What is it about seeing behind the curtain that’s so enticing? And why do we love to see people’s personal systems?
Whatever it is, here’s my contribution as someone who writes for a living: how I write, the process that works best for me.
All on one page
For me, the writing process begins before I even think about writing. First I put the “prompt” or “intent” at the top of the page. I like to know the exact purpose of the words I’m creating and organizing. Back in school, I’d read the prompt for an academic paper over and over and over. Now instead of
a prompt, I’ll write my own purpose or copy-paste the line from an email requesting the communication.
Any notes related to the topic also go on this page. Notes might include the bodies
Now I’m not looking at the dreaded blank page. I have the assignment at the top of the page, with all the notes and reference material below.of emails pertaining to the subject, text copied from websites or other research documents, and original drafts or previous years’ drafts of a recurring article (such as the previous year’s thank-you letter from the CEO about the annual charity drive).
Hit enter a few times to insert some hard breaks and give myself some breathing room, and I have my work area. Go back to the top, enter a working title, and I’m almost ready to start.
Close other apps and notifications
My writing program–which is either Evernote or Microsoft Word–takes up the entire screen. I close my browser and other programs. Anything with a popup, reminder or notification of any type is closed. The one exception while I’m at my day job would be Microsoft Outook, for which I have everything disabled except for silent calendar popups.
Without email or Facebook tempting me, I’m good to go. At this point, the tiniest of distractions has an inordinate amount of pull on my attention and seems utterly world-ending if I don’t do it, so I minimize the distractions.
I enjoy writing on my ASUS Transformer tablet for the same reasons. On a tablet, it’s difficult to switch tasks. It’s especially difficult to rationalize the need to switch applications.
Now comes the point where I just dump words onto the page. Full tilt bonzo. If the words don’t splatter, you’re not sticking your finger far enough down your brain’s throat. It should be a mess.
Go for maximum coverage in the minimum time. Make it messy.
Try for the crappiest draft you can manage as fast as you can get it out. Make it embarrassing that these words came out of you.
If your draft isn’t full of incomplete thoughts and words like “and some other stuff” or “then she said something important about something stupid,” you’re not writing fast enough. Faster!
For some reason, people seem to be afraid of writing a first draft full of misspellings, nonsense and grammar faux pas that nobody will ever see. No one judges the final by the beginning they never see. Nobody knows your thoughts as your structure the piece. Nobody knows the wireframes before websites are created, the sketches before paint is applied to canvas, practice in front of a mirror before a speech is delivered.
Copywriting legend John Carlton starts with pages upon pages of bullets. I typically do the same thing, but without an actual bullet point. As I’m vomiting onto the page, I hit enter frequently. Many lines are one to three words long, containing overall thoughts or feelings to visit. Sometimes there are a good six hard spaces between “paragraphs” because if I feel like I’m leaving gaps in thought, I like to see white space. No science behind it whatsoever.
Don’t let anything slow you down. I write notes to myself about what I’m writing or need to insert in all caps, leave spaces for unknown names or dates with five underscores, etc. Then I can see what I need.
Just don’t stop moving. Pretend like you have no backspace/delete key, and if you stop writing, your words start deleting themselves. Or use this program and don’t pretend…
Don’t let edits or arbitrary spacing guidelines slow you down. Remember the splatter rule? Just keep shoving the finger farther.
Now that you have a bunch of crap on the page, give yourself a pat on the back. That ridiculously easy step is the hard one. You’re basically done.
Just take the crap and reorganize it. The more the merrier, because stupid crap can inspire profound crap. Editing, which is word synthesizing, is where writing actually takes place. Everything else is just generation.
I usually don’t delete my notes until the very final draft is submitted. Even after that, I’ll sometimes hang on to my notes. That’s the beauty of digital files. It’s easy to make copies.
Now take your shiny group of organized words and deliver it where it needs to go.
Maybe you’re giving it to your boss. In that case, you’ll probably get some further direction so you can go back and do more vomiting and re-organizing.
Although this path is linear, I don’t do just one project at a time, especially with blog posts. I typically generate two ideas for every post I’m writing–while I’m writing it. I use mindmaps and Evernote to capture the idea. I then go through and spray–shotgun style–as much info as I can, based on my current time availability and top-of-head info. Generate all you can as fast as possible so you can synthesize later.