Why Writing a Book is Really Hard—And Something You Can Do About It

typewriterAs a young freelance writer and editor, I was a huge fan of process. I believed that there was a correct and friction-free method for writing—and my job was simply to discover it.

Now, after decades of searching, I’ve given up.

There’s no such thing as a fail-safe writing process—one that you wind up like a mindless toy and trust to deliver delightful results. What I found is that the writing process differs from project to project, from client to client.

In fact, writing is inherently messy. It resists algorithms. And the sooner we accept that, the sooner we can actually get something done.

The problem—writing as an undecidable task

This insight crystallized after I read a post by Cal Newport on the nature of “undecidable” tasks.

“The standard definition of a task for a knowledge worker is a clear objective that can be divided into a series of concrete next actions,” Cal writes. All you have to do is write a list of those actions, complete them, and savor the results. David Allen, creator of Getting Things Done, describes this process as “cranking widgets” like a factory worker. (You can see hints of this mindset in posts about the morning routines of productive people, such as this and this).

However, there’s a whole other category of tasks, Cal adds:

… those that have a clear objective but cannot be divided into a clear series of concrete next actions. For example: A theoretician trying to solve a proof. A creative director trying to come up with a new ad campaign. A novelist trying to write an award-winning book. A CEO trying to turn around falling revenues. An entrepreneur trying to come up with a new business idea.

Exactly. As Cal observes, these tasks:

… defy systematic deconstruction into a series of concrete next actions. There’s no clear procedure for consistently accomplishing these goals. They don’t reduce, in other words, to widget cranking.

With every book project, in short, you not only get to create a manuscript. You also get to create the process for creating that manuscript. And that process may differ from anything you’ve done before—especially if you’re working with a new coauthor or client.

This is true even though the milestones in a nonfiction book project—proposal, first draft, and revisions—are fairly standard. What’s easy to forget is that your options for reaching those milestones are probably limitless.

The solution—sinking into the creative mystery

As Cal reminds us, there is no easy way to complete undecidable tasks. He recommends that we “throw brain power, experience, creative intuition, and persistence at them, and then hope a solution emerges from some indescribable cognitive alchemy.”

In short, we live with problem of process for a while, let it work on us, and trust that a solution will emerge. This is a delicate blend of intention and letting go, much like the author of Alcoholics Anonymous describes the practice of Step Eleven:

Here we ask God for inspiration, an intuitive thought or a decision. We relax and take it easy. We don’t struggle. We are often surprised how the right answers come after we have tried this for a while.