Beat the Blank Page Blues: Writing the First Draft (Part 1: Take the Plunge)
Take the plunge
Writing the first draft. Arrggh. I can talk a blue streak, but when it comes to tackling that blank page, even when I have book and chapter outlines in place, there are days when I’ll do anything (or close to it) to side-step that void.
But eventually, I have to tackle that page.
That’s the thing—if you want to write, you have to put your butt in the chair and do it. How else are you going to finish that book you’ve talked about writing for the past decade? Sure, it’s scary, but it actually takes more energy to avoid writing then it does to sit down and actually do it.
Here are a few tips to help you start cranking out your first draft. In this piece, I’m focusing on writing one chapter at a time, but if it works best for you to plow all the way through the entire book, go with that. Also, while these steps often work for me, there’s no set formula. If they feel too rigid, just change things up. Anything goes. Just find what works for you.
1. Set the stage
Before you begin writing—whatever amount of time you’ve set aside—make sure you have a quiet place to work, your phone or a timer, and a computer or a pad of paper and pencils/pens. Get water, coffee, snacks—whatever you’ll need so you won’t have a gazillion excuses to leave your chair.
2. Calm the mind-chatter
Sit at your computer or with your notebook, take a few deep breaths, and try to clear your head so the words can flow from your mind, heart, the ethers and onto the page. You might want to go to your happy place, or think of an empty white board, or, and sometimes we all need this, just tell those negative voices to knock it off! Especially the ones slinging insults: What makes you think you can write a book? Or Who do you think you are? Chekov?
Here’s the thing: you can write a book. And only Chekov was Chekov. Comparing yourself to another writer can not only cause you to freeze, but it can also lead you to risk imitation and lose your own unique voice. And that would be awful, because you have something to say that people can benefit from. And that would be awful, because you have something to say that people can benefit from. And they’ll identify with the way you say it.
3. Write against the clock
You can absolutely skip this tip, but if you’re stuck, it might help unlock your creativity. Set the timer for one, two, five minutes, and then type like mad. Don’t stop for anything. When your mind goes blank, just put down nonsense—Yadda yadda, blah, blah, blah, 1, 2, 3, 4, whatever—until you get back on track. No matter the pattern, the order, or the tangents you go off on, just get your thoughts down. When the timer buzzes, if you want to keep going, stay with it. (I do this exercise with my eyes closed. That way I’m not put off by what I’m typing.) When you’re done, review what you’ve written. Chances are you’ll have the beginnings of a great first paragraph, a few killer sentences, or an idea that grabs you. And if you come up with none of the above, just set the timer and type again. Then review, save anything that has possibilities, and toss the rest.
4. Keep going
In her book Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott discusses the importance of letting yourself write a “shitty first draft.” She says that’s how you end up with “good second drafts and terrific third drafts.” To get started, take the idea, sentence, or great lines you saved from your timed writing, type or write them on a new page, and take it from there. Give yourself permission to write something that stinks. That doesn’t mean it will. This first pass might not be too bad, but it’s certainly okay if it is, because this isn’t the time to edit your work. You want to keep going, building on your ideas. Slowing down to edit can cause you to lose your train of thought or become too self-critical to continue.
As you’re typing, pause briefly if you As you’re typing, pause briefly if you need to. You’re not writing against the timer now. If you’re really struggling to write without editing, try Write or Die, a computer program that forces you to make forward progress by deleting your words if you stop typing for too long. Just remember, your work doesn’t have to be perfect. The key to strong writing is editing (which we’ll talk about in Steps 3, 4, and 5 of this book).
5. Give it a rest
When you’re ready to stop for the day, you might have a few paragraphs, pages, or sections of your chapter. Repeat the process over the next few days until you have your first chapter. Now give yourself a few hours or a few days before coming back to it. At this point, you can no longer really see your piece, and you need the time away to let your thoughts settle. Then when you return to your work, you’ll see it with a fresh pair of eyes.
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