Techniques for Producing Words Despite Your Precious, Beautiful Screeching Howler Monkey, Part II

In Part II of our ongoing series (you can find Part I here), we’re going to touch on two more tricks/techniques I’ve used to get going when I’m stuck, frazzled, and staring at the screen blankly.

Changing the Medium

The problem: You just can’t get started. The task feels too immense; your words seem inadequate for the story in your head. Your creativity is gummed up, and nothing will flow.

The technique: Use a different medium to write. It’s as simple as that. If you’ve been writing at a computer, write longhand. If you’ve been working on your laptop, work on a desktop computer. If you’ve been writing in Scrivener, try Word to get started. Maybe you even just try a different font, or write in an email to yourself, or dictate into a recorder. The point is to alter the format enough that it feels slightly unfamiliar.

This is actually a trick that I use every time I start a new project. When I’m smart, I set out to do it from the start, but usually it takes a few failed attempts to get going before I remember how necessary it is. I write novels, and the process from the first draft to final proofreading is long and involved. By the time I send a manuscript off, I’ve forgotten what it feels like to draft; my “muscle memory” is primed for revising and perfecting and tweaking. To break myself out of that mindset, I need to change the environment I’m writing in.

Part of this is reducing the pressure to make things perfect on the first go. Writing on a tablet or in an email feels somehow less official, and lets me relax about the quality. Writing longhand only ever lasts me a few pages at the most, since my mind outstrips my writing speed, but it lets me see the uneven handwriting, the insertions, the scribbling out that screams “draft!” and releases me from the pressure of polish.

Start With the Zeroth Step

The problem: You just can’t get going when you sit down to write. You know what you should work on… but here you are, chuckling over a video of an ostrich with a slinky. And now the baby is awake, and you’ve lost your chance.

The technique: This one is more of a tip than a technique, I’ll admit. And sometimes it seems too obvious to mention, but it’s been of immense help to me. It’s simple. Instead of making the first item on your to-do list to write something, the first item on your to-do list is simply to gather any necessary materials and open the relevant program. That’s it. That’s the one thing you have to accomplish first.

It sounds silly, but it’s remarkable sometimes how difficult that first hurdle is, and how easy it is to drag your feet. But opening a program isn’t stressful; it’s a click of a button. And then once the page is staring you in the face, there’s no hurdle, however small, between you and starting to type.

So if you find yourself never even getting started, and instead dithering with other tasks and distractions, try setting yourself that goal. You don’t have to write. But before you do anything else, you at least have to open the damn file.

In Part III, we’ll cover accountability partners, word wars, and spreadsheets (you know you’re excited about spreadsheets!).

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