I’m not alone in thinking that writing is hard. Whether you’re fresh to the title of ‘writer’, produce it for a living, or reckon that you’ve got the Next Great Work in you, putting pen to paper can be a challenge.
Truth be told, very little about writing is about actually hitting the keys – rather, it’s about taking the time to hit the right ones and get the right ideas across. Thought leaders are often caught up here – in the topic selection and refinement, in choosing what ideas to retain and which go back on the shelf, the pre-meditation and planning. All that has to come before stringing words into sentences. The great poet TS Eliot said language was an ‘intolerable wrestle with words and meaning’. I have to agree with that sentiment.
The hardest part about writing about something you have an extensive amount of expertise in is determining what needs to be said to begin with, and what you want to distil it down to. While this will naturally stem out of your core argument (something we’ve talked about before here), I think there are a few subtleties that are worthy of your attention – and might even help you get your next article or blog out there.
Set the scope
It helps to frame what falls within the boundaries of your argument before you know what to include. Before beginning, I like to establish – for both myself and the reader – what I’m going to talk about and what’s not relevant to the conversation.
Articles and non-fiction books tend to do this in their introductions. They set up a key idea, then talk about what’s relevant to that concept – what’s necessary to understand before you dive on in. It’s a blueprinting exercise, and it keeps you on track, preventing you from wandering away from the key message you need to get across.
Personally, I like to start by defining the key terms and concepts I’d like to touch on to establish some context and set a precedent for what I’m going to elaborate on. It also reduces any ambiguity of terms – ensuring that the concept that I’m talking about is the same one you think of.
Writing is a discipline, it’s true, and no one really cares how you write as long as you actually are writing. That doesn’t stop writers and thinkers from having creative rituals or achingly specific conditions that need to be fulfilled before they write.
Having a place where you can focus is vital. I’d like to say I can write from anywhere, but that isn’t true. My preference is the keyboard, which usually also means a desk or café table, with a coffee within reach. If I’m at home, I’ll play albums in their entirety – the arc of an album helps me maintain the arc of a piece of content. It’s a bit Pavlovian, but it works for me.
Instituting a regular bedtime and dedicating the bedroom solely for sleeping is the most often recommended strategy for insomnia and optimising the brain for rest. The psychology of space is therefore powerful in the context of creativity – which explains why it’s as unhelpful to sleep at your desk as it is to work from your bed.
I do my best work in the morning, and my desk helps cue up the right mindset. You don’t have to be precise and punish yourself for not having the perfect set-up – you just have to know what works for you. Sitting down at my desk is far more valuable than having any motivational or aspirational genetics.
Writing through the block
Daria Williamson – a participant in our Better Book Project – recently introduced me to her tactic of ‘ugly writing’. To come unstuck from the uninspiring grip of writer’s block, sometimes simply putting messy thoughts to paper is the only way forward.
‘Ugly writing’ gives you permission to be imperfect. It’s just a draft, after all. Nothing more. The details can wait until later. So can some of the finessing around tone of voice. Not only does this provide the freedom to get more on the page to start with, but you’ll also then be able to go back on the second and third passes with an increasingly editorial eye.
Using the ‘ugly writing’ technique, little gems and ideas can be kept in a holding pen and arranged as and when needed. Give yourself permission to be flawed. The quality of your work will skyrocket, as will the quality of your thinking once you turn the self-censor off. It’ll free you up from that ‘perfect first sentence’ paralysis.
Finding the hidden angle
When I’m really stuck (which is a stifling place to be), I employ plan B – going right back to the basics and sounding it out with someone else. Spoken language and storytelling came millions of years before we were able to write and record – so it makes perfect sense to strip back writing to its purest form and sound it out.
Explaining what I’m trying to say verbally, without the use of any wordsmith fancy language, is the best way to test where my ideas are landing. My trusted sounding board will often fire back with a second, third or even fourth angle I hadn’t considered. It’s an approach us Inkers employ often – and it works every time.
Everything must start somewhere, and the lead-up to getting your first word to paper can feel like more stress than it’s worth. If you’re relatively new to the art and want to quit while you’re ahead of a big writing project, it pays to keep these tips in mind as you sit down and start writing – take it from someone who must employ them every day.