When writing doesn’t look like writing

My dad comes home from work and tells us what he did all day (he works in IT, so it’s clearing up problems on stuff he knows is going to be obsolete in another three years at most. Very fulfilling work with the knowledge of a lasting legacy it is not). My mother tells him how she’d been cooking all day: granola, bread, quiche, other things I’ve forgotten. My sister shows off her four completed costumes folded all nicely on the table, our contributions to a friend’s production of Romeo and Juliet.

My dad looks at me and says, “And what did you do today?”

“I wrote about sheep.”

It’s not the kind of work you can stack up like the costumes, since it’s at the document-on-computer stage right now. And even if I could, it takes several hundred pages to equal the height of the costume stack. It would be at least 150 sheets of paper to be as thick as the bread my mother made (at a very conservative estimate). Were I to be stranded on a desert island, by the time I actually noticed that fact, I’d want the bread-making skill more than the writing one if I were to survive. (Well, maybe.)

There are days where I can say, casually, “Oh, I wrote five thousand words today,” and go on eating like that’s just normal. Or I can write fifty thousand words in a month and my dad admiringly says that’s more words than in the dissertation which took him a year (it was only a year, at that point) to write.

Then there’s the days where I just wrote about sheep.

Not that it’s bad to write about sheep. I haven’t been around sheep nearly as much as, say, chickens or cats or spiders, so a lot of what I know about them comes from reading what other people have written. But it sounds so much more impressive to say “I made four sets of wearable clothes today!” and even “I wrote the climax of a high fantasy novel in which the hero and heroine finally get married!” is better.

And even “Today I wrote a thousand words” (judiciously leaving out the “about sheep” bit) sounds better than, “Well, I sort of stared at the same page in a library book and twiddled a pencil” which is what I’ve found myself doing more than once today.

Writing is weird that way — maybe other forms of art are too, and I just don’t know because I don’t practice them — but not everything that falls in the category of “writing” looks much like writing. Or, not all your writing has to do with word count.

During NaNo, we measure progress by word count. That makes sense, because the goal of NaNo is getting a rough draft out so we can mess with it later. But when you’re doing a second or third or seventeenth draft, the goal is different. The goal is taking what is there and making it better, which sometimes means adding to it, and polishing it generally. You’re taking the sand you shoveled up during NaNo, as it were, and making a sand castle.

There’s research to do. That involves checking out books with titles like Liturgy, Architecture, and Sacred Places in Anglo-Saxon England — checking them out because you can’t afford to buy them — or Googling things like “How long does it take to die from a stab wound in the lung” (which my friend Hope likes to do). Reading does not increase your word count, but it does help you write knowledgeably, and may I say, good research is essential for good historical fiction.

There’s re-reading what you’ve already written, and marking it up with things to change, double-check, delete, and once in a while, a spot that’s good enough to keep. This can take a long time and, unless you print your story out to look at it, doesn’t look like anything at all, much less writing. (That’s one of the things about writing — to someone who’s not a writer, it doesn’t look like much.)

There’s those lovely times in the shower, when you’re getting ideas right and left and rearranging them in your head and seeing how they fit together and miraculously solving every plot problem you ever had all at once (until, tomorrow morning, your solution turns out to have opened a giant hole as big as all the ones it fixed together). Normally people don’t have a writing instrument to hand while they’re in the bath, but if it weren’t for the getting-ideas stage, you’d never have anything to write down.

Making outlines occasionally involves writing things down, but if you’ve been working on one all day and only have 700 words to show for it, it doesn’t look nearly as important as it is.

Then there’s the days where you stare at the same page in a library book and play with a pencil. Inside, of course, you may be wrestling with moral dilemmas, figuring out your main antagonist’s motives, deciding which of three situations is the best in which to introduce the main character’s best friend, trying to figure out just exactly why a certain statement is so out of character for the person saying it, killing dragons, riding dragons, talking to a character who wishes he could ride dragons, or pretty much anything. You may look like you’re in your bedroom, or living room, or attic, or kitchen (not a safe place to be if you’re in this mood, however), but as a matter of fact you’re in another world. (Don’t drive while in this mood, either.) You look like you’re just lazily sitting around all day doing nothing, but you’re really debating: does X mean I’m in danger of saying Catholicism hasn’t changed at all in the last thousand years (when I know this not to be true), and what does that do with the main character’s arc in the second half of the story?

The word count in your document may not have gone up since yesterday, but that doesn’t by itself mean you wasted the day. Now if you had time to write, and knew what to write, and knew you should write, and decided to do something else just because you didn’t feel like writing, that would be laziness. Time is always running out, and our lives fill up with enough other stuff that when we get a chance to do what we know is our vocation, we’d better do it.

But taking a day off to read a good book might not be laziness. Reading good books helps you write good books (and even the occasional bad book can help you learn what not to do faster than you might learn by just trying things). Spending time with your family is a good thing, or so I hear. Sometimes you do need to take a break, because you’ve emptied out your well of ideas and creativity, so doing something with your hands, or going on a really long walk, is better than trying to force onto the page what you haven’t got.

Each of these states is necessary to making good books. Trying to skip them in favour of writing a certain number of words every day will only result in poor quality. Perhaps you’re not at a stage where you can write a lot of new words every day — maybe that would be bad for the story if you rushed ahead without thinking things through first. And then things get messy, and if anyone will take such a rushed rough draft for publication, it makes a lot of extra work for the kitchen maids! (I mean editors.)



