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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!