and it's no use trying to persuade ourselves otherwise. It's even less use to think we'll be able to get anywhere without it being that hard ...

Emma Darwin

I think writers vary very much, whether they find first-draft easier, or revising... I find first draft the real slog and therefore most at risk of procrastination, but you are definitely, definintely NOT alone.

And yes, I fear, it is just hard!

Emma Darwin

Glad it spoke to you, Abigail. Love "Twottering" - just how it feels!

Emma Darwin

Late to say good luck! Hope it worked...

Emma Darwin

Yes, there are lots of things like that, I think: I used to sing in a choir and I NEVER wanted to go, and I was always so glad I had, and came out singing. But in seven or eight years as a member I never, and some level, seemed able to remember that singing, as the evening approached.

The danger with the approaching-the-jump-then-swerving-away, I think, is that it FEELS like you're working (whereas if you're out deadheading the roses you know you're not), so you don't realise or won't acknowledge just how much you're not getting done, by fiddling around on the edge of the pool.

Emma Darwin

Yes, the social media are dreadful for absorbing you to the point where you don't realise how much time you've spent.

I also think that writers, by definition, have a very good capacity to be absorbed by somethnig 100% - whether that's the novel (yay!) or Twitter (boo! - at least, when you should be writing)

Emma Darwin

Good news!

Emma Darwin

Yes, it is... and yet when it's going well I don't feel it's hard work when I'm deep in it. It's before, when I'm fannying around Not Getting On With It, and afterwards when I realise how tired I am, that I know it's hard work.

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