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Beat the Blank Page Blues: Writing the First Draft (Part 1 of 3)

Just get it down

Writing the first draft. Arrggh.  I can talk a blue streak, but when it comes to tackling that blank page, I freeze. I’ll do anything to side-step that void—arrange my sock drawer, go for a bike ride, or clip my dog’s nails. I could go on.

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/article/play you’ve talked about writing for years? Sure, it’s scary, but it actually takes more energy to avoid writing then it does to sit down, put your fingers on the keys, and type. Here are a few tips for writing fiction and nonfiction to help you start writing the first draft.

1. Get prepared
Before you begin, make sure you have a quiet place to write, a timer (you’ll see), a computer, or a pad of paper and pencils/pens. Get water, coffee, snacks—whatever you’ll need for the next couple hours, so you won’t have an excuse to leave your chair.

2. Calm the mind-chatter
Air out your brain. Sit in your chair, take a few deep breaths, and try to clear your head of all chatter, so the words that are waiting to flow through your mind, out your fingertips, and onto the page can get through. Go to your happy place, think of an empty white board, or, and sometimes we all need this—just tell those voices to knock it off, especially the ones slinging insults. You know what I’m talking about, phrases like—You can’t do this, or Your yard is a mess, or Who do you think you are? Chekov?

Here’s the thing. You can do this. The weeds will be there tomorrow. And only Chekov was Chekov. Comparing yourself to another writer can not only cause you to freeze, but you can also risk imitation and lose your own unique voice. And that would be awful, because you have something to say that people can benefit from. We all do. If you’re having trouble quieting the self-flagellation and getting into a positive frame of mind, reading “The Monkey Mind Matters” can really help.

3. Write against the clock
Now set the timer that you put out earlier for one or two minutes, and then type like mad. Don’t stop for anything. When your mind goes blank, just put down nonsense—Yadda yadda, I have nothing to write, or Blah, blah, blah. And then, you’ll get back on track, and find your rhythm. When the timer buzzes, and you want to keep going—stay with it. When you’re done, review what you’ve written. Chances are you’ll have the beginnings of a great first paragraph, a few great dead-on sentences, or an idea that grabs you. And if you come up with none of the above, which I doubt will be the case, just set the timer, and type again. Then review, save anything that has possibilities, and toss the rest.

4. Create a lousy first draft
In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott talks about 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 in step 3, 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. Your draft might not be too bad, but it’s certainly okay if it is, because the first draft is not the time to edit your work. You want to keep going, build 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 need to. You’re not writing against the timer. If you really struggle 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 Parts 2 and 3 of this series).

5. Step away from the keyboard
You’ve started. You’ve got something to work with. You’ve filled a page or more. If you’re writing a short piece, you might be done with the first draft. If you’re starting a book, you might have the first chapter or at least a chunk of it. Now take a break. Give yourself a few hours, or days. At this point, you can no longer really see your piece, and you need time away to let your thoughts percolate. Then when you return to your work, you’ll see it with a fresh pair of eyes.

And that’s when the editing process begins. You’ll still need to organize sentences and sections, prune the deadwood, expand on some ideas, and polish your prose. I know it sounds like a lot, but you’re creating something you can be proud of, surprising yourself with new insights about your work, yourself, and life. For me, if I don’t grow, I don’t see the point in writing. Because, let’s face it, it’s hard. But stick with it, because you’ll surprise yourself constantly with the things you learn or didn’t know you knew. And sharing those insights with your readers is a gift to all of you.


Now it’s your turn

What do you think? I’ve talked about 5 ideas to get your words on the page. Which was most helpful? Do you have any to add?

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Comments for Beat the Blank Page Blues: Writing the First Draft (Part 1 of 3)

  • @Ahmed Almorohen on June 12, 2013

Disconnect from the internet (this means you on a whole, and not just the machine you are using), and try to be on a machine with no games installed, and nothing to watch.
You will say you need to google some stuff or get to an online thesaurus – don’t use that excuse to get online. Leave a note for your self to do that later, and use placeholders.
Also, disable spell and grammar checker, because the red and green underlines will nag at you to pause and correct (editing comes later. Learn to completely forget about it while ‘writing’). You don’t want to stop for anything, it’s equal to a derailing train.
Some people need privacy, some need to be in company but still with privacy, and some need public pressure to really get started; figure out which kind of people are you.
You might need a cheering from someone close to you before you get started; go ask for a cheering. I am serious, this is not silly.
If you need music, try to have it on speakers, and as low a volume as you would, instead of headphones. Maybe you need the music to influence the theme of what you are writing, but you don’t want it to dictate your thoughts, which some strong music can. Avoid songs, stick to thematic music.
If you feel burnt out or stumped, go outside – immediately – if you can. A very short, brisk walk around the block and come back to it. Trust me.
Good luck.

  • @kelly on June 18, 2013

Thanks, Ahmed.