Writing Hacks, Part 1: Starting

By Scott Berkun, Aug. 28 2006 (#54)

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 without grammar, broken, or inaccurate but it is still writing. This means when people can’t start they’re likely imagining the polished precision of the finished work. That vision makes the clumsy junkyard that all beginnings must be, impossible to accept. While it’s true that good voice, tone, rhythm, ideas and grammar are essential to good writing, 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 doubt, 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 up 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 your energy fades, 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, this works every time. The voice in our heads is always saying something, so put 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 lose – 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.

[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 when I wrote this. Most links are to things about writing code hacks.

311 Responses to “Writing Hacks, Part 1: Starting”

  1. Davis

    Hi, I just wanted you to know what an enormous help this was. I’m a relatively young writer, and I sometimes end up psyching (jeez, hope I spelled that right) myself out. This has helped me get back in the game, and I’ve started writing again. Thanks!

  2. Anouk

    I was fourteen when my first book was published. Now I’m a year later, and a whole lot of drafts of books I wrote. I was actually getting afraid to write because it might not be as good as my first book. I could really use these tips -and I did, and they helped so much. I want to thank you for sharing your knowledge, and who knows, maybe my next book will be published soon!

  3. Paul M.

    …..yeah, but………

    (good advice)

  4. elijah baldwin

    I said it! Do I get a cookie?
    No, but reall, this is a very helpful essay.
    I may only be 15, but about a week ago I forced myself to start writing at least 1 page a day of anything a day, and I have overdone it alot.
    The problem is, I’m getting prose and “freewriting” down, but it’s difficult to start on a long story.
    I just hope that your essay will prove helpful to me.
    Thank you very much for writing this.

  5. gkell

    Found this info to be informative, was looking for a basic understanding before I begin. Thinking of using the “list” approach as far as what I want to write about then go from there.

  6. Emily Kroner

    Thanks. I enjoyed reading this.

  7. Andrew

    Hey Scott,
    Great essay. I am also writing one of three books I have been wanting to write, so I decided to poke around on the web to give me a kick-start and came across your essay.
    Thanks; well written and, you owe me a cookie!
    visit my site when you get a chance, or drop me a line sometime.

  8. Jen

    That was a really solid article, thanks for the write-up! I agree on most of the points, except maybe reading something I hate – personally for me, what would just put me in a bit of an annoyed mood, decreasing the desire to write. I read another article with more tips on getting past writers block. some good tips there too.

  9. Tito

    Thank you for this encouraging article. I haven’t been able to write for the pasts six months, due to lack of confidence, and as one of my foremost passions, it’s really been killing me. I would sit at my desk or somewhere with my laptop and externally stare at the screen for hours while internally engaging in a bloody battle with my mind for what would feel like an eternity. I can’t give up writing. To do that, would be the equivalent of tearing my heart out of my chest. But I know and believe I can write and reading your advice has gotten me back on track.

  10. Maddie

    Very interesting. Quite different from other sites I have found Googling “how to write a book”… Only 12 and planning on writing a book sometime this year. This article was very helpful.

  11. Shailyn

    this artical is great! It definatly help me!!

  12. Susan

    Loved this lil bit of writing advice, you helped me move in the direction I’ve been meaning to move into for years!

  13. Emily Prier

    I found this website to be very informative and helpful. Thanks I have begun to write my book or should I say novel.

  14. Ryan Runquist

    Well what a very interesting way to inspire hopeful authors. But, getting started and hearing the truth is the best medicine. I did find your information very helpful and got me going in the right direction! Thanks again for all of your hard work with helping all of us perspective authors.

  15. Amina

    This is so refreshing to read. I have tried SO many times to write a book, but man, was if difficult. One day I write a story, then i re-read it the next and go, “Nah. This is a horrible story.” But, dude, after reading this, i have TOTALLY changed my mind. Can you give me some tips of stuff you should avoid when writing a book??? PLEASE!!

    –Amina out.

  16. Isabella

    I really enjoyed your article. I want to write on African American Genealogy and while reading your article began to just write as suggested. Oh and I made a list as well. Thus far I have about 15 items.

    Thank you.

  17. Sarah

    I like your style of writing. What you’ve written really helps. I always set myself up for failure by talking myself out of a good thing time and time again. I don’t have much education, especially on writing, grammar, punctuation and so on. I do know that even if it sucks if I never start my book I’ll never know how it will turn out. Thanks for your advice.

  18. reesa_

    the article was great, you surley ‘can’ write ;-) not like i didn’t knew about most of them, but still i found every argument utterly helpful. thanks a lot!

  19. OSMAN

    Dear Scott;
    What you said is very interesting,and encouraging. I have burning desire in writing a book,but don’t know how start. My friends always admire my thoughts and how I talk verbally so I wish I write-down practically. Reading your topic encouraged me to act and surely I will.
    Thanks a lot.

  20. ganedorf

    You owe me a cookie…

    Still, this helped, it kind of pointed out to me that I, in fact, was doing it right by doing it wrong :P.

  21. Susan E Thompson.

    Hi Mr. Berkun, Thanks for taking the time to help others get their creative juices flowing. I’ve never written anything more than a lengthy email, although I was that kid in class in elementary, who always got to read her essay out loud. I’m a chatter box too and my head is always buzzing with thoughts, so your suggestion of taking notes on it all really makes sense. (Your website may be consulted as often as my Bible.) At 56 with severe OA (and low self esteem) I’ve decided to embark upon a new adventure; writing about the first half of my life in Scotland and the second (and current) in the Bahamas. Please wish me luck and pray for even a mediocre bit of success in this venture. I don’t care about making a fortune, since presently any income is better than none. I have wasted so much time already, while dear friends (tired of massive emails no doubt) have encouraged me to “go for it”. Our oldest son (30) needs to be able to move out of the family home. He must be weary of paying our mortgage and supporting the rest of us who are curently unemployed. Please pray I will find the inspiration only God can give us, and hopefully find my “niche” in life. Bless you for offering your expertise without a fee!

