When it comes to writing, getting started is just about one of the hardest things to do. But that's true for anything, isn't it? What—even with our best intentions and in our highest elation—keeps us from writing? And writing our best?
In my last post I talked a bit about expectations and commitment. [By the way, the last three times I've tried to type "commitment" this week, I've spelled it wrong. And I'm an editor. Lesson: Don't set your expectations that you'll write perfectly every time. There will be mistakes. They don't matter at this point.]
Expectations and commitment are the groundwork for getting started writing. But what do they look like? And what do they look like to you?
One of the biggest obstacles I see people get themselves into is this idea that they have to write every single day, and for hours at a time. This may work for some people, and if it works for you, keep doing it. But I have found that this kind of writing can sometimes lead to, and is best suited for, formulaic writing. Yes, these are often the "professional" writers, but not always. There are plenty of professional writers—and very good ones—who don't spend half a day every single day writing. And you shouldn't have to either. There are also plenty of people writing every day for hours but aren't getting anywhere. I tend to be a binge writer—I'm perfectly happy scribbling down ideas and thoughts here and there, letting my thoughts wander, writing a little in the mornings, but then (now that I'm attuned) I feel a strong need to just write, and I plan for that extended time of writing.
So decide: How much time writing can you—and do you want to—fit in? And in what form?
Is it 10 minutes? Great. Only one day a week? Even better. When your toddler's napping? This is how a lot of people do it. Perhaps your writing goal is simple: Carry a notebook around everywhere and put ideas in it. Start small and don't force it. For some, "starting small" looks a lot bigger. Maybe it is every day, but only 30 minutes. Or maybe you want to plan a weekend or week of writing, and get away from the Internet and your fast-paced world. It could also be in how much you write. You may be the type of person that writes better with small or incomplete chunks of thoughts or a jumble of words. (I've done that. A lot of my journals start with one-word descriptors about my day before turning into sentences.) And then you can expand on those smaller pieces. Others like to set word-count goals or number of chapters.
Any of these is a perfect start—as long as it's right for you and fits your writing goals and needs. Choose something that feels right for you, and commit to it. At least for a little while. You can always adjust it later.
Now, here's the next stumbling block: What happens when that small space isn't enough, or isn't working well? Or maybe in reality it just doesn't look like what you imagined it would. Sometimes we fully commit to a writing practice that looks like something very specific, and even works out well, for the most part.
But what if you schedule 10 minutes of writing every day, and you find that (1) you keep going over 10 minutes because at 9 minutes your creative ideas just start flooding the page and you can't stop, or (2) you find yourself staring at the page, monitor, sky for 8 minutes and then finally, around minute 9, you finally have an idea or a thought enters your mind?
This is where you get to create space around your writing. I've started to incorporate morning pre-writing routines into my writing space. This could include coffee/tea (for me, more likely breakfast and then second breakfast these days); staring out into the garden or out the window; time to just think and let my thoughts roll all over themselves, sometimes with a notebook handy, sometimes not; listening to birds, watching the squirrels, waiting for hummingbirds. Just about anything can fill this space, so long as it encourages creativity and inspiration. The point is stillness and space. Again, this looks different for everyone. But it depends very much on you and what you're writing. I won't even tell you that this space doesn't include the Internet, because for some people, their writing revolves around what's online, or they simply have a blog or email that they love to read and gets them thinking. I keep the Internet up when I write on my computer so I have easy access to the online dictionary. I sometimes have my phone nearby for the same reason. But if you're doing more introspective work, you might want to take these things out of your creative space.
Create space for post-writing also. So if you find that your 10-minute writing keeps going over, plan for that. You don't have to change your goal or expectation—your goal can still be to write 10 minutes—but the space you create for your writing may be 30 minutes. Factor that in when scheduling. Your post-writing could also be end-of-day scribbling, either after work, or before bed. I basically block out my entire morning, plus an hour or so into the afternoon. That's because I know it can take awhile for me to really get writing, and on some of my best days, there is a build-up (or even standstill) until inspiration strikes around 11 or noon and I can't stop until 1 p.m. I also take the entire day to "write" because when I'm in the writing mode, it's next to impossible to switch back to anything else. Again, my actual writing may only be the last hour of that time block or the morning hours, but the space I've created for my writing is much bigger. These are the "luxuries" I afford myself, because I am a writer and writing is very important to me. For some of you, this simply is not possible, nor does it interest you. Start from where you are.
If you have a writing practice already, perhaps it's not the starting small but how to grow that's stopping you. Maybe your writing space is not inspiring, or what you're writing about needs to grow. You might want to increase the amount of time you're writing. Perhaps the framework around your writing practice is fine--it's the stagnation of your writing abilities that you want to evolve. If it's focus and intentionality you want to bring to your writing, you may want to add "mastering of craft" to your writing goals: expand your vocabulary, understand how rhythm affects a sentence, learn rhetorical devices for a stronger argument. This will look different for everybody depending on where you are, and where you want to go. Remember, working on the craft of writing is still very much writing.
Write about writing.
