“I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately, it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.” — W. Somerset Maugham
Every Sunday, I wake up early to get coffee with my friend, Brian. Our weekly meetings are part therapy session, part working on projects that, one day…one very distant day, will make us billionaires.
During the therapy portion of last Sunday’s meeting, Brian told me about his struggle to write fiction. He has plenty of ideas, but he has trouble getting started. And even if he manages to start typing something, he rarely finishes.
In an attempt to get inspired, he reads the fiction he wishes he could write, but that discourages him even more. Being a writer myself — with a published book, a semi-popular blog, and a career in copywriting — he asked if I had any concrete tips that could help him get off his butt and write a decent piece.
I didn’t have much in the way of concrete “writing tips” to offer. The unfortunate truth is that the quickest way to improve your writing, like anything else, is to study and work hard. But even if I could give him a magic bullet to writing better, it wouldn’t solve the problem. Brian’s issue wasn’t the quality of his work — it was the quality of his process.
We romanticize writing — we picture F. Scott Fitzgerald in his study waiting for inspiration to strike, and in a late-night flurry, penning the a perfect draft of The Great Gatsby in a single go. But that’s nothing more than a myth. An urban legend.
To get better at writing is to first get realistic about the process.
Great Writers Prewrite
“An annoying thing about writing is that you have to make everything up and then write it down.” — @jakefogelnest
When you get that first flash of inspiration for a story, you want to race to your laptop and start typing. But the energy quickly dissipates. Once you get to the middle of your story and run out of steam, you close your laptop with the false promise that you’ll get back to it when inspiration strikes again.
But it never does.
Great writers harness their creative energy and think before they act.
Great writers make a rough outline (not the Roman Numeral outlines of high school) describing where they’d like the story to go. They ask themselves who the major characters are, what themes they’d like to cover, and what the basic plot might be (I do this via James Altucher’s 10 idea exercise, which I wrote about here).
They leave plenty of room for discovery along the way, but they establish a basic skeleton first. That way, they aren’t so paralyzed when they run out of steam partway through.
Step 2: Great Writers Run Before They Walk
With the first draft, I just write everything. With the second draft, it becomes so depressing for me, because I realize I was fooled into thinking I’d written a story. I hadn’t — I had just typed for a long time.” — David Sedaris
Every writer feels the heavy burden of the blank page. The hardest part is just getting started — staring down that blinking cursor, agonizing over that first sentence, spending fifteen minutes perfecting the first paragraph down to the last comma.
Great writers know that the first draft is a sprint, not a marathon.
Great writers start with the first thing that pops into their head, no matter how ill conceived, and keep typing until they place the final period. They don’t edit, criticize, or self-censor along the way. Sure, it may be drivel not worthy of publishing, but that’s a problem to solve later.
As Casey Fowler says, the first draft’s primary function is simply to exist.Once it’s brought into the world, you have infinite time to edit, tweak, and perfect — but first you have to get something down on paper to serve as the blueprint going forward.
Step 3: Great Writers Rewrite (Literally)
“The only kind of writing is rewriting.” — Ernest Hemingway
Before desktop computers, if you wanted to tidy up your first draft, you literally had to rewrite your entire piece from the beginning, by hand or by typewriter, making edits along the way. Only recently have writers been able to directly edit over their previous drafts, changing words and inserting or deleting sentences without laboriously starting over.
Many writers know that Hemingway quote, and they know they must edit their work to improve it. But too many take advantage of the modern conveniences inherent in word processing programs. Computers have made us lazy.
Great writers cling to the old ways. When they rewrite, they literally open up a new document and start over from the beginning, using their previous draft as a guide.
The old way, the one where you retype everything from the beginning, may sound inefficient and time-consuming, but it forces you to slow down and reconsider every word you’ve committed to paper. It will allow you to see your work in a new way. You’ll find yourself making massive, beneficial edits you never would have seen nor considered if you had just been going back through and changing a few words here or there.
Trust The Process
Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights but you can make the whole trip that way.” — E. L. Doctorow
When you write a story, you often have to start without knowing where you’re going to end up. But writing is a process — even the greats can’t produce beauty in a single draft. They’re prolific because they’ve gotten comfortable building the bridge as they walk across it. They know writing is hard work — but they tackle it with a simple (not easy) three-step process.
You have to stop worrying about quality and trust that, if you put in the hard work, quality will ultimately take care of itself. You have to trust that the process will guide you along the way, that you’ll make it home safely as long as you keep moving forward.