#54 – Writing Hacks, Part 1: Starting

By Scott Berkun, Aug. 28 2006

Writing is easy, it’s quality that’s hard. Any idiot who knows 5 words can write a sentence (e.g. “Dufus big much Scott is”). It might be grammarless, broken, or inaccurate but it is writing. This means when people can’t start they’re imagining the precision of the end, all polished and brilliant. That vision makes the clumsy junkyard that all beginnings are impossible to accept. Good voice, tone, rhythm, ideas and grammar are essential to good writing, but they’re never introduced all at once. I promise you, the first draft of Strunk and White didn’t follow Strunk and White. The secret, if you can’t start, is to begin without constraints. Deliberately write badly, but write.

For this reason writer’s block is a sham. Anyone who wrote yesterday can write today, it’s just a question of if they can do it to their own satisfaction. It’s not the fear of writing that blocks people, it’s fear of not writing well; something quite different. Certainly every writer has moments of paralysis, but the way out is to properly frame what’s going on, and writer’s block, as commonly misunderstood, is a red herring.

Consider this: Have you ever been blocked while playing Frisbee? Eating doughnuts? Dancing naked in your living room? Those are joyful things and there’s nothing at stake: if you fail, who cares? Nobody. If there are no rules, and no judgment, psychological blocks are impossible. And remember writers like making names and overthinking things: there is no term for architect-block, painter-block, juggler-block or composer-block. Every creative pursuit faces similar pressures, but they don’t obsess about it the way writers seem to do.

So play. Loosen up. Smile. Break the framework that’s making it impossible to start. Forget the deadline and the assignment and just be an open mind with a pen. Remember that until you say you’re finished, you can break all the rules. If you can’t get started, your psychology is making the challenge bigger than you can handle. Thinking of the book, the chapter, the page, the paragraph, is all too big if while you’re thinking, the page remains blank. Like a weightlifter out of his class, a writer with a blank page needs to lighten the load.

Writing hacks for starting

In the grand tradition of lists and books of hacks, writing hacks are clever little actions that give you leverage and put the dynamics in your favor. Here in part 1 it’s all about how to start.

Start with a word. The first goal is to get one word on the page. It can be any word, but you have to choose it, and put it down. I’m partial to the ridiculous[1], so for me it’s often Papaya, Pomegranate or Throat-warbler-man-grove (If you’re thinking that’s not a word, go back two paragraphs). If one word was easy, go for two. Still feeling lucky? Go for a small sentence. It doesn’t matter what the words are, but get them down. Write the lyrics to the song on the radio, the names of people you’ve slept with, your favorite Dr. Seuss lines, it just doesn’t matter. Once all the magic muscles in your little fingers get going, you’ll soon find yourself, in between rounds of one fish blue fish, writing some intelligent things. If it peters out, repeat. Return to the unit of writing anyone can do, and build up again.

Write about how it feels not to be able to write. It’s sneaky, but damn, it works. The voice in our heads is always saying something, so get it down. Writer-weenies call this free writing, implying something unfortunate about other kinds of writing, but I find it easier to think of as listening. Imagine yourself as a recording device, writing down the radio broadcast of some other person who happens to live in your head. If you think this is weird, write about why it’s weird (See: you can’t win. There’s always a way). Eventually your mind will hit thoughts on the topic itself and, presto, you’re on your way.

Have a conversation. Since you can’t get “converse with a friend” block, call up your buddy and talk. Get their opinions on whatever you’re writing, or throw them a bit of yours. Take notes about the conversation. Guess what? You’ve started writing. Friends are too busy? Go to a café or bar. I’ve found that if you tell bartenders you’re a writer, after they stop laughing, they’ll happily chat and occasionally give you free drinks. In a pinch, or if you’re a loner, talk with your dog. No dog? Create an imaginary friend (or three). Perhaps I’m insane, but I talk to myself all the time, and sometimes I even like the answers. If you know a writer friend, be writer buddies, available by phone to help each other get started.

Read something you hate. Opinions come easy to me, but some days I’m as indifferent as the wind. To get started I’ll read things that I can’t stand, express opinions in violent opposition to mine[2] and, when pressed, are written so poorly my eyes burn straight through the pages. A paragraph of outstanding tripe is intellectual smelling salts. It puts me on my feet, sticking and jabbing like Muhammad Ali, raving and ranting on the page. I can rarely use those first rant-laden riffs, but it puts me in the ring. Sometimes its love you need, so go to your masters: Emerson, Fitzgerald, Orwell, King, get your nose into whoever’s writing get you jazzed. Writers often write about writing[3], a trick few arts can follow; so reflective motivation from writers is easy to find.

