Writing is like drinking beer. You will crash and burn if you have a poor system around why, where and when to drink. And, you won’t develop tolerance if you don't do it regularly.
Unfortunately, I only realized this after years of being stuck in the starting block until Anne Handley simplified it for me in Everybody Writes – “Writing is a habit not a talent”
Most beginners are stuck in trying to align their reasons, practices, and expectations all at the same time and this can be overwhelming. This little guide provides simple tips to help you quickly get to more consistent and personally rewarding writing.
Why you need to start writing seriously
Writing is a personal affair and the final answer on why you should start lies with you.
We write to give ourselves a consistent lasting voice in our absence. But for most of us, writing helps us think and organize our ideas effectively.
“Why are you writing? You need to learn to think, because thinking makes you act effectively in the world. If you can think and speak and write, you are absolutely deadly…. It’s(writing) is the most powerful weapon you can provide someone with.”
Taking your writing seriously - stressing about every detail is the price you pay if you want your ideas to mean anything to you or to other people.
The bad news is that most of your ideas start off incomplete. Building and arranging them is an exhausting process.
The worse news is you will never get to feel that your writing is complete. That feeling can be a trap and you may never publish anything because of it. Knowing when to walk away is another skill you must have. As Leonardo Da Vinci rightfully said,“Art is never finished, only abandoned.”
Where it all starts: The First Draft
Ernest Hemingway – “The first draft of anything is shit.”
The first and most important step for your writing is putting the idea down. Or, producing the first draft aka The Ugly First Draft.
This is where most us aspiring writers die. The ugliness of the draft breaks our spirit. We make the mistake of judging ourselves negatively based on its sloppiness and the difficulties we face in its production.
For years, I was stuck in a start-stop cycle. My failure to be consistent rotated around these 3 simple issues which you might relate with.
- Procrastination/Pushing production for later. I would leave the desk after being stuck a few sentences in. After failing to follow my train of thought, I told myself I would do it later, as it turned out later was just as good as never.
The fix: Set targets, usually word count, and complete the task you sat down for.
Getting lost in an idea-rabbit-hole. What usually happens is one idea leads to another which has potential to be another article and I wanted to jump on them all scheduled to be written later. In the end I had more incomplete ‘title only’ documents than actual drafts. I didn't get most of them done.
The fix: One complete draft is worth more than a 1000 ideas. You can have so many ideas, but if you don't get the work foundation done, they are all worthless
Dropping a draft because of knowledge gaps. This happened quite a lot. I would leave the draft because I felt that I didn’t know enough to support my opinion. In reality is was an excuse to avoid doing the work required.
The fix: There is room for growth in the knowledge gaps. Accept that you will never know it all but the least you can do is develop a respectable, beefed up opinion with what you know. Just tell yourself that anything which comes between you and the first draft is an excuse.
Two Things to Remember
When developing the first draft, the goal is to dump your brain. Ignore what other people may think. Ignore rules about grammar, sentences etc. Just write. You can break all rules, if it helps you get the idea out. Focus on yourself and whatever inspired you to write. Stephen King calls this, “Writing with the door closed.” The less noise you allow in your head, the more you will write.
Avoid imposing a rigid structure on yourself. Ideas rarely come to you in an orderly way. There is no rule strict rule that you should start your draft at the introduction. Structure isn't so important at this stage. Your main goal is to capture the idea. The first lines in your draft may end up being in the middle or be completely cut out from the final draft. Just write!
You can start by writing your article’s title(hypothesis) at the top of the page just to keep you on track. Feel free to use arrows, diagrams or whatever is necessary to bring the idea to life.
Flex out your creative muscle as much as you can till you establish a system that works for you.
Don't be Random: Invest in Developing a System
Great deeds are products of well-organized systems. Having a system will make you more productive and allow you track your growth.
Waiting for the right idea and moment to kick in won't work.
At the early stages, writing is a lonely affair with more frustration than rewards. Your brain will desperately make excuses to avoid it. It’s up you to balance the work-play dynamic so that you get to enjoy your writing. The last thing you want is to drag yourself to the desk each time you want to write.
A good writing system must be natural and native to you. It must be sensitive to your environmental constrains and personal limitations.
For a more detailed and specific guide for bloggers, check out Marilyn Wo’s article How to Write Your Perfect 1000-Word Article in 40 Minutes Daily.
Your System Should Consider The Following
1. Your production rates and consistency.
Have a schedule and a production target.
Consider writing at times when you are least likely to be disturbed and when you are at your best. Early mornings or late evenings are usually best.
Be careful of advice which sets unrealistic standards for you. How much do you want to produce? Be sensitive to your limitations and potential. Track your ability to meet that target and adjust based on results.
2. Skill Development and Improving Production Capacity.
Your system will evolve with time. Chances of you getting it right once off are very slim. Try different things and don’t hesitate to drop or modify what’s not working for you.
Have structures or apps to assist you with taking notes, capturing ideas and time tracking. Which tasks tend to overlap into others’ time? And, do they deserve that much time? Look into the 80/20 rule for how this works.
- Set aside time for growth
Leave time for building other areas of interest and improvement, research etc. Find a pro to study, the best way to improve is to imitate the masters. It's the same way that you learnt how to walk, speak and you can bet it will work for writing too
Editing: The Nightmare After the First Draft
“…for all have sinned and fallen short of editorial perfection. To write is human, to edit is divine.”
Stephen King in On Writing
I am not gonna front, for me editing is a NIGHTMARE. I struggle struggle with it and am still trying to figure out an efficient system around it. However, it’s a humbling experience which makes me think about other people not just myself.
Here are the 2 things to consider in your editing
1. Know your audience.
“Write as if you are writing for one person” – Anne Handley. Your audience is the first person who you imagine finding your writing useful. That person reads your article only because it serves their needs. If don't meet those needs they will just click and go. It’s that simple.
Your writing should be clear to them. This means your choice of words must match their daily language so that your article is easy to read.
One of the most memorable lessons I got on editing:
You are the source of the junk ruining your writing. Be brave and honest. Love it enough to cut out the parts you love and leave only what is necessary. Edit, edit, and re-edit your work.
2. Learn to drink your poison
You must first develop the first draft then you must read it - as many times as it takes. There is no way around it.
Reading what you wrote sucks but for your writing to be better you must read your work out loud and group related ideas together.
What am I trying to say? Are my sentences short and clear? How do I sound? How is the flow?
I’ve read this single article nearly fifty times, and each time I find something I’d like to change. Let this be evidence that, if there’s one thing more important than any other practice in writing, it’s re-reading your work.
Last Note Before You Go.
I believe it's not about what we write but how we edit – how we include other people in our work. I believe that’s what separates the great writers from the rest of us.
If we are to get anywhere near them, we need to consider that our aim isn’t to make our ideas sound brilliant but to make them useful and easily applicable in someone’s life.
I hope you found this useful.
Happy writing…and editing. Please share and spread the love.