Here's a technique that can help you develop the discipline to stay in the harness and get the job done. I call it "block writing," and it can save you time and help you overcome self-doubt and procrastination. If you're like me, chances are you'll need tricks like this one at some point. Here's why.
Other than an empty mailbox, perhaps the most frightening sight for a freelance writer is the blank page. Its terrors have driven many of our brethren to strong drink, greatness, or both. Sometimes I even hate finishing a page because I know another is waiting, its vastness daring me to fill it with my puny thoughts, meager vocabulary and -- by the way -- how could I produce anything worthy of the writers who have gone before me? I used to make "C's" in high school English! And so goes the constant babble of recrimination spewed by the monster of self-doubt lurking behind every blank page, which often becomes a mirror for our deepest insecurities.
The source of the monster's power is not merely the risk of humiliation we take every time we write, when we reveal parts of ourselves as personal as our underwear. There's also the mystery of the creative act. Although humans have explored deep space and the mysteries of DNA, we still know frighteningly little about creativity except that some of us have more of it than others, and that if we study our craft and work real hard, maybe, just maybe, the magic will happen -- but maybe not. It's that possibility of not measuring up, of Monster Doubt's voice drowning out our own, that makes some of us write not at all, others of us write less than we would like, and many of us write at a lower level than we could if sitting down and doing it were not so anxiety-ridden, so unpleasant, so frightening.
When I left my job as a teacher of writing in order to freelance full time, I was forced to deal seriously and quickly with these issues of self-doubt, procrastination and their effect on my daily output. I developed a technique I call "block writing" that helped me overcome three common mistakes that self-doubting writers make, especially when the writing clock strikes high noon and it's time to create that crucial first draft.
Mistake 1: Writing too slowly. Ever watch a painter or sculptor work? They rarely pause after each brushstroke or chisel strike. But I know writers who cannot pen more than a sentence without stopping to reread and revise it, as if perfect prose should flow from them like birdsong and the final product should take shape sentence by perfect sentence.
On a first draft, the writer must probe the amorphous cosmos of thought where words and vision, form and intuition come together. Taking that inward journey means a commitment to writing in an uncensored way, and that usually means writing quickly and without stopping to second guess. By writing quickly, we can finally silence the critical monitor, the little devil who sits on our shoulder interrupting the creative process: "Is that the best word?" "This is probably a dead end." "Will the reviewer think that's stupid?" The devil gets his turn in the revision and polishing stages, not now. Writing quickly also gets us in sync with our internal voice, which gives writing its authenticity and resonance. The bottom line is that there is a time to create and a time to evaluate. Although both are legitimate parts of writing, they are best done at separate times.
Mistake 2: Not distinguishing between fear of failure and possibility of failure. It amazes me that every time I sit down to write, I still get that panicky fear in my gut that makes me want to wash dishes, sharpen pencils and walk the cat -- anything to procrastinate. I still have to remind myself of the important difference between the fear of failure and the likelihood of failure.
Rooted in our insecurities, fear of failure usually has little connection to its actual possibility. The reality is that if I've done good research, know the format and market I'm writing in, and I'm willing to put in the time, then failure is unlikely. Although I've learned to accept my irrational fear of failure as a part of my writing personality, even to welcome it because it makes me try harder and keeps me humble, I've also learned to trust reality: I recall all the other times I've sat down to perform this same act and been successful. Why should it be any different this time? The strong likelihood is, I tell myself, it won't be.
Mistake 3: Focusing on the final product. While fox hunting and occasionally teaching writing at the University of Virginia, William Faulkner talked of the difference between "those who want to write and those who want only to have written." I think he meant that we are better off focusing on the challenges of writing, the potential it offers us for personal artistic growth, the satisfaction of creating something -- rather than the by-products of our work, whether ego or money. Books and articles are mere things. Their completion offers only momentary fulfillment. In the end they will be read by few, remembered by fewer. What's left to sustain us? The doing.
Over the years, block writing has taught me the following four simple but important lessons, without which I don't think I could make a living doing this:
To begin block writing you need a timer, preferably with an alarm, to divide your writing day into 45-minute or one-hour blocks, each followed by a short break. The goal is simple: to sit derriere in chair and not get up during that time period. Eventually, doing this will become automatic. You'll give it no more thought than you do to brushing your teeth. You just do it -- without the complaining, the hesitation, the extra push of will. And when things aren't going well, when the demons of doubt snarl their loudest, when the writing chair seems a green mile away -- you'll have a simple ploy: "Well, I guess I could sit down for at least one block."
The law of regularity: Tell yourself: "If I sit down for enough writing blocks, eventually the work will get done. All I have to do is show up." Avoid commitments like, "During each block I will produce two pages of copy." It doesn't work that way. You never know what's going to happen once you sit down. You could produce 20 pages or 2 or none at all. Each outcome will have occurred for a legitimate reason. All you know is this: Spend enough time in the chair and, eventually, it will get done.
