Painful writing

Writing is hard for me. It’s always been hard for me. In high school I agonized over 5 paragraph essays. In college I dreaded research papers and fretted over them. Whatever I wrote was going to be bad and would never feel acceptable to me.

I force myself to write anyway because I think I have useful ideas that are good to share with the world and because writing things down helps me clarify my thinking. And there’s something elegant about putting my thoughts down in permanent form. If I have an idea and write it down, it becomes undeniable that this idea was real and I had it.


When I sit down to write a blog post, generating writing is often pretty easy. But turning jumbled writing into polished writing and verifying that the writing is okay, that it conveys the meaning that I want it to convey and isn’t objectionable in some way, is usually painful.

Reading back over my writing, and especially looking over writing that I haven’t just written fills me with dread. It invokes the same feeling as listening to a recording of yourself talking. Rereading older writing of my own feels terrible because I see flaws in it, but don’t really understand them and there’s nothing that will prevent me from making similar mistakes in the future. Because I don’t understand the flaws, it’s hard to say how bad they are.

It also feels painful to imagine different ways that my writing could be. I can look at a paragraph and try to make some improvements to it and that often feels fine. But writing a different version of a sentence I already have and comparing them is painful. I find myself thinking ‘no I couldn’t possibly come up with a different way of saying that’. If I do come up with sentences to compare, actually doing it feels slow and difficult since its hard to see what makes one better than the other.

I noticed recently that as I read my own writing, I worry that someone will come along and point out that it’s terrible, and obviously so, and that I will be embarrassed. That they will point out that all my sentences are awkward and horribly confusing. Or that my writing has a quality distinct from virtually all other writing marking it as childish. No matter how much I look over my writing or have others review it, I can never seem to eliminate this fear.

What’s going on?

I don’t know what’s going on here, but I suspect it has to do with not being able to see what my writing is mechanically accomplishing or not having a felt model (in the Focusing sense) of how writing works. That a paragraph is introducing an idea, or this next sentence is providing some important context, or that you need all three of these examples here because with only two it would be ambiguous.

Because I can’t see these mechanical properties of my writing without explicitly looking for them, any flaw that becomes visible becomes the only visible thing. It’s hard to keep the fact that the writing was accomplishing something before in mind. My internal model seems to be that my writing can be valuable as long as it doesn’t contain any flaws. But any flaws render it valueless, and all flaws are secret flaws only visible by other people with the special kind of seeing to understand writing.

I also I have a sense that I’m missing some kind of basic concepts in writing. That there are a few basic facts about how people read writing that shape how writing works that I don’t have. This explains why I’m afraid my writing has hidden serious flaws; if there are basic effects that I don’t understand, my writing may seriously harmed by a basic effect, and I won’t see it.

Putting these together, an obvious hypothesis is that I’m missing a felt model of how writing works because I’m missing some basic concepts about how people read writing that strongly affect how writing should be and generate some basic facts about how writing should be.

How to improve things?

The theory that I’m missing a felt model because I’m missing some basic concepts suggests I should figure out those basic concepts about how people read. But how do I do that?

I’ve spent some time with my brother Erik helping me talk out loud about what different parts of my writing are accomplishing more or less sentence by sentence. That was interesting, and I think it gave me a bit more of a felt model in some places, for example, that the purpose of transition sentences is to set context especially about the intent of a section, but I don’t think I could develop a full felt model this way.

Another idea for developing a felt model of writing is to have someone else explain to me how my writing is working on a low level and questioning them about why it doesn’t work a different way. I can imagine stumbling across new fundamental principles this way. This feels intuitively attractive, but it feels like getting the right thing would be tricky.

I could instead work develop a strong felt model of how I read, so that I can derive a felt model of writing. But how would I do this? The basic approach of paying attention to my internal experience while I read feels like it would be fruitless. I expect the way I read will be opaque to me because the important details will too low level and I don’t have good ways to probe to what’s going on.

On the level of figuring out why writing is difficult, I was able to notice the things in this post by paying attention to what writing actions felt painful or aversive as I contemplated doing them, and keeping my internal peripheral vision looking for fears that flit by for a split second. Hopefully continued attention on the details of writing and reading will reveal how to develop a better felt model of writing.