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.
Watch a timelapsed video of this essay being written, live:
- This essay itself is exactly 1000 words long.
- It took 154 minutes to write this post. It was written over the course of 2 days.
- You can watch a video of me talking about my writing process, live in front of an audience, as the video plays (at Ignite 12).