Douglas Adams on Writing

How can we overcome the worries of writing?

4th April, 2021

Even before being released, a kickstarted book called 42 is providing new insights into the writing process of Douglas Adams. The book will be a collection of previously unpublished writings by Adams, author of the famous The Hitchhiker's Guide to Galaxy series of books, who also sadly passed away in 2001.

Among the newly published pieces of writing is a self-addressed note from Adams on overcoming the worries of writing:

Writing isn't so bad when you get through the worry. Forget about the worry, just press on. Don't be embarrassed about the bad bits. Don't strain at them. Give yourself time, you can come back and do it again in the light of what you discover about the story later on. It's better to have pages and pages of material to work with and off and maybe find an unexpected shape in that you can then craft and put to good use, rather than one maniacally reworked paragraph or sentence. But writing can be good. You attack it, don't let it attack you. You can get pleasure out of it. You can certainly do very well for yourself with it...!

Douglas Adams, A General Note To Myself

It's no secret that writing is a hard task and that many of the best and most famous writers struggle with writing day in and out. As expected of an author like Adams, he has packed a huge amount of information into a small amount of words.

Below we give our own interpretation on Adams’s note.

Delayed Gratification

The main problem with writing is that we don't necessarily find much enjoyment in doing it in the present moment. The words never arrive on the page in the manner we expect, and even after the second draft, although we’ve improved those words, we can still be far from the quality we want. Writing can often involve a constant disappointing feeling that our efforts are not good enough and that we’ll never get finished.

This feeling is true for many activities where we struggle in the present and get the reward later. But out of all the activities that involve delayed gratification, writing might just have the longest delay in reward of all. When writing, it is hard to say a sentence, paragraph, or chapter is fully done until the whole story is finished and the work published. If you've decided to tackle a novel, the completion date might be a year away - at the very best!

As humans we evolved with experiencing immediate positive feedback for our physical efforts. With writing that immediate positive feedback can be hard to obtain. What can we do about that? Just like Adams, it might be worth writing yourself your own motivational note that you can read at the beginning of every writing session. Remind yourself pleasure, satisfaction and even long-term self-esteem can be derived from writing – it is just a matter of patience and following the writing process to end.

Additionally, we should use every justified opportunity we can to bring the feeling of reward into the present. Start looking at writing as an activity that entails daily challenges and daily rewards. One way of doing this is setting a realistic yet stretching daily writing target to achieve. Whenever you reach that target, take a moment to really say “well done!” to yourself. Try to put your reward focus on following the writing process in the present moment and not on the end result.

Delay Editing

Don't worry while you write – especially during the first draft! Many times during the writing process the text will not be as good as we want. Characters will fall flat. Descriptions will go on and on with mundane detail. And the plot will feel stationary and fail to move forwards.

The trick is recognizing that many of these problems are best fixed later. The more you write your story, the more you will understand about it. When you come back to the problem at a later date, in many ways you will be a different person. You will be a person with a lot more knowledge about the story, and a person who is better equipped to fix the problems at hand.

Some edits can be big, such as the decision to cut a character, a chapter, or a plot thread. The more information you have at hand, the more confident you will be in making the right decisions.

This is the reason First Draft App encourages you write the next the sentence and nothing else. It is simply to encourage you to come back to any problem with more information at hand to tackle it. This applies for not just narrative plotting but also any other type of writing. Early editing can not only be counterproductive to decision making – it can also be a waste of time. Please see the FAQ for a more detailed description of this point.

Accept the Challenge

Ultimately, if we accept writing is always going to be difficult task it really comes down to how we approach that difficulty. Is difficulty something to be avoided or something where we can relish the challenge? This is likely what Adams means when he says attack writing, don’t let it attack you.

How many mountain climbers look at mountain they are about to climb with a defeatist mind set? Are they going to give up at the first sign of poor weather or physical discomfort? They probably relish the challenge and it is the difficulty of climbing the mountain that makes reaching the peak worth it. We can learn a lot from that state of mind.

Unfortunately many people become overwhelmed by the scale of the writing challenge and that can lead to a negative mindset. Nobody is perfect and we all have our off days and off moments. But accepting the difficulties of writing as a call to action may help you sit down and write with less worry.

In the end, would writing a book be rewarding if it was easy?

Where Next?

The kickstarter for 42 is due to end on April 21st 2021. If you are interesting in backing the project, please follow this link. With First Draft App, our distraction free writing program, tackling the worry of writing was our primary concern. It has been designed from the ground-up to help you write without anxiety.


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