Like so many people who want to write but don’t know where to start, I also used to have a yearning to write that I didn’t understand, let alone know what to do with. So I read a lot instead.
I can’t remember ever dreaming of being a writer – I wanted to be a private investigator instead and do all the cool stuff I read about in books, like hiding in hedges, spying on people with binoculars and tailing suspects while blending in with the crowd in my long trench coat and artistic hat. (There was always a hat with creative flair in my visions, which would have stood out like a sore thumb, but I didn’t notice this at the time. Good thing I decided to write then, and not spy on people.)
So when this desire to write suddenly introduced itself, by way of an uncomfortable, unsettled feeling in the pit of my stomach, accompanied by butterflies every time I entered a bookshop, touched blank journals with pretty covers or heard about other people who were writing, it was surprising, to say the least.
At first, I reasoned it was only the books that excited me, not the actual writing. That was for Real Writers, like Hemingway and Steinbeck. But with time, I realised I wanted to write, too. After many false starts, I finally got going, and it really wasn’t all that difficult once I started using different methods of going about it.
It wasn’t easy at first. I honestly didn’t know what to do, which sounds ridiculous because it really is only a matter of putting down one word, and then another and then another. I was literate, after all, and had a degree behind my name, so how hard could it be to write down that one, first word?
Quite hard, apparently. But, after many false starts, I finally got the hang of it.
Here are the six techniques that I’ve used over the last decade to get myself going every time I fall off the writing bandwagon. Eventually, when I started presenting writers workshops to help other people overcome their fear of writing, these techniques worked for them as well. Every single participant completed the workshops as an active writer instead of a vicarious dreamer.
Try them – at least one of them is likely to work for you. And when it does, I would love to hear about it.
This classic tool is classic for a reason – it works like a charm. I have yet to start the timer, put pen to paper and not find anything to write about. Even on days when I solemnly swear there is nothing in me that wants to be written about, there is still something that I didn’t know about that finds its way to the page.
In the writer’s workshops, every single participant was able to write many pages using this tool, and they always rated it as their favourite. If you’ve never tried it, give it a go!
Here’s what you do:
Get your notebook and pen ready (or your blank document if you’re doing this electronically) and decide how long you want to write for. Usually we do this for at least ten to twenty minutes, but you can go for longer if you like. Or, you can decide on the number of pages instead of time – say three to five pages, longhand.
Now you simply start writing. That’s it. No pausing to think about what you want to say or, worse, how you want to say it. Just write. No scratching out or deleting. Even if you have to start with, ‘I don’t know what to write. This is so stupid. I can’t do this…’ that’s fine. Just carry on writing, you’ll go deeper before the first page is even complete.
This one is fairly comforting, because it doesn’t require much imagination or digging deep, not at first. So it’s sneaky in a way – it uses the reassuring details of what’s plainly visible to you to coax your pen to the page.
Here’s what you do:
It’s really very simple. Decide on an object or situation to describe,and make sure it’s a concrete, visible one. Don’t do this with complex emotions for now. Then start with the most basic sentence to describe that – nothing fancy. For instance, it could be your desk where you’re sitting right now. Or the view out of the window.
‘My desk is messy.’
‘It’s rainy outside.’
Once you’ve got the basic sentence down, start elaborating a bit. How is your desk messy? What do you see? What does the actual desk look like? Where is the desk?
Just keep expanding until you’ve done enough. Sometimes this only produces a decent sized paragraph, which is still one paragraph more than you started with. At other times, this can lead you down a rabbit hole and three pages later you’re still writing about the coffee stain on the wood under your elbow as you’re writing.
Write as you speak
This was by far the most common excuse for not writing that I heard at the workshops, and one that I used on myself when I first ventured into blogging in particular.
‘I don’t know how to write what I want to say, but I can talk about it!’
And so we keep talking about writing, instead of actually writing.
Here’s what you do:
Call your own bluff. If you say you can talk about you topic, but every time you sit down to write about it you’re at a loss for words, then speak up. See the process as simply taking dictation.