Warm up. Do you imagine Olympic sprinters wake up and immediately sprint around the house? Of course not (unless they drank too much the night before). No one performs well without easing muscles and emotions into place. And everyone warms up differently. Sometimes responding to e-mail works because hey, that’s a kind of writing. Or type the alphabet forwards and backwards. Maybe revise something old and unfinished to get warm. My ritual is to type in quotes from good books I’ve read to get the fingers in rhythm and my mind thinking good writer thoughts. More exercises here and here.

Make lists. Nonfiction often starts for me as bulleted lists. I imagine what things the finished work would answer, how it would do it and I write it down. Not that I know how to fill them, but what might good section headings be? List making is never as threatening as “writing”, so go there first (There is no shopping list block, is there?). I kick the list around for awhile, changing, moving, shuffling, and then once it has critical mass, I put in a document and go. And I’m always ready to leave the list, and my plan behind, if I find a sweet spot: the list is a tool, not a contract. I have dozens of essay ideas in various states of list form, in a Moleskine, slowly growing until they’re ready.

Switch to something harder. My wife is an artist, and for years she’s worked on two paintings at the same time, switching between them. Why? When she’s hit a wall on one project, the second project is a godsend: it’s an escape that’s still productive. I use this hack as follows: when stuck on project A, including not being able to start, I’ll joyfully switch to project B, thinking I’m pulling one over (on myself of course, but even the idiocy of self-delusion is tolerable to the acid misery of returning to A). But 20 minutes later when I hit a wall on Project B, a wall that, by comparison, seems like the Maginot line, I’m more than happy to return to A, even if it’s a blank page. I’ve forgotten A’s particular horrors, and jump in, possibly over the hurdle that seemed impossible before.

Run like hell. I can’t write if my body isn’t happy and my body feels happy when it has been used: it likes to run or lift or almost anything. So think physical: let your body get out the stresses that block your mind. Go for a run, mow the lawn, chase your cat, do something to get your body moving, and your mind relaxed. If you move your body, your mind will follow. Maybe take a bath, get a massage, have sex, anything physical and positive. If you get into the activity enough I bet you’ll have a moment when your body is finally happy enough to let your mind do its work.

Whiskey. Yes, alcohol is writing’s seductive little mistress. A well timed shot of whiskey can work wonders for the jittery, neurotic mind. It’s the shock to the system that works for me, so when I can’t start, there are alcohol free alternatives to get things flowing: a cold shower, an underwear clad run up the driveway, a shot of espresso, a peek at my naked wife, the list goes on. Don’t depend on these (as the more you use, the less they work, except for the last one), but occasionally they’re the only way.

Rummage your scrap pile. In 1994 I started writing a novel[4]. By this I mean I created a word document named “My Novel”, hit save and then got drunk with friends. The next day, terrified as I was to return, I created a second document, called “My Novel – notes”. And in there I wrote down every idea that came to me about what might be in the novel. Only had one at first (“The narrator gets drunk. And then…well…hmmm”) but more came the next day. It was a hard core rule: If I had any idea at any time, I wrote it down immediately. No exceptions (Thus, the moleskine). I’d think of snippets of dialog, lines of narrative, names for characters, or bits of plot, and stick them in, rarely looking at the previous bits. Eventually I had enough material to psyche myself up for the dive back into “My novel” as it wasn’t a blank page anymore.

Smart writers have stockpiles of old ideas to arm themselves against the evils of the blank page. When stuck, rummage. Laugh at the goofy ideas. Groan at the pretentious ones (there will be many). Feel the occasional awe of not remembering writing something that shines or happens to fits your blank page. Like a flea market or garage sale, let ideas feel cheap, light and easy to throw around. If you can do that, new work will get off the ground almost on its own.

Notes
[1] I sometimes write “I have nothing to say” and repeat it on the page. I’ll go and go until I get so pissed off that I decide it’s less painful to write something real than it is to watch myself type this idiotic phrase forever. We always have something to say: we’re just not always brave enough to say it. A little self torture can sometimes bring it out.

[2] True story. This essay started when someone sent me a link to this essay on When you can’t get started, which you might like, but I had trouble with. Halfway through I had so many ideas I jumped into a blank page and didn’t stop until I had a draft of much of this essay. Mind you, as a writer I know this subject well, and had done plenty of thinking on this topic beforehand.

