How to write 1000 words

All writing comprises three things: words, sentences and paragraphs. If you know a few words, you can make a sentence. If you write a few sentences you can make a paragraph. Keep it simple. In the end, emails, blogs, books and novels are all made from the same substances. As long as you plan time to revise later, putting words down is easy.

There’s no right answer for what to do first. It doesn’t matter as long as you do something. Make an outline if you like. I often do. An outline gives structure, or the illusion of structure, which helps. Other times I have to turn off my mind and jump in. Only after I’ve driven myself mad wandering the page like an idiot can I map where to avoid, and where I’d like to go.

Writing begins with ideas, but we forget ideas are whispers in our minds. They’re always there. The trouble is we overpower the whispers with the loud voice of what we think we want our ideas to be. It takes quiet patience to listen carefully and that’s what creativity often means: simple quiet courage.

I keep a notebook with me at all times and that’s one habit that helps. In conversations with friends, when watching movies, or waiting for the bus, I silently write down little ideas. Sometimes as I write I discover more ideas beneath the first, so I write them down too. This may last a moment or five minutes. I have no rules other than writing little things down. I try to capture what’s in my head well enough to make sense a day or a week later when I return. Study a genius and you’ll find they had notebooks, sketchpads or prison walls to capture their thoughts. Our minds are not enough. Give me an assignment, and the first thing I’ll do is make sure my notebook is around with me all day.

Notebooks repel the fear of blank screens. They make it easy to copy a list from the notebook and put it on the top of any new thing. And the tool that holds the page is mostly irrelevant. I write in WordPress, Microsoft Word, Notepad, I don’t much care, and chasing tools is a waste of time. Shakespeare, Hemingway and Carver didn’t need much from their pre-electric and pre-web tools to write masterpieces and neither should you.

I don’t want a detailed outline, but I don’t want vagaries either. I aim for the sweet spot, a list of short sentences that demand explanation. I want sentence grenades, phrases loaded with opinion generating shrapnel for my mind. When I read them on the page I expect them to explode into opinions, thoughts, riffs and rants. How they explode depends on where my mind is at the moment. On another day they may send me to a different place, but I don’t worry about that day. Sometimes I abandon half the outline, or change the order of the sentences, or discover I have the opposite point of view I began with. I withhold judgment until there are enough words on the page to work with.

There will be dead ends and false starts but I don’t care as long as there is motion. Writing, but not revising, is all about motion. I’ll move to the next point and the next, hoping each grenade explodes, or reignites others, giving me a page of fodder to kick around. Like a fire when you’ve run out of wood, I can sense when the momentum has slowed and as I get my last runs in, I let it die. Then it is time for the work to begin.

In the first moment people get stuck they get scared. Inexperienced writers fear being stuck means they’ve done something wrong. I know the opposite is true. This is where the real work begins. It’s not writing until you’re stuck. When you’re stuck, you’re forced to think and thinking is good. Thinking is the entire point to the enterprise of writing. To think and feel and, through writing, express those thoughts and feelings to others. When you’re stuck it feels wrong, but it’s righteous. You’re being forced to reconsider what you’re doing and good writing demands consideration. Better for the writer to reconsider when writing than to have the reader consider it later and find it wanting.

When stuck I do one thing: Go to the top and reread. What seemed like a dead end will go away once you approach it again from the sequence of ideas in the preceding paragraphs. This is the one habit that makes me a better writer than the other guy. I read what I’m writing and improve it every time I read it through.

People say “that book was a great read” as if it’s a surprise. Isn’t that sad? All books should be good reads. No writer writes trying to be a bad read, a boring read. And the books that read better are ones the writer read often while writing it. Better writers might simply be better readers. They more diligently read their own work as they’re writing and fix mistakes of flow, pacing and thinking. These are more important than mistakes of vocabulary, flair or style, the three pretentious distractions we often think signify good writing. They often signify big egos and not much more.

There’s not much else to know. As I reread I refine like a river into a canyon, chipping away each time at little pieces, polishing the bits that hold up, and pushing away the ones that don’t. And when I can read through the whole piece without much changing I know I’m almost done. The last thing to do is to walk away. I need one final read with fresh eyes, eyes like my reader’s will have. And when I return there’s one more polish and pass: then it’s time to set it free and on its own into the world.

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Watch a timelapsed video of this essay being written, live:

Notes:

42 Responses to “How to write 1000 words”

  1. Jen

    “It takes quiet patience to listen carefully and that’s what creativity often means: simple quiet courage.” A perfect example of a sentence grenade! I’ve found writing, especially when done on a regular basis, gives me a clear head and strengthens the muscles that enable me to articulate an idea or opinion. I’ve recently fallen out of the habit of regularly writing and have far too many words in a pending state of one form or another (surely there’s a name for the sort of anxiety created by this?!?). You’ve inspired me to choose one, start from the top, and finish.

    Reply
  2. Greg Linster

    This essay was a great read Scott, although I’m sure you’re not surprised. I’m looking forward to the video.

