Bryan Caplan  

The Production Function and the Road Not Taken: A Question for Writers

What's Keeping American Worker... A Patchwork of Prejudices...

If you write extensively, you've probably had the following experience: You sit down to work on a project, but the good words don't flow. Either you're blocked, or you repeatedly write and erase. Four hours later, you have nothing to show for your suffering.

Question: At the end of one of these experiences, do you believe that you are nevertheless four hours closer to finishing your work? Are these hours of "fruitless" struggle a necessary component of your success? Or did you just waste four hours? Suppose you had gone down "the road not taken," and delayed for a day? Would you have gotten a new "throw of the dice" - an independent chance for the words to fly off your fingertips?

Tell me what you think.

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COMMENTS (23 to date)
Scott Scheule writes:

That depends on the project. If it's something creative, which seems to be what you're working on, then you have to wait for inspiration to strike. So you wasted your four hours. Then again, I'm lazy, and I think this philosophy of mine is plausibly just a procastination rationalization.

I imagine the answer varies from person to person. Do your periods of sitting around doing nothing often culminate in nothing? Or does, every now and again, staring at a blank page force the inspiration?

Troy Camplin writes:

It's been a long time since I had that kind of problem. I stopped having writer's block when I learned that writer's block comes about because you're afraid of finishing the work, meaning you have to stand behind what you've written.

Sometimes you have to mull things over, though. You will note on my blog that I write something every day. Sometimes it's very short, though. Other times it's quite long. And that's on top of the other work I do off the blog every day. The habit of writing every day can keep the words flowing. Sometimes you have to accept that you are just going to write a bunch of garbage today. That's fine. Sometimes you have to write a bunch of garbage to get the one gem, the one line that you can use. Sometimes you have to write very long bridges between ideas and then go back and get rid of all the garbage. The important thing is that you don't think that everything you write is a wonderful gem (it's not, and you know deep down that it's not, and the fear that it's not will also cause the problem you described).

In other words, when you let fear drop away and recognize that much of what you write is scaffolding that you need to tear down when you're done, your writer's block will end.

Steve Miller writes:

You're turning into an Austrian. Haven't I had this discussion with you before? The problem with search theory (or the production function) is that results may not be, mathematically speaking, a *function* of time spent searching (working). What I mean is, the observed relationship may not pass the vertical line test. I'm not willing to throw out the conventional treatment, because the mental model of results = f(time, effort) is useful. But Austrians clearly have a point when they say there are things such as tacit knowledge, inspiration, sheer ignorance, etc. This is not "Hayek said the sky is blue," is it?

Dan Weber writes:

Software development is a lot like this. There are days at which you have nothing to show at the end of it, because you took the wrong path.

I just realize that all my competitors are having these issues, too. They all face problems. You succeed not because you can magically avoid the problems, but because you can recognize them and defeat them without becoming discouraged.

This might go back to my high school AP Chem teacher, who said that we should hope for a hard test. "Because if it's hard for you, it's hard for other people, but you know how to deal with the hard questions."

drobviousso writes:

Heh. I'm currently writing a Master's thesis based on software development processes, so I've though about this for a very, very long time.

Generally, I can't say, because I never let myself sit for 4 hours with spitting out something useful. I tried it once, and it didn't work out. I find it much more useful to define my goals, do what comes easy, and then go do something else. My brain will do some thinking for me, and I'll get some insight about what I'm trying to write. At that point, I go back to writing.

I don't always have something productive to do in the mean time, so I try to do some dishes or laundry. They are rote tasks that I can drop any time. That usually works better than say reading a graphic novel, or watching a TV show that I'd want to finish.

Blackadder writes:

I'd vote for the former. Not only does the process of trial and error help you determine how not to say whatever it is that you're trying to say, but often just thinking about a given subject for an extended period of time (which you have to do if you are trying to write down your thoughts in some coherent manner) can help clarify your thoughts on the matter.

Plus, if all the time I spent writing unusable were really just wasted time, that would be really depressing.

Swimmy writes:

In general, if I have writer's block I do something else. My brain gets hung up on things easily. I used to regain inspiration the next day or so pretty easily. Nowadays I'm having more trouble.

PJens writes:

In my opinion, if you wait a day, you do get a new "throw of the dice". I am not a professional writer, but I do write several letters a week. I find that long walk outside helps overcome organizational blocks. I also suggest trying to explain the subject to your kids.

Writing is not like emergency room surgery, it does have to be done today.

PJens writes:

D' oh!!!

Should read:

Writing is not like emergency room surgery, it does NOT have to be done today.

I shoulda waited a day to post:-)

8 writes:

I would suggest that if you know what you want to say, but can't figure out how to say it, write. If you don't know what you want to say, writing probably won't help unless you're just typing out a stream of consciousness to help you collect your thoughts.

Alex J. writes:

If you look, that's no guarantee that you will find. But if you do not look, that is a guarantee that you will find nothing.

So if you try to write, and write nothing, you are not "closer" to being done writing. If you do not sit down to write, you will not write anything, and you will also not be any closer to being done writing.