Sit by your desk, pen in hand, and start talking to your imaginary listener, a friend perhaps. Then write it down as you go. Word for word – no editing, no saying, ‘This is stupid.’ Just write down your conversation. If you want, you can even record yourself speaking, and then transcribe it, but that’s a lot of extra work. It’s equally effective if you put your focus on the talking, and allow your hands to simply come along for the ride.
Decide to write badly
That’s it – get it over and done with. Write it so badly that it couldn’t possibly be done worse. Then – when you decide to write it for real, you can rest assured that it can’t be worse than it was before.
And if it is worse? Well, then use the first draft, which wasn’t the worst one, and start editing.
Here’s what you do:
It’s a bit like plumbing for your creative digestion. Just write whatever it is you feel is blocking your ability to write ‘well’. But resolve to do it badly. In other words, it must be really crap.
You’ll be surprised at the true gift of this tool – it’s actually quite hard to write badly! Once you’ve experienced how truly challenging it is to write like shit, you’ll never have to worry about this particular form of constipation ever again. The words will flow now that you’re freed of the idea that you always write badly, and you will produce writing on a regular schedule again. Once a day, at least.
This is one I return to often, especially when I’m writing in a new format, or when I feel my writing is going stale. For instance, when I first started blogging, I had no idea how to write a decent blog. I decided to seek out the blogs that I really enjoy reading and copy some of them, word for word. (Obviously, you’re not meant to publish these as your own – it’s just for practice.)
The same way students of fine art have to copy the old Masters of painting, brush stroke for brush stroke, copying exact colour mixes, brush size etc. Every detail counts. Even trainee chefs learn by replicating a Michelin star chef’s signature dish. Writers must do the same. That’s how we learn.
Here’s what you do:
Depending on what you want to write, find your favourite role models in that genre. I’ve done this exercise with novels, blogs and magazine articles, but you can do it with poetry, short stories or even songs.
Decide on how much you want to copy, (two pages, ten poems, three blog articles) and then start copying, word for word. When layout is important, as in poetry or blogs, then make sure you copy the exact layout – indents in the margin, upper case and lower case, the font used etc. It’s the details that you want to learn, so pay attention to them, word for word, character for character.
You’ll know when you’ve done enough to start writing your own pieces, using what you’ve learnt. It’s an organic learning process, so don’t become pedantic about it. Just practice until you’ve had enough, then return to your own writing. It will naturally be different.
Enrol for a writers course
There is something about writing that makes us assume that we should be naturally good at it. Painters, drawers, dancers, chefs, quilt makers and potters must all go and learn their art, but writers? No. We should be do it naturally, or not at all. That’s one of the myths around being a writer.
Writing is an art, just like any other art form. And it’s perfectly acceptable to go an learn how to do it from a course provider. Just because we’re taught to write as young children, and continue doing so during most of our school and college years, and perhaps even for our day jobs, doesn’t mean that writing, as an artistic expression, is a natural skill.
Many years ago, once I got over my ego, who insisted that I was a bad writer by default if I needed a writing course to learn how to do it, I finally took the plunge and enrolled for a Basics in Creative Writing course at the South African Writers college. (They also have one in the UK and in New Zealand, if you need a starting point.)
It was the best thing I ever did for my writing, and even though I was scared and nervous, I needn’t have been. A few months later I enrolled for Journalism and then also Advanced Journalism, and to this day, I’m glad I did. As a direct result of those courses, I had my first freelance articles and crime-based short stories published in magazines in three countries.
Here’s what you do:
Look on Google for writing courses. There are many online ones, where you never have to leave the comfort of your desk and your coffee machine can be as close as you like. You might prefer in-person courses. Pick what suits you best and take the plunge. There are also free options, for example from Open University that you can start with. (Personally, I prefer the paid for courses because they normally come with a tutor and one-on-one feedback, which is really what you want.)
Now that you have at least six ways to jump start your writing, there’s no excuse not to face your fear of the blank page and get going. Try them, and let me know which ones worked best for you by leaving a comment in the box below. Feel free to include a sample of your writing.
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