My Top Ten Reasons Why Writing is Hard

Duke University Professor of Writing Dr. Denise Comer lists her top ten reasons why writing can be just plain hard.

Many shortcomings or delays in writing are not due to laziness or lack of motivation, but are symptoms of the larger underlying issue: writing is hard.Crumbled paper

Even people who write often and well tend to admit that writing can be hard, or at least that parts of the writing process are difficult.

Many shortcomings or delays in writing are not due to laziness or lack of motivation, but are symptoms of the larger underlying issue: writing is hard.

There are many reasons why writing is hard, and they differ depending on the writer. Below I name my top ten:

  1. Reconsidering my work often proves enormously difficult. One problem is that revision actually requires me to re-read what I have already written. What I encounter inevitably surprises me: I typically think at any given moment that what I have written is fine, until discovering, upon re-reading, that what has been written actually needs a lot more work. Such a discovery can be demoralizing, and also requires time and patience, both of which I lack.
  1. The prospect that others are going to read and evaluate my writing adds pressure and anxiety. Granted, there are occasions where the prospect of evaluation is absent (when I write for myself, for instance), but my writing is usually being evaluated for hoped-for acceptance, approval, or accolades of some sort, and so I often write with a foreboding sense of evaluation hanging over me.
  1. Shifting Contexts. Remaining aware of the dynamic nature of writing occasions makes writing more exciting, but also more challenging. With each writing occasion, I need to consider the disciplinary context, the publication format, expectations in style, tone, and content.
  1. Deadlines do motivate me to write, but they also infuse pressure. And, since I am often behind on writing-related deadlines, they tend to generate some measure of aggravation for me.
  1. Getting Started. Empty page with questions markEach time I procrastinate getting started on a writing project, I tell myself that I am certain the amount of intellectual and emotional energy contributing to my procrastination is not nearly as large as the amount of energy I would actually expend writing. Still, I continually put off getting started until I am in a crunch time. This is true even though I know many tricks for getting started, like beginning in the middle, writing one of Anne Lamott’s “shitty first drafts,” creating a mind map, dictating, etc. All of these ideas? Helpful, but I still find getting started quite difficult.
  1. If getting started poses challenges, finishing does even more. By finishing I don’t mean actual concluding words, but deciding when a piece of writing is finished. Left to my own devices, I would tinker endlessly with a writing project, editing sentences, polishing words, expanding concepts. Finishing a writing project means acknowledging that it is ready for others and that I have accomplished my aims for that piece of writing. These are lofty ambitions.
  1. Physical Discomfort. Writing often causes physical distress. I get backaches, eye aches, wrist and finger pain from the way I sit at my computer. Even when I stand and write or walk and write (on a treadmill desk), I still find myself suffering physical discomfort from what is sometimes the agony of writing. Getting started … discovering what to say … all of this leads to neck aches, headaches, indigestion. Writing breeds physical discomfort for me.
  1. Insecurities. Even with many writing successes, I continue to hold insecurities with my writing. I am more confident with certain kinds of writing, but with material for publication, I cannot shake the sense that what I have actually created falls far short of the expectations I have set for myself or which I believe others hold.
  1. Breaking writing rules for stylistic purposes can be fun. However, some rules just can’t be shaken. Journals have rules about word counts, citation styles, and content. I am bound by rules of research with Institutional Review Board protocols. I am governed by rules of disciplinary context and genre, even amidst increasing creativity and interdisciplinarity. While these rules can sometimes provide structure and reassurance, and they serve important purposes, I often find them somewhat burdensome.
  1. I hate proofreading. Combing through an enormous document looking for extra spaces before commas or missing words, correcting citations to adhere to correct format. I find such work to be amongst the most boring, least rewarding, and most difficult aspects of writing. Not surprisingly, I am also very bad at it.

Wishing this post offered more positivity about writing? More writing inspiration?

Here’s the conundrum: Even though all of these features make writing really hard, even unpleasant, they do not usually dissuade me from writing. Somehow, I either appreciate the challenges, or am able to recognize the impact writing can have and therefore am willing to move through the challenges.

So, in the end, reflecting on why writing is hard actually feels productive and reassuring, which is what I hope happens for students when I engage them in conversations about the challenges of writing. That said, if I could wave a magic wand for proofreading and be assured that all of my writing would be enormously successful … I’d probably do it in a heartbeat.


Denise Comer
Denise Comer is an Assistant Professor of the Practice of Writing Studies and Director of First-Year Writing at Duke University. She teaches theme-based first-year writing seminars on such areas of inquiry as illness narratives, civic engagement, and travel writing. She also teaches a first-year writing MOOC through Duke University and Coursera: English Composition I: Achieving Expertise. Her scholarship, which has been published in such journals as Pedagogy, Writing Program Administrators Journal, and Composition Forum, explores writing pedagogy, writing program administration, and the intersections between technology and the teaching of writing. She has written two books: Writing in Transit (Fountainhead Press, 2015) and It’s Just a Dissertation: The Irreverent Guide to Transforming Your Dissertation from Daunting to Doable to Done (co-written with Barbara Gina Garrett; Fountainhead Press 2015). She has also written a web-text, Writing for Success in College and Beyond, (c4e 2015). She lives in North Carolina with her husband and their three children.

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