Vincent Zhang

Engineering, Design & Productivity

Write it down anyway

How Google ruined my writings

You know what was the number one thing that stopped me from writing? Google.

Every time I have an idea, a topic I’d like to write, I would involuntarily open Google and type in my thesis. I was immediately frustrated by the 58,000,000 results showed up and the first 3 pages of professional articles with about the same title.

Of course my idea wasn’t an original; it has been done before. My motivation of writing goes straight out of the window. What’s the point of me writing about this? How would I ever compete with those writers? Will people even like it?

What writing really is

It took me many years of searching to figure out the secret answer to all those questions: it doesn’t matter. And the reason lies within the very nature of writing.

In this age of information overload, we often tend to forget that writing, by nature, is about a personal interpretation. The unique aspect of writing emerges from the content, not the topic selection. Don’t be frustrated about the fact that someone already wrote about it. Someone hasn’t written it clear enough. Someone hasn’t written it in a particular angle. Someone hasn’t written it your way.

Writing is not like the 15th century Age of Discovery, where you got one chance to claim a piece of unearthed (intellectual) property under your name so that no one else can afterwards. Just because someone else wrote about that topic already, doesn’t make other writings in the same field obsolete. Quite the opposite: it makes them better.

Not convinced? Just look at the greats: the history of writing is a history of derivatives and compilations. Ideas were borrowed, referenced, adapted and evolved for eons.

Some of the best works of writing are proven to be against the very concept of original ideas.

Take “Ulysses,” the famously controversial Irish novel by James Joyce. It is an unapologetic retelling of Homer’s epic poem, “The Odyssey,” both structurally and spiritually. When Joyce was young, he encountered a copy of “Adventures of Ulysses” by English essayist Charles Lamb, essentially a children’s version of the Greek epic. Joyce fell in love with Homer’s idea so much that he decided to write about the same story again, almost 2,000 years later.

Had Joyce decided to search for a fresh, brand new idea that no writer has done before, we would not have Ulysses, one of the most important works of modernist literature.

In fact, this phenomenon exists in many creative realms: at the idea level, originality is often overrated whereas the execution is underrated. Celebrating shiny ideas is the low hanging fruit of any craft, but real masters can see through the trap of originality and motivate themselves to start. Remember what Pablo Picasso said about great artists?

Just write it down

By now we should have realized that in writing, originality is often overrated. So instead of worrying about whether an idea or topic has been done before, here’s what I tell myself nowadays: just write it down anyway.

For one second, try to forget about Googling anything; forget about the perfectionist questions you keep asking yourself. Simply sit down, find a piece of paper and just start writing the first few sentences of your big idea.

I know this is hard and your first sentence probably sucks; but just write it down anyway. By keep writing, you are overcoming the fear of taking a risk, which is one of the hardest yet most common emotional blocks in creative work, according to James L. Adams, in his groundbreaking book “Conceptual Blockbusting: A Guide to Better Ideas.” Starting is a beneficial habit in itself: it will make your every future adventure a little less intimidating.

By just writing it down, you take your first steps into the iterative writing process. According to Adams, we shouldn’t judge or analyze our idea through the lens of Google early on because new idea is by nature fragile; it lacks the detail to make it believable. Writing is the very critical incubation process where instead of speculating, you put actual work on that idea, see it grow into something truly unique to you.

Another surprising benefit of putting floating ideas into concrete writing, I found, is that it helps you to reach a serene state of harmony. Exposing, comparing and “window-shopping” our ideas online will make us very vulnerable to extrinsic motivations – “what if others did it?”, “will people like it?” – but those are the exact mindsets that cause anxiety and harm long-term creativity, according to Daniel H. Pink’s book, “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.”

In contrast, the writing process brings you creative practice, intellectual challenge and high concentration: these are the rare intrinsic rewards that fuels your long term happiness in your creative career. Our minds can be frenetic and relentless chasing the phantom of “original ideas”. But writing has its own slower, steadier rhythm of realizing such ideas. It will help and guide you, but only if you put the work into it.

Curate ideas, but write them too

Here’s a confession in the end: I’m ashamed of how long I have wanted to write this blog post. But a few weeks ago I figured I have nothing to lose if I just sat down and wrote a few paragraphs – and here I am.

I’m the worst perfectionist and procrastinators I know. If I can do it, surely you can do it too: curate a habit of recording a list of your ideas and inspirations, but also try to allocate time each week to actually write your first draft.

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