The hardest part of writing is the writing part.
I’m not kidding. Getting started? Sometimes it feels impossible. And when you do start, sometimes you hit a wall.
If you’ve had this happen to you — if you this happens to you a lot — you’re not alone. As Anne Lamott writes in “Shitty First Drafts,” a chapter from her book Bird By Bird: Some Instruction on Writing and Life, “For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.”
John McPhee, in his essay “Draft No. 4,” says something very similar about his first drafts: “For me, the hardest part comes first, getting something — anything — out in front of me. Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling out words as if I were flinging mud at a wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something — anything — as a first draft.”
So let’s crack our knuckles, pick up some mud, and get ready to fling.
For the sake of this post, I’m going to assume that you’re a student writing an essay for a class, but this activity works well for all sorts of writing. If you’re writing an assignment for a class, though, I assume you’ve got your prompt and have prepared to write your assignment by doing the necessary reading/research.
You’ll need a few things for this activity:
- At least 10 minutes
- A distraction-free writing environment
- Writing utensils and something to write on
- A stopwatch
Set your timer for one minute for the first round. Have your topic firmly in mind, and when you’re ready…
Don’t stop for anything. Don’t backspace or cross anything out. Misspelled something? Who gives a crap? Keep going! If you get stuck, write anything that comes to mind — your own name, the lyrics to “Baby Shark,” anything. Just don’t stop.
Write quickly for the first 30 seconds or so — your writing equivalent of a brisk walking pace — and for the last 30 seconds, pick up the pace.
Now look at what you wrote in that one minute. If it’s all crap, that’s ok! You’ll do a few more rounds. But if there’s even a hint of a spark of a glimmer of an idea that you could develop further, build on it in the next round.
Time for round two. For this round, set your timer for two minutes. Same deal: no stopping, no going back, no making corrections.
In these two minutes, write quickly for the first minute, speed up by about 10-20% for the next thirty seconds, then flat-out sprint to the finish. Get as much out as you can.
Shake those hands out and look back at what you’ve written so far. Still just crap? Who cares? No one’s going to see it. But if you’ve hit on something you can develop — some point or argument that you can elaborate on — pursue it further in the next round. Or, maybe there was another point you hit on in that first round that you want to dig into further.
Set your timer for two more minutes, and keep going as you did in round two. After each round, give yourself time to look back at what you’ve written to see if anything has burbled up that you could play around with further in a later round.
After your third round, do a fourth, if you have time, stretching your fingers and wrists out after each round — you don’t want to injure yourself.
By now, you’ve probably got a few hundred words written. It’s not pretty, and that’s fine. If you’d stopped to make it pretty, you’d have stopped yourself from getting ideas out of your head and onto the page — plugging a cork into the trickle of ideas just as they were starting to flow out.
By freeing yourself up to “blurt out, heave out, babble out” whatever comes to mind, you’re able to bust right through writer’s block.
When you’ve gotten those ideas down, you’ve got some raw material to work with. What expert writers know is that writing isn’t a process of transcribing, but a process of discovery. By flinging that mud around, you figure out what it is you have to say.
The important thing is to begin the process. Begin it early, so you aren’t procrastinating until the last minute and turning in a shitty first draft as your “final” product. Using an activity like the one described above gets the hardest step out of the way — and even if you don’t end up liking anything you wrote in those ten minutes, the worst thing that happens is you’ve wasted ten minutes. Which, to be honest, you probably would have wasted anyway, right?
If you keep plugging away, that crappy draft can become something pretty great. Anne Lamott describes her process:
Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something — anything — down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft — you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft — you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.
Once you get those first words down, you can start revising and getting the work into shape for your reader. John McPhee writes:
You finish that first awful blurting, and then you put the thing aside. You get in your car and drive home. On the way, your mind is still knitting at the words. You think of a better way to say something, a good phrase to correct a certain problem. Without the drafted version — if it did not exist — you obviously would not be thinking of things that would improve it.
McPhee points out that “the essence of the process is revision,” but that until the writer gets those first blurtings out, “writing has not really begun.” So get started.
Update: The Playlist of Champions
Sometimes a writer just needs some music to get pumped. Personally, I like to feel like I’m in an 80s movie training montage. (Not just when writing. It’s my preferred default state of being.)
If you too would like to feel like You’re The Best, like you Won’t Stop Believing, even as you ride into the Danger Zone, you can feel that way Right Now.
Do you have a favorite song or playlist to write to? Share in the comments!