Are You Bound Up

This Week In Writing, we explore the concept of root-bound plants and how we can unknowingly follow the same path.

Are You Bound Up
"A root-bound tree filled with bad ideas" by Midjourney and Justin Cox

About fifteen years ago, I bought a small tree. It was my first houseplant and came after a short hospital stay. The tree was my way of bringing life into the place after an unexpected time. I’ve moved the tree a few times, and now it lives on my front porch.

This weekend, after waiting way too long, I replanted the tree into a much larger pot. Removing the tree from its existing pot, I realized how incredibly root-bound it was. The tree’s small, thin roots wrapped entirely around the inside of the pot, forming a complete base. Honestly, it was quite a sight to see.

Plants grow to the confines of their environment. In this case, my tree’s pot constricted the space available, so the roots grew around and around, making up for the lacking width and depth. Root-bound plants are unhealthy because they reach their full potential. As I said, it was long past the time I moved this particular tree into a larger environment.

While my hands were in the dirt, breaking up the roots and securing them under fresh, healthy soil, it got me thinking about writing. Like root-bound plants, we eventually only grow to the confines of our environment. Sure, our audience may continue to grow, but ultimately, we reach the bounds of what we’re capable of producing.

Here’s an example to help flesh out what I’m talking about.

There is a specific style of online writing. You know what I’m talking about: delivering relatively meaningless ideas in short, easy-to-read sentences — paragraphs be damned. It’s the style popular on LinkedIn and in many publications on Medium. This is a terrible, uninteresting form of writing. Yet, so many people give in to writing this way.


I think people get root-bound and stuck in their environment. Writers, particularly those with large audiences, are confined by their capacity — after all, there are only so many ideas and so much time in the world. To feed their content machines, they create simple, quick-to-produce “content.” Because their audiences are large, the type of writing seems popular, and others replicate it. Then, before you know it, the internet is filled with root-bound nonsense.

But here’s the thing. Like my tree, new life comes from a wider environment. Over time, my tree’s roots will expand and thrive in the larger pot until it needs more room. At that point (hopefully before it gets root-bound), I’ll transplant it again.

I’m not advocating that root-bound writers pack up their audience and move to a different platform. Instead, root-bound writers should change their expectations. There isn’t a need to churn out more content — lord knows that with generative-AI writing tools, there’s far more content than we need. Instead, I’m suggesting that writers take a step back and only publish when things are ready*.

Don’t feel pressured to publish daily or even weekly. In fact, don’t feel pressured to publish at all. No one should be setting limits and expectations on your writing except you (unless, of course, you have a paid editor you are accountable to). Instead, write on your terms and on your schedule.

I prefer the routine of a weekly article — it works for me. However, if there’s ever a time I don’t feel inspired, I promise you that I’ll take the week off. I won’t churn something out for the sake of meeting a deadline. The last thing I want is for my writing to feel root-bound.

Have you ever been root-bound? How’d you change your environment?

Speaking Of Generative AI Writing…

There’s only so much we can say about the onslaught of AI tools hitting the market. This week, Bing released and subsequently scaled back their AI search engine’s beta test because people used it for a lot more than search. They claim the tool will eventually integrate with Outlook for emails and blog posts. So, much more than search. Fun!

Tom Scott created YouTube and is scared of where the AI revolution is taking us. I’m not usually one for watching video commentary, but his is worth your time. He’s right; the current glut of AI tools feels a lot like 1999 Napster. It’s safe to say that we’re just getting started with these tools, and it doesn’t seem like anyone knows how they work.

I’m not inherently opposed to AI tools; I use image generators, after all. I am excited to see what the next version of the internet looks likes, but I’m also old enough to know the next version will likely be an ad-fueled hellscape. It’s crucial that we who create do so in an ethical and controlled way. It’s also essential that we maintain ownership and control of our words. But, more on that next week. Maybe.

Speaking Of A Version Of The Internet…

My Writing Community is hosting our first book club! We’re reading The Storied Life of AJ Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin. I’m halfway through the book, and it’s an absolute delight. Our live chat about the book is on March 2, and you can join us by upgrading your subscription to This Week In Writing.

Justin Cox Justin Cox

Justin Cox is a donut-loving, word-writing, nonprofit consultant based in Orlando. He also runs The Writing Cooperative on Medium. Come say hello!