You Have Permission To Do Nothing

by Randy Murray on November 22, 2010

I am convinced that other many people, if not most people, hold two very interesting preconceptions about writers. The first is that writers do something impossibly difficult and must work incredibly hard at writing. The second is that writers don’t actually do anything at all.

Guess what? They’re right.

“I can never get used to the fact that most of the time it looks like you’re doing nothing.” Roger Sterling speaking to Don Draper on Mad Men

Writing is very hard work. I grew up doing physical labor and I know what it takes to work long, hot days up to your ankles in manure and the rest of you coated in dirt and sweat. Writing is harder. But at the same time, writing requires long periods of what others may consider to be goofing off. Doing nothing. But it is the other side of the coin.

Writing requires you to think, to load up on ideas, to rev up the engines. To others it may appear that you have your feet up on your desk with your eyes fixed on the distance. They call it daydreaming. To the writer, this can be part of the process.

If you choose to be a writer, you need to embrace the do-nothing side of yourself. There is a difference between doing nothing and doing the work that a writer must to do prepare to write. You’ll need to work that out for yourself and detect when you’re delaying or avoiding writing. Most of the time if you find you’re not ready to write, there’s a reason for that.

For me, I do a great deal of preparation. I make notes, I think about the project and if possible I talk about it with someone who might know a thing or two about it. Then I’ll take a couple of stabs at it to find out if I’m ready. I’ll try a stray paragraph or two, expand the outline a bit, and see what happens. Often I have to let the pressure build up a bit, but not every time.

The real work of writing is thinking. And to someone outside of yourself, thinking may appear to be doing nothing. Cultivate that impression. Turn “lazy bum” into “working all the time.”

You have my permission to do this type of nothing. But you don’t need my permission. You must give yourself permission and ignore the disapproval of others. Those closest to you may eventually figure it out. They’ll learn not to say, “Since you’re not busy, could you . . .”

But for others to grant you the benefit of the doubt, you’ll need to do the other part of writing, the actual putting words on paper part (putting them on screen just doesn’t sound the same, does it?). And that’s how you’ll know for yourself if the doing nothing part has paid off.

The You Have Permission To Do Nothing by Randy Murray, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Jim Raffel November 22, 2010 at 7:49 pm

Amen brother that’s all I can add. What a great description of what “thinking” work is all about.


Randy Murray November 23, 2010 at 7:29 am

I’m surprised how little thinking time is valued. People value the end result of thinking, but the actual time to think, I believe, isn’t.




Steven Riddle November 23, 2010 at 1:11 pm

Dear Randy,

Now, if I can only persuade my wife to understand that writing and (musical) composition are comparable entities and all that time that my son spends “running around like a lunatic” is actually productive work time. (Because I truly believe that it is.)




Randy Murray November 23, 2010 at 2:49 pm

For every hour at the desk or keyboard, one must spend three running around like a lunatic. At least that is my experience.

Ah, writing and music. I play a bit and my daughter is a musician and composer. They are equivalent exercises, but so very different in aspect. I suspect, but cannot prove, that great writing is more rare and more difficult than great music. Music is a natural, more primitive expression of the human soul. Writing is a late addition and it stresses our meager brains to do it well.

But good luck with that. I try not to argue with my own wife. I find that even when I win an argument, I lose.



M. November 24, 2010 at 6:46 am

I guess I’m a hell of a writer :) ) most of the days I literary do nothing, but sit around and think, and then there are days when I write for hours and rip dictionaries apart for not finding the proper word, or rhyme; days when my fingers destroy the keyboard. And then my mind goes blank. :) )
It’s a mad man’s job, being a writer that is.


Randy Murray November 24, 2010 at 7:31 am

A madman’s job is a perfect way of describing it.

It’s devilishly difficult. There are many days that I don’t appear to accomplish anything, but that’s because the struggle, the real work, doesn’t necessarily mean letters on a page. But I’ve found that if the thing I’m working on isn’t working, I can often make progress on something else.

Might I suggest a Writing Assignment?


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