[3] By the act of writing “writers often write about writing” I’m writing about writers often writing about writing, which means you’re reading about writing about writers writing about writing. Say that ten times fast and I’ll give you a cookie.

[4] I wrote the novel on and off for 10 years, and finished in 2005 (with draft #5). Currently unpublished.

Further advice: 

I thought for sure there would be many essays titled “writing hacks” but I only found one. Most links are to things about writing code hacks.

295 Responses to “#54 – Writing Hacks, Part 1: Starting”

  1. John McElfresh

    Thanks for inspiring me. I always want to write because I’m a pretty intelligent KID ( I’m not very humble (or modest, or is it flip flopped)) but I’ve never got a chance to make a chapter more than three sentences. Another tip for everyone who reads this is I’ve personally tried playing a video game or watching a movie because if you see one topic you like, you can put it in a book or it may remind you of something else that relates to something that relates to something in your book. Once an idea gravitates somewhere, there is no stopping it. I always used to joke that you could carry on a conversation that starts about cats and ends up being about a piece of china you bought. It starts about cats, than ( again, is it then or than, if I want to be a good writer, I have to find the difference between then and than, along with who and whom. ) it gravitates towards fishes, then worms, then dirt. It goes on and on and on because someone says one misplaced word and you aren’t talking about the same thing anymore. See, just did that and you may not have noticed. But, the important thing is that ideas can get started from anywhere, a dream, a comment on the street, a word in the news. Anything.

    Reply
    • John McElfresh

      I meant I just did that not just did that after See.

      Reply
    • Nikhil Khandekar

      I’d imagine being in the company of oneself, having oneself all to oneself, as a better place to start writing. Then on, it’s easier to write. If you are purposed in life to write, what could be better? I’d be distracted by a video game or a movie unless it touched a chord deep within. I’d write only on what was closest to my heart at the time that I wrote. This too.

      Reply
  2. John McElfresh

    I meant “post” not “posts” after ” I meant ” I meant” I just did that after See” during my previous posts. I HATE TYPOS !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” I HATE TYPOS !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Reply
  3. David Lee

    This is outstanding, you have opened my eyes!
    I’ve been writing javascript and have been wondering why I bother.

    My son has told me I should write a book about my life.

    I don’t have a problem putting words down but I’m terrible with spelling and starting a title for the book. I think I see now that if I start writing the “Title” will come in time (Just write)

    Reply
    • Maddy Brown

      i have a title and like a chapter of my book, but i also have been working on my book since i was in high school, and 5 or 6 years later i still am writing, it takes work….. one of these days i will finish it, and it will be the biggest goal i have achieved, and it will be my book.

      Reply
  4. James Brace

    Thank you so much. I’ve had the idea for my book for over 20 years, and in that time the idea has grown but I have yet to make it past the title and the outline. After reading this, I wrote the first two chapters finally! They need some polishing, but at least I’ve finally started writing!

    Reply
  5. jeffrey corbett

    I have had a very odd and hard life. i tell people about it and everyone says to write a book. I don’t care about the money. I don’t care about much anymore. But I think there are other people who are trying to deal with similar problems in life and I don’t mind talking to people and telling why I act and do things like I do. I have found if I don’t I just come across as a freak. But I’m afraid tout things on paper . I don’t want to upset other peoples lives, and it will. I have bin thru a lot that is either not legal or not except able or just plain mean and evil . I need to do something with what I have went and am going thru but it is unbelievably painful for me and if put out wrong could make life dangerous . But I think it would help me and others? Maybe wrong place to even ask this. I don’t read books . I don’t see the story in my head , I see words black and white words , no pictures in my head. My sister loves to read and I could never figure out why . It has to relate to my life . If you have any ideas . I would love the help. I do much better at talking. I need to get it out for myself and I would hope to help others. I need someone to help me since it’s to emotional on my own to deal with. Sorry if I have wasted your time. If you read this and respond than I thank you for letting me waste your time and you being kind enough to give me the time of day.

    Thanks Jeff

    Reply
    • Nikhil Khandekar

      I wouldn’t be so sure about hurting other people’s sentiment all on my personal venture. I wouldn’t want to hurt ‘em, to be sure. But I wouldn’t be so cocky as to suppose my writing would be directly and solely responsible for hurting them or upsetting their lives.

