How to start writing

I wanted to write a piece about how you start writing since so many people ask me it. I’ve got loads of tricks and techniques that I use to share but I wanted to make it hard on myself, to deprive myself of the usual tools and see what obstacles I face to better describe them.

I settled into a cafe with only my laptop and no internet access. The modern equivalent of a blank piece of paper. So what have I got…

First of all, I haven’t got that much time as I’d like as I’ve a meeting in an hour or so. But that’s fine. We can all write a 1000 words or so in an hour and that’s all I need. But so far I haven’t written anything as I’ve just checked my emails on my iPhone, and Twitter.

Bereft of any ideas I open up a document I previously wrote and scan read it. Some of it looks quite good, but I start to fiddle with it. Then I think maybe it’s not quite what I’m after, it’s not really the topic I was planning to write about.

So I look around the cafe for inspiration and find none. Then my hour’s up and it’s time for my next meeting.

So what went wrong?

First of all, an fixed hour slot is probably too short. Also, if the writing slot is a sudden decision then it will take time for the brain to warm up and get in gear. I’d found a good location and deprived myself of laptop internet, but there was still the iPhone and therefore the temptation to check extraneous messages on that. This is no good. If you’re writing, you’re writing, not checking messages. It keeps the brain off message. The final mistake was opening a previous piece of writing and entering ‘edit’ mode. Editing is a totally different process.

So what should we do?

To be productive with writing we really do need to be in a different zone. It’s not something you can do with one eye on something else. Here are a few more clues:

  • Plan your session in advance, preferably the day before. This creates space in your mind and prepares it. Eg. “Tomorrow between 9 and 12 I will be writing”.
  • Allocate 3 hours to your session
  • Write a short list of topics, themes, titles or whatever beforehand to be your triggers during the session. I keep this list in my notebook so whenever I think of an idea for a  blog, chapter or section, I record it there. Then, when I’m faced with that ‘blank piece of paper’ I have my trigger list to choose from
  • Accept no distractions for the first hour. Internet off, phones away.
  • Don’t do research or reading in this session. Just write, leaving a gap or note of a fact needs to be checked. Leave all that checking and referencing for a separate session.
  • Choose a topic from your trigger list and write about it. Don’t worry about how much or structure, just write. Start your writing with a warm up without worrying. Think of it like stretching before doing circuit training or running. The stretching is preparation for the exercise but also has its own benefits to the point of the exercise.

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