About Nolie Alcarturiel

Creative Writing major and Philosophy minor, contemplating a Master's degree in Medieval History. I enjoy practically anything to do with medieval history, including the domestic arts, with an especial emphasis on the Anglo-Saxon Era. In my spare time I read endlessly, do medieval living-history, hold philosophical debates at the drop of a hat, and write books on even slighter provocation.
This entry was posted in Books, Fiction, Historical fiction, Research, Revision, Writing and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to When writing doesn’t look like writing

  1. Tracey Dyck says:

    SO TRUE. I have to remind myself of this constantly on the days when my word count isn’t going up, but I’m working on something related to the book. I’m usually a task-driven person, so I like measurable progress! But some days writing means combing over the same chapter all day, or spending an hour on Wikipedia, or scribbling out a few pages of brainstorming notes to jumpstart a stuck plot, or cataloging character details so I have them all in one place to refer to, etc. And that’s still progress.

    Great post! Thanks for the timely reminder!


    • You’re back!

      Yes, it’s so much easier to measure progress by numbers and things like how many pages we have, rather than how deeply we’ve researched. And I’m not even that task-driven (most of the time).

      Thank you!


  2. Christine says:


    YESSSS. I SO RELATE TO THIS. It’s something I think about allll the time. Because one can feel like such a failure when everyone else has all these careers and important hobbies and stuff and I…sit around on the computer all day? But writing is not an easy endeavor!

    I think we do put way too much stock in wordcounts. Sure, saying we wrote 5k words in one day is impressive. But, like you said, if that’s ALL we did it’d end up just being poor quality stuff. There’s also research and edits and building a platform and all that good stuff to do as well. It’s not JUST about how many words we write a day. But when you spend all day sitting around just THINKING about your story, sometimes it can feel like you haven’t made any progress. But brainstorming is a huge part of the process. It’s just hard when non-writers don’t quite understand this. And I, myself, fall into the trap of thinking I’m wasting time when I see everyone going to college and getting jobs and things. But then I remind myself, God gave me this passion for writing. He’s called me to this. And I should NEVER be shamed about it.

    A writer is who I am. And stories are important. So, so important. What we do is good. Even if a lot of the world, including ourselves, doesn’t always remember that.

    Anyways, I’m babbling. I just loved this post and absolutely EVERYTHING you said so very much!!!


    • Tracey Dyck says:

      Amen to all of that, Christine!!!


      • Thank you! Yes, if we’re focusing on what people think our job is, especially people who can’t be expected to know, we’re going to get depressed in a hurry. . . if, on the other hand, we think of it as our vocation (if it is, and not just a hobby), then we needn’t worry, because we know we’re doing what God wants us to do, and all the people who are wrong don’t get to have a say in it. Because, like you said, it doesn’t work to compare ourselves to all the people who’s jobs aren’t like ours.

        (And honestly, whose work is more likely to last in the long run? It won’t be so important for keeping our families alive in the short term, maybe, but what’s going to be around in a thousand years — a really good book, or a computer program or the latest movie or video game, or whatever it is people work on these days?)


  3. “How long does it take to die from a stab wound in the lung”
    I suppose your average 21st century American wouldn’t last nearly as long as you average 10th century Anglo-Saxon.


  4. I know what that feels like- when I invest so much and all I have to show for it is one paragraph. Ah, but I’m so proud of how that paragraph turned out.


    • I think all writers know how it feels. And hey, if it’s the single most important paragraph in your whole story, or a result of you finally figuring out where things are going, it’s a much bigger accomplishment than five pages of random scenes.


  5. thegermangolux says:

    We’ll be doing sheep in the not-too-far-off future. What breeds are you trying to research?

    That feeling is very familiar. I’ve never written a story that wasn’t required for school. But I have spent days fixing problems on tools so I can fix problems on equipment so I can finish a relatively insignificant project that has to get done regardless.
    The thing I try to remember is that when it feels like drudgery, it’s practice in patience and efficiency, and when it’s a mistake, I’m only wasting time if I do it again.


    • “Practice in efficiency”. Ha. That’s something writers hardly ever get to practice. Of course, being efficient as in not using too many words is something we do a lot. But efficiency as in “a place for everything and everything in its place” or doing things the right way the first time, doesn’t often happen.

      Period sheep. Probably nothing you’re going to get. But their behaviour hasn’t changed much, I don’t think.

      Maybe you should try writing a story, for something to give you a different perspective on poetry.


      • thegermangolux says:

        Being efficient as in doing the right things at the right time in the right way, though? Surely that’s something writers seek to learn.

        I’ve tried writing fiction before. It almost always devolves into a mess, because I want to start by describing something to begin a scene with, and then the description runs on too long, so I want to make it poetry, and the plot just sits there and twiddles its thumbs.


      • Try a different way of starting, then. Or don’t bother with plot to start with, just set
        characters loose and see what they do (and nothing wrong with them talking in poetry). It wouldn’t hurt people to have to tell stories more often. I dunno. You don’t have to make a life out of it, but if I can write poetry all this semester, you can do a little prose.


      • thegermangolux says:

        Fair enough.


  6. One thing for sure, you have a really enjoyable writing style! Lovely post. 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s