Stephen W. Stanton writes:

Definitely take the time two write. Write and write more. Spend less time erasing. Get a lousy draft down on paper. Edit later.

As Zefrank says, don't wait for inspiration... Just keep on making things:

Hollywood_Freaks writes:

I don't write extensively but enough to where this has happened.

I usually run into this block when I think of a good argument or explanation about something and then realize while writing that the argument is not strong.

In that case, it wasn't a waste. I've learned something.

Unit writes:

Definitely not wasted. I've had similar situations that lasted four months or even four years. Being stuck is a way of life.

liberty writes:

I like the "wrong path" metaphor that somebody said. I disagree that if you don't write you can't get closer-- I also find taking a walk helps.

I think it depends a bit on why you have a block. Someone said that it depends if you know what you want to say but not how, or don't know what you want to say. That is close to it, I think.

But a lot of times a writer (especially creative) knows what they want to say but are so far off from knowing how that this is also wrong-path.

If you are on the wrong path sometimes writing can help, it can get things flowing, get ideas out there, and then you can find the right path. But other times it pushes you farther from the right path- you are wandering off along the wrong path so far that you can't even see the other options anymore.

Those are the times when going for a walk is actually better- not just because its neutral rather than bad, but because it can also help the ideas flowing, sometimes whole sections get written to your mental pad while walking, and then can flow right out when you sit down.

Its all about finding the path, the inspiration, the frame or structure or theme of what you want to say.

Oh, I also find the bulletin board here really great, even if you don't write screenplays or anything fictional - its just really good for thinking about things like writers block, outlining, themes, and if you do write fiction, for characters and dialogue and other stuff:

JmZ writes:

I have been sitting here for four hours attempting to put my thoughts into written form and for the life of me I cannot get it together; to put it simply, yes, it is time well spent if the four hours are utilized to think, re-think, write and re-write the thoughts with the desired impact and the format of your intent. On the other hand, if those four hours are spent with your mind elsewhere, then the time is not well spent.

One must have all the pieces in place to be able to sit and write without much thought or effort. When I find myself struggling to complete a piece, it is normally because I do not have all the information necessary to complete the work and “the write and erase” or “stare at the blank page” syndromes are an internal struggle to identify what is missing. At this stage, I find it best to conduct more research or discuss my thoughts with a colleague in order to get my mind in the right frame. If this is not possible, then “the road not taken” is the next best choice as this will often allow your inner thoughts to work themselves out – much like the dishes with grease baked on that are left to soak overnight; my how they are so much easier to clean after they have soaked – as opposed to scrubbing the #@!* out of them immediately.

Niccolo Adami writes:

It honestly depends on the writer and the type of writing that's being done.

If you're still spitting out ideas, then no the time has not been wasted.

If not, then yes, the time has been wasted and you're forcing it.

I, however, also have an opinion that some people just have a general pre-disposition towards certain lines in academia - the biggest two being mathematics and writing. If you don't possess that pre-disposition to be a good writer, then you probably should limit the amount of writing you do, and if you go through writer's block often, that should be pretty indicative that there's either a problem with you and the subject or just a problem with you.

Josh writes:

I'm not sure how universal this is, but I find my brain does background processing really well. I always start a project ASAP and get almost nothing done on it (for the same reasons you mention). But when I sit down two days later (or more realisticly, 5 hours before it needs to be done), my brain has connected things and I can write very quickly. (It's not just writing; nearly anything that requires thinking works this way for me). It's like a computer. You hit a button and for a while it looks like nothing's happening. But the computer is processing in the background and eventually it gets to the point where it can generate output.

So the answer is "yes, you are 4 hours closer".

William Newman writes:

I mostly get blocked (or not in a state of flow, or trying endless false trails) in software and similar technical work, not writing. My general impression is that the blocked time is not really wasted, although sometimes after I'm blocked for a while I start taking 20% or more of my time in constructive breaks (like exercise, or running some errands, or reviewing something unrelated) and that can work better than just fighting continuously with the problem.

Over the years I've done a lot of work with computer algorithms related to search and optimization. On hard problems, such algorithms often spend much of their time hunting in false trails and making no net progress. Having that behavior as part of my conceptual vocabulary doesn't keep me from being frustrated by blockedness, but it does help me be philosophical about it. (And, stretching the analogy further, a lot of algorithms do random restarts of some sort, and going jogging before returning to the problem might be a little like that.)

Jeff writes:

Those four hours of hair-pulling are absolutely neccessary for me--though I've gotten better at recognizing when I just need to leave the paper for a while.

Old Man writes:

Read "Bird by Bird" by Anne Lamotte.

Dave writes:

I say write it badly. Write the whole chapter badly, the easiest way you can think of. Once it's done, all you have to do is read yourself and improve your sentences. It's much easier because less creativity is needed. The bulk of the work is done. And you can work like a proofreader, like you're improving somebody else's work.

Caveat: You might end up re-writing the thing 75 times. But still, it's less painful than staring at the screen.

j writes:

Any time spent working advances the project. The non productive hours are not so, the brain is working and your desperation is maturing your will. "Working myself up" is a necessary preliminary phase in doing some actual work. For me, at least.

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