  22. Paulette Howard

    Excellent motivating information. I feel like I can continue working with what I have written and begin to mold the information into some stories….we’ll see.

    Thanks for our insight.

  23. Diego Rodriguez

    Hello Scott,
    WOW, mind blowing..!!! Very inspirational in so many levels.
    I really like the way you establish an easy contact with your writer.
    I’ve been thinking about writing for years now,And since English is my second language, well after reading your articule, I realized that I was usung that as an excuse.
    You have no idea how much your words are appreciated.
    I send you and your wife the best…!!!
    Thank you.!

  24. MPH

    You are a god! While the entire article was very informative and helpful, the V8 moment occured right in the first paragraph. I have been trying to create a good first paragraph right from the start, even though I know polish will have to come later. I just sit in front of the computer trying to create a masterpiece. Guess how many times I’ve turned off the computer without starting a darn thing! Tonight am I am going to sit down and just write. And I know all this, that’s what’s so stupid!! Good Lord, if I can write a decent comment, ya think I could start short story ok….

    Love your writing style…

  25. tony howard

    I can relate to your ideas i have written poems started stories. The topics come to me but i can never finish . You were right wrting is just that wrting i just want to finish one of the many topic i come up with whats your advice

  26. Demi Monaghan

    My friends mom died unexpectedly in her sleep 1 month ago yesterday. We are 15 and 16 years old, and i have NEVER seen a teenager that was as close to his mother as my friend had been. It broke my heart when i found out, but his story inspired me to do two things 1)live life to the fullest, tell the people you love you love them and dont waste a single moment because life is too short. and 2)to write a book about a friendship and the relationship between a mother and her son. i have taken randome notes and i made an outline type thing just to try to keep myself on track. i have no experiance and very poor grammer when i write so it will take alot of work but this is somthing i feel passionate about. thank you for helping with what you wrote and if anyone has tips please email me.
    but please don’t hate, i know im young and im not looking to to even get published i just want to see if i can do it.

  27. Bia

    Thank you very much for sharing this with us.it helped me to realize why i want to write in the first place.Writing to me is to share what ever i have, whether someone likes it or not, or whether i make money out of it or not..
    not many people have it in them to give an honest answer….so i enjoyed reading this, and i am sure that it will be a great help to me in starting my book….

  28. ron

    enjoyed reading your article sir. specially the bit where you mention – whiskey, a peek at …..the list goes on. Don’t depend on these (as the more you use, the less they work, “except for the last one”), nice one!

  29. Murieal

    Thank You, I do appreciate the information you suggest, it was very helpful to know that I am up to a good start being I have so many old writngs and poetry and just thoughts of my mind stemming back five years ago. But what next, if you already have dialog, narrative, even names of characters and bits of plot. I have so much to say that I don’t know where to begin. What should my approach be?

  30. Craig

    Thank you Scott, for your honesty and humour, your site is brilliantly informative, a real tonic for writers, I’m delighted to have found your site, will it kick start me writing?, probably not, hope it does, only time will tell….

    Kind Regards…Craig.

  31. ritwik

    I think the writer has mastered his mind in terms of ideas.
    He has a well thought out notion as to what to say and where to say?
    His ideas are indeed helpful to write books.

  32. Christian

    This helps alot. thank u!

  33. Mina

    You know, you helped me a lot. But a have a request: can you write tips of how not to feel ashamed of your writing? My parents say it’s a good thing to write, but when I tell them my story, they mock me. :'(

  34. Barbara Fowler

    My biggest problem of writing is trying to figure out a story and then put it all together so that it’s on paper. But isn’t that what writing is all about. I guess that I have to wait until the secret to my writing is found and then there is always skill that is needed also. As in anything else experience and time are important too. If there is an easier way please let me know. Maybe I’m doing it all wrong.

  35. Robert

    Good job thanks, I shall have to bookmark this one, and thanks for all the tips great post Scott.

  36. Brian

    I think the boundaries we set for ourselves is what prevents me from bringing my imagination to the page. I have ideas, thought. Forming in my head, packed too full like a suitcase, but now I just can’t get that suitecase opened up. But since I reading this, I realized I just didn’t want to do the work of trying to open the suitecase.

  37. steve

    thought crossed my mind about writing a book, no previous experience! not to mention ive never read a complete book. just have this feeling inside me that i cant put into words but get the feeling if i do everyone will understand. maybe its a new bible haha, anyhow ive enjoyed reading a little of how to start and maybe someday ill discover how. thanks again steve.

  38. Steven

    I have at least 3 screenplays in my head torturing me for a few years now and I can’t seem to sit my ass down and write them. This post, I think, will help. And I say “will help” because I just finished reading it and I can feel the writing cells coursing thru my veins again, but let’s see if they lead me to write. I must say that it is torturous! And I do feel like I’m “failing” at everything else in my life because I know deep down inside I should be writing for a living and that the “writing demons” are just sitting patiently in the background taunting me waiting for me to say “told you so!”.
    Anyway, I’m starting to diatribe(a new verb?) so I will end here and thank you… and if I win an Oscar for best original screenplay I will thank you publicly… :)



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