If you're just starting out (and you've not taken my seminar, ahem), try writing about what you want to write and why. This could look like a concentrated brainstorming session or brain dump of every writing idea you have. And then pull a few out that you feel strongest about. This is a great way to not only commit to writing (and actually start writing) but also set expectations around it. Spend a few minutes every day, or schedule one day or morning or evening, to think about what writing means to you. When did you stop doing it? Was there a reason for it? When did the urge to write start to come back? Have you been trying to write recently, but not getting far with it? What part of the writing doesn't feel good to you? Get very curious about your role as a writer and write honestly. Is this something you can do on your own anymore? Or do you need help, collaboration, a group? (We see writing as a work of solitude, and often it is, but plenty of great writers had their cohort, some even their muses.)
Prompts and exercises.
Get back to the basics. I did some of my best writing when I was educating myself about poetry and focusing on my craft. Sometimes we are stilted by our own grand visionings. (I mean, we're entrepreneurs/writers/revolutionaries, right? We have big ideas. But those big ideas aren't going away; they'll be there.) What we have to do is turn those visions of possibility into words that people will read. And so, when writing, we have to put our faith in the words, but also work at using them well. This could be an aspect of starting small, so latch it onto there, if you wish.
Find inspiring prompts, beautiful sentences, or new words to get you started. Explore them and see where they take you. If you're writing a book, brainstorm chapter titles or themes, and then use that as a starting point. Some days, I would wake up and just dive into the "Word of the Day" and my poetry dictionary. I would learn or relearn the definition of a word, discover its origins, contemplate its connotations, nerd out on its history, and find new words and synonyms. Then I'd switch over to my poetry and learn about poetic devices, write different types of poems, and read other poets.
Explore the origins and emotions around a certain word. Surprise yourself with a word you've always misunderstood or maybe dismissed too soon. These exercises not only get you writing, but they will make you a better, more fluid writer, when it comes time to just write. When you're in the flow, these words and lessons will come back to you and lessen the interruptions in your writing.
Give it a name.
It's been said, when we name something, we give it importance. And since writing is a word game, why not give your writing or space a name that calls to you or inspires you or motivates you? Make it your own. If you can't leave your office to write or you write best in your office, try going into your writing space by calling it something different from your "office." If "writing" seems too stressful, perhaps time-block for "creativity" or "expression" and set expectations around that. This is also a great practice in the craft of writing. Look up words. Brainstorm. Imagine your most amazing writing space and experience, and then describe it in as much detail as possible in writing. And remember, just as with writing, you can edit this whenever it's not working for you.
Know yourself (and write what you know).
I know. I say this all the time. But it's sooooo true. In all of these tips, I tend to mention something along the lines of "depending on you." Writing will always be difficult (tell me running your business of X-plus years is easy every single day)—but even more so when you're writing according to other people. This is part of my "Free Your Voice" mantra. Not only in finding your voice in writing, but also finding your voice to write. You know yourself better than anybody, or at least, have the potential to. (Sometimes we have blinders we need other people to help us see. However, I do also believe writing can be that other person for you in a lot of ways. But even the most reclusive writers have their confidante, their "other" to help them in areas where they don't excel.)
What are your typical stumbling blocks in life and business? What are your strengths? What is your work, purpose? What are other things you enjoy in life? Are there any of these that you can bring into your writing space? Knowing all of these things can help you in your writing, because instead of writing what everyone is telling you to write or what is already out there, knowing yourself helps you write what is uniquely yours to write, and helps you create the framework to write it.
Start at the...beginning?
Do you start at the beginning? The end? Every story starts in the middle, in medias res. But where you actually start writing can be the beginning, middle, or end. If you've been writing for a while, you may know where that is for you. I tend to start writing at the first sentence. By the time my writing and editing are finished and I have my last draft, what I started with may not always be the first sentence, but it certainly helps get me started.
But again, writing looks different from the outside. For one, even though I start writing at the first sentence, I may have actually been thinking several paragraphs prior. In other words, my "first" sentence was never written, just thought about, and it either disappears, pops up somewhere else in the piece, or becomes the first sentence in something else I write. Then it evolves until my thoughts get me to the "first" written sentence, where I began. Finally, by the time it's ready to go out, that "first" sentence may have been tweaked, moved, or taken out completely.
So if you've been writing, pay attention to where you started and what the final product looks like. (NOTE: This is also a really great time to have an editor, because an editor can help you get to that first sentence—which in your final draft might have actually been buried several sentences down or buried in the middle.) Is it the same first sentence? Then you might be the type of writer who starts at the beginning. The questions to ask yourself are: Is it working? And do I want to try something different? Answer the first question first.
If you haven't started a writing practice, now is a great time to play around with this option. Try starting in the middle. This could be good if you're a details person—you want to get to the facts and research, and that decides how you begin and end. If you want to start at the end (and plenty of good writers do this), think of a clincher last sentence, or the end result in mind. What is the feeling or reaction you want to ignite at the end, when people can take action (or contemplate or simply take it all in)? Also know that starting at the "end" could mean writing the whole piece, finishing, and then writing the first sentence.
Do you have any of your own tricks for getting started? Or did you try these—and what were your results?
Ready to start writing?
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