Turn Your Head and Cough: Diagnosing Writing Problems


Symptoms are the things that make you realize you’re sick. The cough, the runny nose, the sudden breakout of blue pustules that sing the national anthem at night.* They’re signs, some subtle, some not. They indicate that something, somewhere, is wrong.

But the symptoms, no matter how annoying or unpleasant or off-key they are, are not what’s wrong. That’s the disease. But when you’re stuck in the middle of it, it can be damn easy to treat the symptoms and ignore the cause of the sickness entirely. 

Problem is, that doesn’t fix anything. That’s like taking more and more pain pills for that hamstring tear you gave yourself without bothering to rest and repair the leg itself. Unhelpful and you’re going to be limping for a long fucking time. 

To move from dubious medical metaphors back to equally-dubious writing advice, the problems you’re having in your writing on a particular day might be indicative of something else entirely. And if you just treat the symptoms, you won’t fix it.

Example: you’re writing a scene and hit a T-Rex sized roadblock in the middle. It’s not working. You don’t know why, so you rewrite the scene a bunch of different ways, but it’s still not working. You go away and come back only to find that, lo and behold, still not fucking working. You bull through. You cut it entirely. You try it again.

Still nothing.

You’re mistaking the symptom—not being able to finish the scene—for the disease. Which is probably a bigger problem, and, significantly, is probably behind you. Maybe you didn’t set this up enough. Maybe you know there’s something off about the character’s reactions. Did you take a wrong turn recently? Go back and read. Does it make sense? Did you not give that scene the time it deserved? Did you make a mistake in motives? Is one of your characters acting strangely? Or are they being so gratuitously stupid they could star in Expendables 4: The Attack of Sly Stone’s Arm Veins

Or is this a world-building problem? Are you trying to explain something that you don’t fully understand yourself? That’s like a toddler trying to explain thermonuclear dynamics: it might be cute as hell, but it’s not getting us anywhere. Sometimes the problem is that you started writing before you were done thinking.

And, yeah, you can bull your way through and move on. But, in my experience, if those sorts of problems crop up once, they’re going to again. Just like that tweaked muscle, if you don’t repair it, it’ll cause problems down the road. 

So, when you’re stuck, take a step back and look behind you. Sometimes a problem sneaks up on you like a coyote ready to rip out your hamstrings. 

*Bare Knuckle Writer: still better than WebMD.

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