Laziness is almost a signifying quality of a writer. They are tenacious procrastinators adept at manufacturing all manner of creative distractions to prevent the accomplishment of actual work. In fact, if you are a natural go-getter with a knack for time-management and an organizational ability that borders on the obsessive, you might want to seriously consider whether writing is really the occupation for you.
However, laziness is also a great killer of writers, and there is a simple seven-symptom test for determining if a writer has a terminal case of it.
1) Patient exhibits chronic procrastination
“Wait, didn’t you just say that most writers are procrastinators?” That I did. Writers deal in thought, and thought is a tricky thing. Much good writing bubbles up from the subconscious while you’re busy thinking about tomato soup recipes or that business opportunity your cousin keeps trying to get you to invest in that involves pet yoga. You’re on your way to the grocery store wondering how they get the Labradors to maintain a lotus position when you suddenly realize your novel’s main story arc is actually a thinly veiled investigation into the inherent Marxism in a post-consumer culture, so you rush back home to flesh out the diction and forget dinner entirely. It’s hard to work those kinds of bursts into a schedule.
However, the real world does operate on a schedule, so real writers have to figure out ways to keep writing even when the soil is rocky and the stars are black. Real writers have quotas and routines. They force themselves to work in spite of their inherent laziness.
That guy who is always waiting for inspiration before he starts that novel? He’s going to keep waiting.
2) Patient complains of success of others
I honestly don’t understand this one, but I’ve seen it a lot. Writers who don’t really write get pretty snippy about other writers getting ahead. They like to chalk their success up to luck or “knowing somebody on the inside.” Yeah, it’s true that there’s a dice element to the writing business, and sure, if your best friend from second grade is an associate editor for Scribner you’re probably going to have a bit of an edge, but if a writer can’t be happy for another writer’s success, it’s indicative of a deeper problem. A sourness in the bone.
Whenever someone complains to me about this or that ‘inferior’ writer weaseling her way into publication, I always just say something like, “Hey, you should be glad. That just means the competition will be weaker for that book you’ve been working on. How’s that coming along, by the way?”
3) Patient suffers from enlarged ego
“But John, didn’t you say that arrogance is a mainstay of effective word-smithery?” Again, you are correct. However, as the sage Charlie Sheen tells us, “All things in moderation.” A modicum of arrogance strings up taut prose, but an overabundance crusts over into Kevlar, a critique-proof shell. When a writer knows that her work is as good as it can possibly be, then she becomes correct. People immune to criticism do not improve. They plateau. They stagnate. And a big head is the most efficient deflector of criticism.
4) Patient exhibits idea constipation
You know that guy who has this really big idea, and he’s got all the characters and lore mapped out, and he stews for years over scenes and details, and his internet handles are in-references to his own imaginary world? You know, that guy who has never written a word of fiction his entire life, but he’s got a watermelon tumor of a novel festering inside? This guy is in a bad place, because he lacks the experience and skill to actualize an idea so large and ambitious. Deep down, he knows this, so he never starts. Sometimes someone will mention a conversation they had, and this guy will say, “Dude, I’ve got a scene just like that… Geeze, I really need to write that novel.” But he never does. And he probably never will unless he writes something smaller and simpler first. Mark Twain couldn’t write Huck Finn first.
5) Patient favors oral proliferation to written
Most real writers don’t seem to talk about their ideas that much. It’s weird. The amateur will monologue your ear off with thematic intentions and character arcs, but real writers (who really write) know that unwritten novels are a lot like dreams. Unless you’re the one experiencing it, it’s boring to hear about. Conversation is a kind of creation, though. Transmission of ideas occurs, and it’s easier than writing. The babbler of unpenned prose eats cotton candy while you watch rather than serving you a steak dinner. You’ve heard it said, “Those who can’t do will teach”? Likewise: those who can’t write will talk.
6) Patient suffers from inadequate diet
This one is simple math. Writing is output. Reading is input. You cannot output more than you input. Law of conservation of mass or something. Not all readers write, but all writers read. Somebody draw me a Venn diagram. You can’t forego reading and expect to write successfully in the same way that you can’t forego eating and expect to run a marathon. Or live, I guess. The point is: READ.
7) Patient spends more time reading articles about writing than actually writing
This is a sneaky one, because reading about the craft generates a rewarding feeling similar to writing. When you spend hours browsing blogs like this one or clicking through TV Tropes (I’m such an enabler), you feel like you’re learning and becoming a better writer. To a degree, this feeling is legitimate. However, too much of a good thing, like heroin, can kill you. Writing is best learned through experience, so if you don’t get your hands dirty and finish writing something, all your study is for naught. Many aspiring writers get hooked on this illusory feeling of accomplishment, and they waste precious hours reading what other people think about writing rather than actually creating something themselves. It’s good to be a part of a community of people thinking about technique and theory, but honestly a writer’s time is better served reading work similar to what they want to write than reading how-to books and blogs. …So I guess what I’m saying is “Navigate away from this site and never come back.” Man, I’m bad at self-advertising.
So, if you or a loved one is exhibiting any of these symptoms, most doctors recommend taking a full regimen of get-off-your-butt-and-write-something. If you can’t write what you want to write, write something else. You’re probably as lazy as you are arrogant, but you’ve got to fight it, Writer. Now get out there and show that blank page what you’re made of.