      You see, things are often left unsaid between people. If others came to understand how exactly everyone around felt, it might not really be the disaster we imagine it to be. For example, if I found out that my neighbor hated me but was unable to tell it to my face out of his own benevolence, I wouldn’t be in a position to do much about it, would I now? On the other hand if he came over one day, sat down, had a cup of tea and told me all, I’d be willing to help him even if he didn’t have very positive things to say about me. If he kept mum, I couldn’t help him to save my life.

      Words are more flexible than the best acrobat at Olympics. Turn them to good use; write from the heart – you have plenty to offer, since you’ve had a hard life. Let those that can benefit do so. There will be those that feel upset just to watch you amble across your porch to the door. Sentient being always have a choice, and none of them have much of a say in how other feel.

      That’s why, I think you should give it a go. Finish what you have to say and then ask appropriate persons to see if it will be a good read for others. Wishing you all that’s best.

      Reply
    • Laurie

      Jeff, I know what you mean – I’ve got tons to get off my chest too and it’s not the best of subjects. Writing has helped so much, even if you’re not the best at it. We are only as sick as our secrets…

      Reply
    • Amanda

      I have lived a hard life too. Much of what you say, though vague, I can understand and know all too well. Writing about something doesn’t mean you have to publish it. However, if you do want to publish what you write, rather than thinking of it as pain towards someone else, perhaps you might try looking at how those things made you feel and how you over came them. Surviving is a triumph over pain, even when we can’t believe or even see it ourselves. I write about the horrors of my life quite often and many have told me the same as you. “You should write a book.” Letting it out, onto paper or computer screen… sometimes it seems the only way to allow myself to scream. Don’t let what you think others might feel about what you are writing, stop you from doing it. Just do it, then decided what you want to do with what you have written, after it is no longer within you, tearing you apart.

      Reply
    • Michele

      Yes it is igniting the fire of devil may care, to embolden ourselves with the our hidden desire and beliefs to fan the fire with our passion and hope that the flames warm our own imaginations and hearts and to raise the beast of burden with courage telling him his services are no longer needed and that it is about catching the moment and riding the wind I see now that I an ready and am well equipped , Thankyou Scott you are an exceptional man xxx

      Reply
  6. Armand

    Thanks Scott for this brilliant kick in the ass…..”Excuses Whisperer” you…..

    Reply
  7. Parrish

    Well…. since it’s so damn easy I guess I’ll just start writing. Thanks! :)

    Reply
  8. Salman Memon

    Great Guide
    I am very bed in English.
    But actually I just started writing for my own self. Without thinking about anyone else.
    I am happy.
    God bless and a very big thanks.

    Reply
  9. Jessica

    Personally, I have a some other methods. Which, is to act like my characters feel. If I’m stuck and my character is supposed to get hurt, I lay on the floor and pretend I can’t get up, I also fake cry if they’re sad and fake laugh when they’re supposed to be happy. (Only when I’m alone)
    Also, be insane. run in circles, sing songs in weird ways, and eat frosted flakes at two in the morning.
    All of the above are weird but they work when desperate.

    Reply
  10. Abby

    I thoroughly enjoy reading your articles. Granted I only began doing so about 45 minutes ago but I can’t seem to stop smiling and even chuckling. Your wit and humor, along with the facts and encouragement, have put my shaky hands at ease. I use to write all of the time, I stopped, I would like to write again, but I froze up all of a sudden. Thank you. I’m ready.

    Reply
  11. Bernie

    Your notes on how to start writing and writing down everything remind me of how I write songs. I have tons of little ideas. You work those up into a demo form and start putting pieces together. Whenever I have had to write anything for school or whatever, I stare at a blank page or procrastinate. It’s not until I say this sentence that I start writing. “Just write” You know you’re going to change it, and edit and rough draft, but just plain starting to write is sometimes the hardest thing to do.
    Thank you for the in site.

    Reply
  12. Rhiannon

    I am 15 years old and I want to write a book. I’m sure your first thought is that’s crazy. I know it is but, I love reading I could read 4 books in just one week. And I love writing , I want to share a story and stories of mine with the world. I have an idea for a book and I have absolutely no exspierence but, I defiantly have motivation . Email me please with your thoughts.

    Sincerely,

    Wanna be writer

    Reply
  13. Brendon

    Ha!

    You owe me a cookie.

