Having coached writers for most of my adult life, I find that the greatest obstacle for most people in creating content, whether for a school assignment, a letter of application, a website, or a novel, is almost universally the same: getting started.
I think the reason for this problem is an age-old and persistent myth about writing: that it means taking a pre-existing product from the mind onto the page in one fell swoop. The myth goes something like this–first we envision an idea, then wait for the inspiration to give it life, and then commit pen to paper to transfer on to a page something that somehow exists before we have even created it. Maybe such a process worked for Michelangelo, who is said to have seen David in the rock before he took hand to chisel, but it has never worked particularly well for me, for those I have coached, or for anyone else I have ever known, from novelists to technical writers.
Instead, I recommend reversing this process, as well as the way we think about writing. First we create. There really is no other choice since we don’t know how ideas will take shape on paper, no matter how perfectly formed they may seem in our minds. Then we are inspired by what we find on the page and, only then, can then we envision possibilities for the ideas in front of us.
Here are some suggestions for getting started:
- Jot down a question you need to answer. It might be ‘What is the story behind my company?’ or ‘What is the protagonist of my fifth crime novel going to do when he finds out his first wife is still alive in Denver?’ Don’t try to find the perfect question. The secret is that ultimately it doesn’t matter.
- Write, on pen and paper, everything that comes to mind for 10 minutes. Don’t stop the pen moving across the page, even if you write “I’m never going to be able to fucking do this,” on repeat, abandoning the question completely. Commit to ten minutes. Promise yourself you won’t stop early, but you will stop when the time is up, no matter what. Don’t stop to reread and judge the merits of your work. Just keep going.
- In a second 10-minute session, reread what you produced and take some notes. It may be you realize that you’re on to something in answering the question. Don’t worry if that doesn’t seem to be the case. It may be there’s much more valuable information there – a new question has emerged, a new angle, new ideas, or an entirely new set of questions that precede the first. Regardless, you have probably started your project now in 20 minutes of your time.
- Set time limits for drafting. I often find that it’s the dreaded idea of the inevitable writing marathon, awaiting at some vague point in the future (usually a feverish 10-hour stretch the day before the project comes due) that most often creates writer’s block. I often also find that those I coach produce much more content than they had anticipated in short sessions of half an hour or less. Jack Kerouac may or may not have blasted out On the Road on a long spool of paper over the course of a drunken week. In all likelihood, he did not. Either way, few would want to aspire to this activity at the cost of everything else the average person’s week demands.
- Resist editing your draft. Allow a draft to be a draft, your own private space to develop ideas and find new questions and answer them. To labor over the correctness or style of an early draft is usually to slow down the process and to attempt to put final touches on something that isn’t done yet, like trying to ice a cake before it comes out of the oven.
If you’d like to practice this method, free from the constraints of a project, I can offer an exercise created at Harvard University that exemplifies the process of writing to learn rather than learning to write. I do it myself once a year to set goals and create personal balance. Write for ten minutes in response to these questions: What does it mean to me to live a good life? A happy life? A productive life? Stop after ten minutes and, when you return, read and think about what you wrote. In another five or ten-minute session, note contradictions. Are productivity and happiness ruling one another out, for instance? In a third session, write for no more than ten minutes about how to approach discrepancies or contradictions that may result in a better balance for you personally.
If you find these tips helpful or would like to chat about the writing process, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org