#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.

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

  1. 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.!
    Diego.

    Reply
  2. 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…

    Reply
  3. 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

    Reply
  4. 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.

    Reply
  5. 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….

    Reply
  6. 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!

    Reply
  7. 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?

    Reply
  8. 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.

    Reply
  9. 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.

    Reply
  10. Christian

    This helps alot. thank u!

    Reply
  11. 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. :'(

    Reply
  12. 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.

    Reply
  13. Robert

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

    Reply
  14. 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.

    Reply
  15. 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.

    Reply
  16. 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… :)

    Reply
  17. Fourteen

    I have been reading articles all summer on what to do when youre stuck, and one day even tips on focusing (I then realized that was just distracting me from focusing–who knew?). The others have made some sense to me, but your articles seem to be just what I needed. You’re right. I don’t have righter’s block, I’m not out of options to keep my brain productive. I’m just afraid of righting crap. I’m going to take some old pages from workshops, and I’m going to explore them more.

    Reply
  18. Dave

    Very good and encouraging ideas, i will certianly follow it. I have written about 70 pages already regarding the incidents experience of my life and I will continue writing. Your article gave me hope and courage to write more.

    Thanks

    Reply
  19. Almad

    Thanks for the tips.

    But…novel? Please. Is is published yet?

    And now?

    And now?

    Reply
  20. Antonio

    Scott,
    are you saying that quality will come from quantity?

    Reply
    • Scott Berkun

      Yes. Eventually. No one has a high hit rate. Some are higher than others, but that’s typically the result of long hours spent with low hit rates for ideas.

      Reply
  21. Skye

    Wow! I feel like I can take on the world! I feel like super man! I feel, well I feel very good after reading this article. I think my favorite part is the humor. I’ve written a book(very past tense) and I chucked it. I hated it. I am so serious about my writing that I forgot I need to have fun! I’m pretty disappointed in myself, just going to take a second.. Alright. But yes. Although I haven’t tested out these theories I still have total faith in them! I don’t know, maybe this is my start on writing as you had said in bold, have a conversation. Sure this is a one way thing but golly, I am really in the mood right now! Thanks for the inspiration!

    Reply
  22. Sarah

    I really liked this article. I REALLY love to read and I have been thinking alot about writing a book. This gave me some ideas. Thanks for writing this.

    Reply
  23. Mike

    I’ve been trying to write for the past 7 years. When i read what you wrote it just made things so much simpler for me. I couldn’t see that what was really holding me back was the form or the book or the correct grammer or punctuation etc. I am going to use that strategy and just write.
    You were a source of inspiration thank you- Mike

    Reply
  24. Derek Maggard

    It’s funny; I was actually thinking about how “juggler-block” is analogous to writer’s block before I knew you’d mentioned that.

    Jugglers of a high skill level (minimum 5+ balls) tend to have bad days where they are unbelieveably worse than usual.

    It may seem logical to not practice when you cannot do the simplest/easiest of patterns, and yet muscle memory dictates that you’ll actually benefit from juggling on the down days.

    I agree that writer’s block is a sham, just like juggler’s, though the latter has yet to have a name. Writing/juggling on a down day may not touch the level of perfection that one’d hope, but it is still better for progress to do on an off day than to not do so.

    Reply
  25. Hasrul

    These were so inspiring and motivating! How i was really in a dark to be able to think how to start writing all this while. But, with all the knowledge and tips shared in the web-site really helped me to get going and accomplished what i have dreamnt before – writing a book! Thanks to you and all the precious notes, principals, words and secrets that you have shared with all of us. Your insights are so valuable. Thank you.

    Reply
  26. Samantha

    I can’t even begin to thank you. I didn’t even get to finish reading this before inspiration hit me. It has been so hard the past couple of days for me to get to the next line in my story and with in seconds I was writing three chapters worth of work.

    So thank you so very much thanks to you I’m now on the 16th chapter of my novel…You Rock!

    Reply
  27. Clay Westfall

    Thanks for the tips. I have been waiting and waiting until I thought what I wanted to write was good enough, but now you have given me the nerve to just go ahead and start it. Thanks! Clay

    Reply
  28. Genevieve

    Awesome blog. It made ma laugh and realize my block is myself and went for a walk. I’m all ready and peepy to write again.

    Many thanks

    Reply
  29. David Stoddard

    You are so right. The actual writing is easy. It’s the thought that is must be right (a.k.a. decent and nearly perfect) that holds us back. Not totally sure if it stems from way back in the day with our teachers and their red pen stains all over our papers pointing out EVERYTHING that was WRONG. Sometimes, you just gotta say WTF. I’m gonna write this, get something down on paper (or screen) and repair it later. It’s been written somewhere before, we don’t expect to be able to play piano perfectly our first time out, why should be expect the first draft of anything we do to be perfect (or nearly so). Just do it. Just start. Just write.

    Thanks for the push Scott. –David

    Reply
  30. Sue P.

    This has been very helpful. I’m not a writer, but since being diagnosed with Cancer 5 years ago, I started a “Bucket List”, and on that list, of course you might guess is for me to write a book.

