Last week on a writers’ forum I subscribe to, an author posted to ask other members how they manage to keep up with all the articles and blog posts about craft and business that they want to read. She said she barely had enough time to write and revise her own projects she’s working on, and felt overwhelmed by also trying to find time for the informational/educational posts that also feel essential to growing her writing career.
An author posted a similar question to Jane Friedman’s Ask the Editor column last month, saying her in-box was filled with advice she can’t possibly find time to read, and that she felt it was distracting her focus and time for actual writing.
I’m hearing a lot of author chatter about overwhelm and overload lately, and it’s understandable.
We’re living in a time of vast information abundance. The internet has brought news to our in-boxes from every corner of the world constantly. Social media has provided a steady stream of updates and info from friends, acquaintances, and people we follow.
Specific to our field, the explosion of indie and small-press publishing has resulted in a slew of experts hanging out their shingle—and attendant expert forums offering information about every element of craft and business.
For those of us who are knowledge junkies and love our craft, it may feel like a Mecca. Anything you want to know about our field, bam, it’s right there at the end of a search tag. Actually you don’t even have to trouble yourself touching the keys to create a search: One click of a button on a signup sheet and you can have your favorite writing outlets and blogs send posts right to your in-box, often on the daily. Heck, now you can talk to your damned computer like it’s a buddy and ask it anything under the sun, craft related or not, and AI will spit back at you a vast array of information culled (or let’s say appropriated without compensation) from countless millions of articles.
Writers are trapped under an avalanche of information and we are not okay, y’all.
Too Much of a Good Thing
Years ago my mom dropped me off for an otherwise aimless summer day at the main branch of our central library for the first time. She thought she was doing a wonderful thing for her voracious-reader kid who couldn’t get enough books, and sure enough I came out with a stack of them as high as they would allow me to check out. But when I got in the car my mood wasn’t quite what my mother expected.
“What’s wrong?” she asked at my crestfallen demeanor.
“I’ll never be able to read all of those books,” I told her sadly, picturing the towering shelves.
Even as an eight-year-old I understood that there was more knowledge in the world than I would ever be able to consume, and I entered into my very first tiny little existential depression.
We’re living in a time of vast abundance of knowledge and information that seems like it should make our lives fuller and richer and help us grow. And of course it can.
But lately I’m seeing evidence of a whole lot of writers feeling like that little overwhelmed eight-year-old I used to be, daunted by trying to do the impossible and Hoover up all the information available as if we’re ChatGPT uploading countless gigabytes of (largely unpaid-for, misappropriated) IP into our brains.
The Backlash of Information Overload
The desire to learn and hone our craft is an understandable one. We’re in this field because we love it, and if we love it we want to get better and better at it to take us closer to whatever our goals for our writing careers may be.
And from the time we’re born, it’s inculcated in us that the way you get better at something is to be taught. We have to be taught how to latch on to our mom to get food; how to propel ourselves in space using our four limbs, and then later just two of them; how to stop peeing and pooping ourselves.
We are taught language and communication. We go to school and we’re taught reading, writing, and arithmetic. If we want to learn any extracurriculars, like music or sports or debate, we’re taught how to do that too. When we enter the workforce, we’re taught how to do the jobs we were hired for.
So of course our instinct when we want to become better writers is to seek out teaching—the more the better.
But there’s a backlash to that. Often it seems that the more you study, the more you may feel entangled by what initially felt natural to you. You may start questioning and second-guessing whether you’re doing it right, getting wrapped around the axle. You may try to faithfully follow the tenets you’ve been taught and strip the life and originality out of your writing.
Sometimes you may fall victim to what’s often called analysis paralysis, where your efforts stall out entirely because you’re so overwhelmed by input that you fear or don’t know how to actually move forward and write. So much of your time and energy is spent learning that you’re not actually doing.
And yet still we keep lapping up more. It’s like we have information and knowledge FOMO.
It’s a strange thing: As Jane Friedman says in her excellent answer to the author who asked her how to combat information overload, I am one of the purveyors of that information, so it may seem disingenuous for me to suggest limiting your intake of it. But as an editor I have always said that if I am doing my job right an author may need me less and less, and I think that’s true of teaching as well.
It’s healthy to always be open to new information. To be willing to reconsider, rethink, and grow. I’ve been working in this field for 30 years and I still learn more about my craft almost every day.
But mostly I’m just doing it. And a lot of what I’m learning comes from that doing of it—hands-on, direct, and personalized.
Once you learn how to walk, or ride a bike, or play the flute, burying yourself in books and classes about how to do it isn’t going to make you better. Periodically you may need more education to help you reach a new level of competence or overcome a specific challenge. But you’ve already got your foundation, and it’s your job to build on it by doing the thing, over and over and over, learning from experience.
Read more: “’Leave Me Alone—I Know What I’m Doing’”
Face the FOMO. You can’t possibly take in all the information that exists, much of it excellent, but much of it pedestrian and sometimes even downright bad or counterproductive.
Just like in your writing it can be easy to fall down a research rabbit hole and never actually write, don’t let yourself fall down the perpetual-student mine shaft and never actually bring any of the gold to the surface.
You have to learn to discern—to be willing to let go of the idea of being able to take in endless information and use it effectively in your writing, and decide which and how much of these resources may be most helpful to you.
In the words of Ursula the sea witch, life’s full of tough choices, innit?
Here are some suggestions for how to make them:
- Unsubscribe. Having piles of posts acting in your inbox just heightens the FOMO, feeling like an ever-growing to-do list you will never make any headway on. Take away that pressure and guilt and stress and start unsubscribing from some of the newsletters and blogs you may have signed up for, even including this one (though I’ll miss you desperately). Decide on a few you feel are most valuable for you or most resonate, and bravely remove yourself from the rest. You can always come back if or when you decide you want to.
- Pinpoint. Drinking randomly from a fire hose of information about anything doesn’t yield mastery—it makes you a dilettante, with a shallow but broad layer of knowledge, rather than an expert with a more focused but deep and thorough understanding. When you need specific info about a specific challenge or speed bump in your work, go find it. But keep in mind that often the best way to learn to master your stuck places is to work through them, steadily and directly.
- Regulate. As with any other field, set aside specific time you’ll dedicate to continuing education—which takes a backseat to your actual working time. Stick ruthlessly to whatever that allotted time is—don’t fall down the mine shaft and let yourself be pulled away from your main goal and the number-one way of learning your craft: doing it.
- Multitask. My best information-intake time is often in the cracks of otherwise mindless activities where I can split my focus—listening to podcasts and interviews while doing household chores or gardening or walking the dogs, for instance, or reading posts and articles while blow-drying my hair. This feels to me like found bonus time. Or take back the time from mindless social-media scrolling.
- Let go. But remember you don’t have to fill every spare moment with knowledge intake. Just as your characters do, we need time to digest and process what we take in, and to decide how the information may affect our thoughts and actions. Give yourself time to let the information percolate on a back burner. Remember the crucial importance and value of rest—for your work, and for your psyche.
Read more: “Give It a Rest”
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