Writing Advice: 3 Tips For Conquering Anxiety and Getting Down a First Draft

Whether you’re composing a cover letter, a term paper or a novel, the first draft can often be the hardest part of the writing process. I know it is for me. Once I have a draft, I’m sailing, but getting those initial words down reminds me of my brother’s high school wrestling matches, only it’s not my near-twin exchanging headlocks with some sweaty, mean-looking kid in a singlet, but me, face to face with my own anxiety, whose strength and agility cannot be underestimated. When I have to write but don’t feel capable, or it seems like all the good ideas are taken, or my confidence plunges to Lady Edith-at-the-alter lows, I tell myself the following:

  1. Lower your standards. When I’m totally stumped or too scared to begin, I think, “Write the worst, most clichéd, most embarrassing words ever to cross the screen of a MacBook Air.” I position my hands over the keyboard and, if I truly believe that crappy is cool for now, I’ll begin to peck away. Somewhere deep inside I’m trusting that with multiple revisions, I’ll replace the clichés with fresher words, hone in on what I’m trying to express, refine my structure and allow my voice to shine through. But when I’m lowering my standards, none of that is my concern. It can’t be. If I think “this better be good, lady,” or anything even close to that, the fingers hovering over the letters never touch down.
  2. Hazard a guess. An actor whose claim to fame was a Dorito’s commercial gave me this advice. I was twenty-one and, sensing that he was one smart chip salesman, confessed that I didn’t know if my destiny was to be an actor or a writer. “I don’t know what I am!” I said, my voice spiking with panic. “Hazard a guess,” he said, and flashed his confident, commercial teeth. I felt a gust of freedom as it dawned on me that it was better to make a choice than remain frozen with fear and indecision. Now, when I’m writing a novel and I start to seize up, wondering does my main character go to New York or San Francisco? Does she go through that door or run in the other direction? I say,“Hazard a guess, Howland!” It keeps me from taking myself too seriously and reminds me that the greatest risk is not making a “wrong” choice, but not making a choice period.
  3. Twenty-five minutes is all it takes. That’s right. You don’t need a whole day or even a whole hour to get in some good writing. You just need twenty-five minutes of focus. No phone. No email. No Twitter. No Facebook. Just you and your work for this very manageable, approachable time block. You can do just about anything for twenty-five minutes, right? I gleaned this wisdom from the Pomodoro Technique, a time management system. I set the timer on my microwave and go. After twenty-five minutes I take a five-minute break and then ideally go for another round or two or four. Sometimes I only manage one “pomodoro,” but the twenty-five minute rule eliminates excuses like “I don’t have enough time to get started,” or “I really need the whole morning to myself in order to think,” or “I can only write by the pool at the Ace Hotel in Palm Springs.” No, no. All you need is twenty-five minutes without updating your status and you’ll find yourself with a paragraph or two or at least a few solid sentences, and hey, that’s something. Conveniently, twenty-five minutes is about the same amount of time it takes to do a load of laundry or make these delicious roasted carrots.

What helps you write a first draft? Leave me a note in the comments!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=698406281 Gina Vaynshteyn

    Writing my first draft for anything is like cleaning my apartment. The thought of it is super scary, but once you get going it’s like, “Yes! I love this! I could do this all day!” I think setting a time for yourself is reasonable. Like, okay, I’m going to allow myself to go on Facebook and Tumblr until 11:30 a.m. and then I have to start writing. Also, a reward system. Completed draft = snickers bar, pizza, bowl of ice cream, etc.

    • http://leilasnotebook.tumblr.com/ Leila Howland

      Oh yes, reward systems are key!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1246242100 Kayla Cagan

    I can only write by the pool at the Ace Hotel in Palm Springs.” But there’s nothing wrong with that, right!??!?! he he he

    Thanks for the good words and advice!

    • http://leilasnotebook.tumblr.com/ Leila Howland

      It’s a great place to write, actually!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100004862713346 El David Thomas

    One thing I use when writing is simply start typing. I bang it out. The next thing I know I have about 500 words down or more. Keep the general topic in mind, and worry about editing later.

    • http://leilasnotebook.tumblr.com/ Leila Howland

      It’s the best when you can just not think about too much and dive in. Worrying about editing later is important for most writers I think.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1042470066 Claire Murdough

    Great tips, I love the approach you take towards writing. Thank you for sharing your advice!

    • http://leilasnotebook.tumblr.com/ Leila Howland

      You’re welcome. Thanks for reading!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001012434174 Stephany Guerrero

    These are such great ways to get through that writing crunch! I am a journalism/advertising major myself and can relate!!

    • http://leilasnotebook.tumblr.com/ Leila Howland

      So glad it’s helpful! Sounds like you have to write a lot of first drafts!

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=517170611 Brandon Pterodactyl Shults

    “Hazard a guess” is just what I needed to read. That’s the beast that rests on my shoulder and stops me from starting. Good read. I’ll definitely add these to my collection of resources and tips. I’ll take all the help I can get!

    Note: I also noticed you mistakenly used “hone in” when it should read “home in”. Unless you meant it how you wrote it, in which case, keep doing what you’re doing. :)

    • http://leilasnotebook.tumblr.com/ Leila Howland

      I can’t tell you how many times “hazard a guess” has helped me! Hope it helps you too.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=753743340 Becky Finlayson

    Really great post! I decided to set myself a daily target of 2,000 words…sometimes this was harder to achieve than others but some days I whizzed past my target, sometimes reaching 3,000 or even 4,000 words. One amazing day I reached 5,000! I found that if I just thought of one key narrative phrase or conversation starter the words soon came flowing. It didn’t hurt that I was writing fantasy either – so much freedom to make up whatever you want when creating a whole new world!

    Thanks for all these tips, I will definitely be using the “hazard a guess” technique for my next book!

    • http://leilasnotebook.tumblr.com/ Leila Howland

      I’m impressed. I usually max out at 1,000-1,500. Maybe I should try fantasy! Good luck!

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