    Thank you for helping me get started.

    Reply
  31. Paula McCullough

    Thanks. I needed that. I share many of your viewpoints – I love words, love hooking them together to create interesting images. I love reading. I’ve never attempted anything larger than a short story or mediocre song or two, but I’m building a story in my head that I think could be interesting to put on paper. I appreciate your candor and encouragement, Scott.

    Reply
  32. Kate

    Wow I am trying to write a book also and this essay of yours made me laugh. And your advice have helped me on how to shove out the mysterious “writers block”. I am only 14 so I’ll see how far I go.

    Reply
  33. Laura Allen

    Thanks – I needed this. I love the “permission is for cowards” notion. Keep up the good work! Laura

    Reply
  34. Kay

    Writing is perhaps one of the most entertaining forms of education that I use. Seeing my own travesties on paper the next day after an exhausting night of thinking (er, or perhaps thinking while drinking) “I have a winner” — I continue to be humbled at the lack of my abilities and amused with my own stories. In those next day revelations (and embarrassed as I have been on the day after) comes my desire to rework the original thoughts and through a very difficult process of better explaining an original position or story line, I make the necessary modifications to allow the story to flow better.

    I don’t think I’ve ever had the desire to have published works. For me, writing is art. I love just to write a bunch of nonsense down and as the moment of proof comes about there within the ramble is a good story. Through this, I’ve managed to entertain my personal audience. My cats, my dogs, my very cute wife and in the day to day mingles with people, them also.

    Writing begins with a simple thought. Quickly that thought turns into a page. I usually end there because I’ve done what I intended: a quick proof of my own thoughts on paper. Were I to actually assemble all those thoughts, I’d end up with a book. I’d title the collection, “The Nonsensical Ramblings of an Idiot”. My friends and acquaintances have agreed in one way or another that my idiocy has been both entertaining and informative — and while not always true — definitely in true oral form not to be dismissed so easily.

    But I write for myself. Not an inkling of desire to create the masterpiece that launches me into fame. Fame comes with many obligations and I’d rather not deal with all that nonsense. Perhaps once I’m dead my writings will find a market and of course, I’ll be none the wiser to collect from the benefits but in the mean time, I’ll just simple write my stories and enjoy life.

    Writing is a truly enjoyable life activity. If one is seeking a claim to fame for writing, he or she is simply just wasting their time. Write for the love of writing. All else naturally follows.

    Reply
  35. M Baker

    I just wanted to say thank you for writing this post. I have put writing aside for many years and am just now starting back up. I found your blog from perusing my twitter account (honestly I can’t recall where). I will definitely be coming back.

    Reply
  36. Nancy

    Thank you. I appreciate your honesty and humor. I thought your suggestion to write lists and imagine what questions the book would answer to be particularly helpful for getting started.

    Reply
  37. Reilly

    I’d would like to thank you for all this information regarding starting a book, and the many blocks involving it. Reading your essays have helped me so much in getting my novel started, and I couldn’t be happier. My writing is free and you made me realize that I don’t give a crap what others think about it, and that let me write without any blocks at all. I had too many concerns of whether or not it would suck, and now I just don’t give a damn. Keep writing, you’ve been inspiring!

    Thank you!!

    Reply
  38. Lexie

    You give fabulous advice. Thanks for sharing. I’m looking forward to drinking, running down my driveway in my underpants, and eventually writing a book. :)

    Reply
  39. joys

    you blunt open….i am glad i found you….i am thinking how practical and open can one get…..thks alot….you sure did challenge me.

    Reply
  40. Muhammad Hassan

    Wow a refreshing read, I am 18 this year and I want to write.
    This really helped me, thanks.

    Btw, you are a good writer!

    Reply
  41. dlysen

    I miss to see this page when I was on my first year of blogging. I am not good in constructing a sentence and my grammar is not not so well. Its not too late to learn.

    Reply
  42. TR

    Thanks for the words of wisdom. I have wanted to write a book that will be published as well as bought and read. Your site has been helpful and encouraging. It was also great to read the other posts! Wishing everyone writers cramp…..!

    Reply
  43. Lee

    Hi thanks I have written many books always thought i needed to be published thanks for shooting that out the water. I love writing but kept getting asked when are you going to publish? felt like a failure after I sent in 6 different books and all got rejected. i love my stories. they all represent a different problem/ state of mind some are very violent some are soppy romances others wild fantasy am now going to print for my pleasure! lee

    Reply
  44. Sheba

    Thank you for your words here – trying to continue my little silly work for years but still am too afraid.

    But now, I want my cookie.
    Please.
    :)

    Reply
  45. Chris

    These are some excellent tips. I particularly like the idea of having a wee drink to get the words flowing!

    Reply
  46. omanda

    thank you, i have been told for years you should write a book and you are right, i should do it for myself and maybe the memories of my childhood will stop haunting to me when I am not busy with something else. Oh yes i loved all your little jokes even though this one will never be published, you made it sound like fun just getting all the thoughts of your or my chest. Thank You and Have A Great Day.

    Omanda

    Reply

Pingbacks

  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. […]

Leave a Reply

* Required