Ever been in this situation? The more important the thing is that you want to write, the harder it becomes. You start avoiding it, doing endless research, falling into the vortex of the internet. Instead of even opening the document, you’re suddenly busy with everything else. In the end you wonder where all that time went. If there’s a deadline, you might write something you’re not happy with. If there’s none, you might drop the project.
Believe me, I’ve been there. Writing is hard. It’s the process of condensing your thinking in a way that another person might understand it (and ideally, do something as a result). Writing makes good communication, and good communication makes leadership and change. Still, scatterbrains as we are, we resist.
Lower the danger level
The most important thing I’ve learned about writing is to give myself permission to lower the danger level. I no longer try to write something polished and perfect on the first go. If I would, I’d freeze up immediately. Instead, I try to explore the thing that wants to be expressed.
- Letters. Sometimes, I write a letter to a prospective reader: ‘here’s what I would love for you to understand…’. Sometimes, I write a letter to the project I’m working on: ‘this is why you are important and why I want to bring you into the world…’. Or I might write a letter to the version of me that knows how to write this text: ‘I’m feeling stuck, I’d like to do this, can you give me a pointer how to start…’.
- Time boxing. I might give myself 20 minutes in which I just write. It doesn’t matter what, as long as I don’t stop moving the pen. Of course, there’s usually plenty of ‘I don’t know what to write’ or ‘this is a stupid exercise’ in the resulting text, but also a surprising amount of useful marbles and insights.
- Start with what you know. When I think about a text, I sometimes start by listing the things I already know or resources that I want to use for the text. A mind map can be good; lists work well, too. A text does not have to answer all possible questions – if you start by working with the material you have, you’re off to a good start.
- Buddy up. Truly difficult texts need peer support. I might start by telling a friend or colleague the purpose and outline of my project and then commit to spending an hour working on it before I send her the result. Knowing someone is waiting for your first draft is such an important motivator to get it done.
Drafts are good
Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor
– Anne Lamott
Once you have some material to work with, you can start mining it for the parts that you want to keep. Remember that you don’t have to do it all on your own – if you truly dread looking at your writing again, you can ask a friend or colleague to do it for you. Because you’re still working on the text (and probably more than aware of its shortcomings), ask her to highlight the good parts and ask questions that can help you get more specific.
Most of the time when we’re stuck on a text, we try to write and edit at the same time. When writing is hard, focus on finding your message first and don’t worry about getting it right just yet. Then take time to edit and revise to really get your message across.
When you write, you get a chance explore your thinking.
Some resources I like
- 750 words is the online version of Julia Cameron’s morning pages. Just write. Write or Die is slightly less friendly, but probably just as effective.
- I really enjoy Daphne Gray-Grant’s newsletter as a weekly reminder of good writing and editing habits.
- If you want to write about yourself (a bio, for example), try this exercise: 16 questions to help you write a douche-free bio (thanks, Kelly!)