Writing is hard but making list is easy

I recognized something profound in the middle of preparing for the grocery list last week. 

No, it is not about grocery items, or the menu I can prepare that night but rather something I was struggling with for some time: writing or I should say a lack of skills in writing.  

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While frantically going through the refrigerator hoping to find something to cook that night, I realize I forgot to go grocery shopping last weekend.

I had to quickly come up with a list of items I need to get and then run to the store and come back and cook. I don’t think I have ever worked that fast!

Feeling proud of myself for accomplishing the task of feeding everyone in the family as well as myself in a record time, it occurred to me.  

Why I cannot work like this when it comes to writing?

People talk about writer’s block often… It is a dilemma writers go through while looking at the blank paper, or the blank screen with only the cursor sign blinking.

In my case, it is not writer’s block, more like a writer’s wall; completely blocked off, so I don’t get to see the other side, absolutely no light coming through the wall… In other words, a much worse state than other writers’ dilemma.  

It is an obstacle I go through every time I face writing work. It happens in every writing task, short or long: work proposals, business emails, or even social media posts (that is why I LOVE the like button!)  

It is a “block” I cannot just go around, more like a wall that has been completely sealed off on all four sides with the industrial-strength glue. (architect talk)

With this obstacle, there are many negative consequences: missing deadlines, procrastinating in the name of research, and feeling down due to lack of work progress at the end of the day….of course, the same cycle continues the following day.  

The recent experience of writing a grocery list in a record time made me ponder THE question; Can I make my writing process easy as writing a list?

What’s your WHY for doing the difficult work?

There’s such a negative reputation for being a perfectionist.

It implies so many negative associations; workaholic who doesn’t have work-life balance, ungrateful workers who are rarely satisfied with someone else’s work, or someone who is generally not ever happy with any given state of their work, or worse, others.

Well, I’m NOT one of them.

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In fact, I wish I have “some” of those perfectionist qualities… I think my quality of work would improve dramatically.  

I tend to work with the well-known efficiency mantra; begin with the end in mind. In fact, I focus too much on being done with the work without questioning the quality of the work I produce.  

Efficiency works well in my professional setting, especially with my architecture design work; quick decisions on design objectives, building material selections, or simply making a hiring decision based on my gut feelings…

Maybe it has to do with confidence or being oblivious towards criticism or feedback about my work from others. Whatever the reasons, I don’t dwell too much on the design work I produce.  

However, when it comes to writing work, it is a completely different story.

I constantly question, second-guess throughout the writing process; outline, rough draft, editing…..

I don’t just have a writing block at the beginning of work like other writers. These blocks constantly show up every step of the writing process: beginning, middle, end…everywhere.  

Did I pick the right words? Should I move the paragraph to another location? What am I trying to say here? And the mother of all question, do I need to start all over again?

While struggling with these doubts and uncertainties, I inevitably come to THE question, WHY. 

Why am I doing this work when it is this difficult and painful?

The magnitude of this mental suffering becomes colossal when the writing work is the self-imposed weekly blog post I decided to write when I started the blog journey years ago.

Why indeed.

Unexpected benefits from writing

Although I couldn’t clearly articulate my reasons for torturing myself with the difficult work, there have been many unanticipated benefits that came from the activity: improvement in communication in general (speaking, thinking).

I observed I was getting clear in not only writing but also in speaking as well. Another unexplainable change I noticed with myself was that my thinking process was also getting to be clear.  

It was a curious observation I made one day while I was giving work instruction to my assistant.

While I was ready to explain the work for the second time (my typical mode of communication), she just put up her hands and said, “no need, I got it“.  

I could not believe it! What just happened? Was it me or her?  

I suspect it was ME who gave much clear instruction which did not require additional explanation.

Why the improvement in speaking skills from writing skills?

Clearly, one can argue that writing is not the same as speaking or even thinking. 

However, I noticed I was applying the same logical and analytical ways (developed from writing) to my other NON-writing activities such as speaking or thinking. The best way to explain this wonderful transformation is the story I heard years ago.

To truly understand (or become skillful at) something, you need to get to the level of being able to teach anyone the same concept easily and clearly.

When I started the blogging journey years ago, I knew it was going to be difficult… especially it has everything to do with writing. However, what I did not know was that there could be these by-product benefits that came from this struggle.

What is the strategy for difficult work?

There are many difficult (some also dislikable) works for me besides writing: learning a new language/ technology, hiking, cooking, or even doing the ab plank exercise.  

However, I do not pursue all these works because ultimately, I do not care greatly about doing or improving these skills. (although, it would be great to have a flat stomach from plank exercise!)

On the other hand, pushing to be better at something you care about is entirely a different effort.  

Therefore the right question isn’t why (doing the difficult work), but how (to improve). When I started blogging adventure years ago, I did not have all the answers to the why’s, but I had just some inkling of how it might be something I wanted to do, learn, improve etc.

As a “begin with end in mind” person, it was not a comfortable state to be in with all the unanswered why’s.

Since those uncomfortable times, there have been many writing strategies I developed in the face of a weekly blog post. 

  • Use pen and paper when it comes to rough draft (blinking cursor on blank screen feels much worse)
  • Use dictation app rather than typing ( I speak better than type.)
  • Start with an outline (especially with bullet points, aka grocery list style.) 
  • Editing is King; you can truly start with the URD (ugly rough draft), and seeing that draft turning into something readableunderstandable, and on rare occasions, almost wonderful
  • Looks counts: title/ images are more important than content. Readers gravitate towards interesting images and titles and possibly start reading afterward.
  • There is always a NEXT post: you can always do better next time:)

Final Thought

Although I cannot make my writing process easy as writing a grocery item list, I can approach the writing process in a somewhat similar way; just start writing without all the answers, ideas, structures ( like the grocery items with unclear menu) and keep going and wait for something to show up.

There is power in starting something difficult. 

As my blogging journey has shown, working towards something in the face of a big obstacle without all the answers or the directions given has been an eye-opening experience with unexpected benefits.

Maybe it is a time to tackle my next impossible task: plank exercise for the summer!

What have you learned from something difficult?

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