“Being a writer is a very peculiar sort of a job: it’s always you versus a blank sheet of paper (or a blank screen) and quite often the blank piece of paper wins.” ““ Neil Gaiman
Greetings, all! I’m pileofmonkeys, your friendly neighborhood copyeditor around here at Persephone. Now that I’ve announced that, I fully expect to make at least three errors in this post that will make me look like a hypocritical idiot. It’s pretty much a given that anyone who puts themselves in a position to lecture others about grammar, spelling, and writing is almost guaranteed to make a glaring mistake or two. So let’s just accept that I’ll screw up at least once, and move on.
Anyone who writes anything, from a college student facing a term paper to a published novelist starting their new bestseller, starts at the same place: a blank page. Whether that blank page is an actual sheet of paper, or, more likely, an empty document on a computer screen, the first thing a writer must do is get words onto that page. And that first step can be the most painful part of the writing process.
What many people don’t realize is that beginning can actually be the easiest part of your writing process, if you look at it the right way. If you’re someone who doesn’t write often, or who only writes things that are assigned to you (that you most likely aren’t all that interested in), you probably think I’m completely insane. “Beginning can be the easiest part? Yeah, lady, tell it to that infernal blinking cursor, taunting me, mocking me, showing me a vast expanse of white that I’m going to have to fill up with words I haven’t even thought of yet.”
Here’s the good news: the words are already there. In fact, there are way too many of them. The main problem most people have when starting to write a piece is that they only want to write it once. Every writer, casual or professional, would love to just start writing and have all of the right words appear in the right order, ready to be read as soon as you’ve reached the end. A frequent or professional writer knows, however, that this is a near impossibility. A perfect first draft is a unicorn: it probably doesn’t exist; but if it does, it’s heartbreakingly beautiful and rare.
Get ready: I’m going to employ another clunky metaphor here. Your piece, whether it’s an article, a paper for class, or a novel, is a beautiful, hand-carved wooden boat. (Stay with me; I promise there’s a point, and I’ll try to get to it quickly.) Writing your rough draft is cutting down the tree and getting your tools out. When you start writing, get as many words onto the page as you can. Your later drafts will take those words and plane them down into the right shape, shaving off what isn’t necessary until you see the clear shape of a boat. Editing and rereading will sand down the rough edges and make it seaworthy. Too many people make the mistake of trying to sail on a tree trunk with a chisel as an oar. Take your materials and your tools, and then craft your piece.
In the spirit of “getting started,” I’m only going to minimally edit this piece before publishing it. Mostly because I know if I go back, that whole ugly boat metaphor will end up victim to the “delete” key. It’s messy, but it’s true, so I’m keeping it. Don’t be afraid of putting the wrong words down on the page. Put lots of words down; more than you think you’ll need. Write whatever comes into your head. Any stray thought; any half-formed idea, commit it to the page. Words will pull sentences into creation, and sentences will form paragraphs quickly enough. As you go back and reread, you’ll see what you’re missing. Your mind will be able to fill in the holes easily enough if you have somewhere to start.
Don’t be afraid of imperfection. Too often we’re so afraid of writing the wrong thing that we end up writing nothing at all. You need to start somewhere, though. And it’s all the better if you start the process knowing full well that the first things you put on that empty page may not survive to your final draft.
As this series progresses, I’ll be taking you through many different aspects of writing and editing. Be warned: this is about the most laid-back I get. Once we dive into the down-and-dirty details of grammar, composition, and generally writing like a boss, you’ll be longing for the days when I waxed philosophical about first drafts and boats. I’m coming for you, abusers of adverbs and punctuation pirates. From here on, I show no mercy.
How about you? How do you start your writing process? Any tips or tricks you use to banish the blank page? Share your thoughts in the comments.