    -Greg

    Reply
  3. Miles

    I love the video! beside practicing to you recommend any books on writing?

    Reply
  4. Gwen

    How the heck do you move from one idea to the next so fluidly?

    Reply
  5. Nadia

    “When you’re stuck it feels wrong, but it’s righteous.”

    Great line, and great post!

    Reply
  6. Dhimsy

    Yeh! I understand it’s one big thing to write, but the procedure will surely help. Shall try & follow ur steps.

    Reply
  7. Yor Ryeter

    My favorite advice on this piece is “You’re being forced to reconsider what you’re doing and good writing demands consideration.” It’s a perfect point! :)

    Reply
  8. redpresence

    Hey Scott you would love Barbara Vesselago a Canadian writer who travels the world teaching “Freefall” a totally different technique to yours and a great one
    Write non-stop for a couple of hours not looking at the screen/page with feeling and being in the moment and see what arises – neri

    Reply
  9. Ros Fogel

    Thanks Scott – this is really helpful. I too carry a notebook, but am often reticent in recording things in public places. Got to get over it!

    Reply
  10. Helio Campos Ferreira

    na nossa área, este é o melhor poste que já tive
    até hoje.ótimo poste.

    muito bom!!! atual,muito transparente.
    Saudações Instrutor,
    Abraços.

    Reply
  11. Wade G

    Thanks for the start of something great, good and informidable. This allows me to say “Yes I Can” and feel to do this well. Thank you

    Reply
  12. Aryanny

    Great read! I’m starting a blog and this is such a refreshing take on what signifies good writing.

    Reply
  13. Kevin

    I’m so glad I read this (and watched the videos). There are some really good points that I’ve not considered before and you talk about doing some things that I’ve been told are “bad” but that I tend to do anyway (and then chastise myself for.)

    While I am my own worst critic, in the deepest darkest part of my mind I believe I’m a talented writer, I just wish I was faster. As I’m writing I often feel like I’m losing sight of what I wanted to convey or in some other way muddying the waters. Frequently when I start writing I have some idea of where I want to end up, and some key stops along the way, but sometimes I forget, or lose track of those points once I start writing. I love the idea of keeping a brief “outline” of those points so I can refer back to it and not leave anything out. I’ll be incorporating that into my writing from now on.

    I’ve been working for quite some time now, on a book that is a long way from being finished and I get frustrated because I find so little time to work on it. Frequently, I stop and go back to the beginning, or some point in the middle and read through what I’ve already written, particularly when I feel stuck, (I do this with blog posts too) and every time I find something that could be fine tuned or cleaned up in some way or another. I’ve been told that it’s better just to get the whole thing down on paper and then go back through and make the changes I want to make, but I find that the fine tuning as I go process is one that helps me to feel more confident in the writing and ultimately find my way to the goal, the finished product. Perhaps my two favorite lines from your essay: “And the books that read better are ones the writer read often while writing it. Better writers might simply be better readers.”

    The other thing I saw in the video and read in your essay, that I NEVER do and like a lot is that you jump around in your document. I have a tendency to think of something that I want to include in my document but must come later (or earlier) and I set it aside, in my head, with the intention of getting to it later; sometimes I do get to it later and sometimes I don’t.

    I like the idea of honoring those thoughts and ideas and skipping around in the document as the ideas flow and giving it a final pass later to make certain that everything is in the order I want and the thoughts are complete. I’ll be toying with that technique as well.

    Thanks so much for posting this essay and the videos. Obviously, I found them very enlightening!

    Reply
  14. Magnolia

    I’m glad I read this. I’ve been struggling with the notion that I’m horrible with outlines. When I begin an essay/article/blog post, I always start with an umbrella idea…..”Why the Health Care System Has to Change”

    From there, like you, I throw some ideas out there and the rumination process begins. Sometimes, after a couple of paragraphs, I realize my original idea has morphed into something completely different. This is why I don’t do well with outlines.

    Outlines make me feel boxed in and forced to go in a certain direction. I have a lot to say most of the time, so I’m never afraid of running out of words, ideas or something to opine about. It’s the clarity and the purpose that I strive for, not necessarily a process that requires I begin here and end there.

    I also go back and re-read what I’ve written when I get stuck. It helps to clarify and sharpen what I’m trying to say and helps me find all of the unnecessary verbiage (just call me motor-mouth)

    Anyway….I’m 54 years old. I’m not too keen on trying to do things according to some one else’s notions. I rather like my own. I guess I get a bit insecure sometimes with the fact that I hate friggin’ outlines.

    Magnolia

    Reply
  15. Ed Withers

    This was a great help and a boost to my confidence as a novice writer.

    Reply
  16. Thomas

    Hey Scott, sitting here, thinking about trying to become a writer. Your essay encouraged me quite alot as the most persistent fear I have of trying to write a book is that maybe my vocabulary is too small. Rereading and editing a text is something I do on a regular basis, so maybe it’s time to try my wings.

    I just wanted to say thanks, your site has been a great inspiration for me, keep up the good work! :)

    Reply

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