    Reply
  14. Diya

    You write well because you think well. It’s when our thoughts are interesting to read that we enjoy the process of writing them. That’s also when others enjoy reading what you wrote. This blog, for example…it’s good. It’s funny but it’s got depth. Being a good writer is about being an original thinker. That’s how books become classics. Just my thoughts.

    Reply
  15. The remains of what was left over

    The inability to write had been affecting Tom for most of his adult life now. How easily he had been able to conjure up a story each weekend as part of his English homework. Now he was barely capable of writing a shopping list. Day after day he would open his laptop and stare. He stared at the blank white screen which itself glared back at him, like an accuser, seeming to echo the thoughts and feelings of his long dead mother, who had berated and cajoled him into abandoning his first foray into the world of literature when he was still a young man.
    Now, 20 years later he was no closer to realising this dream, and was it seemed destined to live out this experience of life as a minion. He had behind him a string of failures, both personal, and professional. He had thought about possibly writing about these. In truth it was probably his best option as there were a number of experiences that he had been through which although almost all of which had resulted in failure, or humiliation or both they were definitely interesting enough to read about. His first attempt at this was about 10 years previous when he had been forced to move back in to his mother’s house for a few months. He had decided to write about the day that he would find out from his uncle that his father had been arrested, tried and subsequently convicted of being the first heroin dealer in his city. A terrible and traumatic experience that was probably the main cause of his inability to function as a normal human being. One day while he was out walking the dog, his mother had been using his laptop and somehow she came across the memoir.
    Her anger was matched only by her mocking and she laughed and jeered at him as she told him that no-one wanted to hear about his sissy complaints and that she could barely see straight as she read his account of that day and the turmoil that ensued as a result of being the son of a convicted drug dealer.
    Then there was his military career, and the subsequent ruin of it. He had tried many, many times to write about this as he felt that it was the only time that he had ever really fit in anywhere. Strange as after being refused entry to the Irish Army ( one of the captains interviewing him had caught him out is a stupid, silly lie). Therefore the only options left open to him were either the French Foreign Legion, or the less unorthodox choice of “taking the shilling” and joining the ranks of the British Army. He hated the French so that left him with the choice of joining up with what was still considered “the enemy” in many circles of Irish society. But he had never been able to accurately write about these experiences in a way that would keep the reader engaged.
    After thinking about these once again on a grey, rain-soaked morning , he closed the lid on his Toshiba and placing his ID badge around his neck he set out the door for another day of spirit crushing drudgery in his latest job.

    He was going to be late again. Not his fault this time, a fatal accident on the main artery that crossed the Liffey from the south to north side of the city
    A BMW had been clipped on the front by a tram as it attempted to cross a junction used by cars and trams, the force of the impact had caused the car to spin out of control and had then hit a woman who while crossing the road had stooped to tie her laces. His car was the one immediately behind the BMW. Tom got out of the car and approached the injured woman. Despite his extensive first aid training, one look at the gaping wound the poor woman had on the back of her head told him there was very little could be done. He held her hand, and told her that help was on its way. She told him that she was frightened, but not for her own life, for that of her young daughter who would now have to grow up motherless. He wasn’t sure what to say so he just held her hand tighter and told her that everything was going to be ok. She died before the ambulance could arrive
    As expected, his team leader was uninterested in the reason for him being late again and she told him that she was going to notify Human Resources and they would more than likely place him on level three corrective action (he had already been on level one and two). He shrugged, and told her he didn’t blame her as she has job to do. On the way back to his desk he found himself thinking about how he would like to fuck her one of these days. It was just a fleeting thought, not obsessive.
    Tom was a little bit intimidated by women. Especially the beautiful and successful ones.
    He was just about to finish work for the day when he got a call. The whisper told him it would be a dutch language call with a Belgian client. If there was one race of people that he despised more than the French, it would be the Belgians. Fucking Paedophiles!

    Reply
  16. The remains of what was left over

    I wrote that litte thing over the course of an hour: i was supposed to be helping belgians, but well you know.
    I posted it as a “thank you” and as proff to your claim that “writers block” is a fallacy

    :)

    Reply

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  1. [...] Sound too hard? Scott Berkun says, “There is no license required. No test to take. Writing, as opposed to publishing, requires almost no financial or physical resources. A pen, a paper and effort are all that has been required for hundreds of years.” He goes on to say If Voltaire and Marquis de Sade could write in prison, then you can do it in suburbia, at lunch at work, or after your kids go to sleep. Here’s some practical advice to get off the ground. [...]

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