The need for commitment: Like any regimen, whether a weight-loss diet, exercise program or good dental hygiene, block writing will work only if you give yourself to it and play by the rules. That means that no matter how much you dread writing that day, no matter how unprepared you feel, no matter how frightened of failure you may be, no matter how sleepy you are, the simple act of putting your tush in a chair and starting the timer becomes the most important thing you can do to ensure your eventual success. It means you are acquiring a writer's discipline.
The need for trust: You must know and believe that during each block something will get done. Even an hour of false starts is important. Sometimes you have to write stuff you won't use in order to clear the way for stuff you will, or say things the wrong way in order to find the right way. But, most of all, you must trust that if you simply sit down for your time in the harness, block after block, eventually the work will get done. At the end of each writing period, you are always one block closer to success.
To understand the benefits of block writing, it's important to understand why it works. Although imposing artificial structure on the creative act of writing may seem counterproductive, I remind you of the formula for classical Greek tragedies, from Sophocles to Euripides: the fall of a flawed protagonist in a high position and use of dramatic irony to evoke pity and fear. Structure and pattern, it seems, have the power to free our creativity, whether it's the perfection of Oedipus Rex, the symmetry of a sonnet, or the timed bursts of block writing. With the structure of block writing come important benefits:
Benefit 1: Defined limits. For writers plagued by doubt, simply sitting down isn't enough. Without a tight seat belt, it's too easy to spring back up at the first itch of doubt, the first wretched paragraph or unyielding problem. By allowing yourself to arise in frustration, you reinforce failure -- not success. On the other hand, successful writers learn to stay in the chair and write through the problems, to get the work done one way or another. Learning to do that on a daily basis is, I believe, the defining characteristic of a professional writer.
Benefit 2: Artificial pressure. Freelancing on a part-time basis is psychologically more difficult than full-time. For a full-time writer, the sheer fact of having to sit down and write every day makes doing it as normal as going to the loo. Motivation is also important. Full-time writers have no problem being motivated. No write, no eat. Simple enough. But as a part-time freelancer with a full-time paycheck, you have little to lose besides pride (doesn't that goeth before the fall?). Sometimes we need the motivation that real-world pressure provides -- whether a mortgage payment or an editor's deadline. Writing blocks apply a helpful jolt of pressure that feels familiar, especially to the procrastinator in us who often depends on outside pressure to finally get things done.
Benefit 3: Sharper focus. I used to watch college students make this mistake every day: "I'm going to the library to study for three hours!" Well intended, but few students knew how to break long study periods into effective blocks with specific, achievable goals for each block. The result was usually sadly predictable -- wasted time despite honest effort, ending in frustration and disappointment. But writing is like a construction project, and from foundation to rooftop we must constantly ask, "What comes next?" Writing blocks encourage focus on one thing at a time: an effective lead; a main character's back story; a bridge section between main points. If the specific goal is achieved in one block, great! If not, what the heck -- have another block on me.
Benefit 4: Required rest. How long you can sustain concentration and remain efficient is an individual call. But one truth applies: going beyond your productive limit eventually leads to frustration, which can become its own problem. I have found 45-minute to one-hour blocks to be the most comfortable work period for me. For you it could be more, could be less. The key is to be disciplined and to give up romantic notions of working furiously while in the breathless grip of inspiration, losing all sense of self and time, emerging with masterpiece in hand. On some days that may happen; when it does, feel blessed and know it was possible because you treated the other 364 days like a job, complete with coffee and chit-chat (why do you think God gave us email?) during breaks.
Benefit 5: Concrete goals. Vague dreams lack the juice to sustain us through the tough work that a writing project requires. "I want to be published!" Fine, but as a binding contract with yourself that's a little soft around the edges, exclamation point notwithstanding. Writing blocks are a series of concrete obligations reinforced by timers, beeps, up and down movements, specific goals for each block. All of these things help bind us to the ultimate writing contract: To write our best, to grow from the challenges we've set for ourselves, and to be proud that we're doing it -- not merely dreaming it.
Speed writing is a way of thinking as well as a way of composing. Most of all, it's a state of being when you sit in front of the computer. When sitting down to write, I am convinced the very worst thing we can do is to let our hands be idle. In other words, to headwrite: when fingers sit upon the keyboard awaiting the thoughts to form themselves into acceptable sentences in our head, then transcribing them onto the screen. Ding dong, that's wrong. At least for me.
During the process of creation, our mind and fingers should work as one to produce the rough shape of the artistic vision. Our goal should be to initiate a flowing stream of thought and expression, to connect word and thought in a simultaneous oneness.
But this isn't New Agey at all. Like a painter's brush, a keyboard is a tool for creating. Like a painter, we need a process that helps us immerse our deepest selves into that passionate moment of creation. Later, we can change colors (revise). Later, we can get out the smallest brush and, like a painter, work up close until the details are in sharp relief (edit/proof). But first comes creation. Speed writing is a way of inserting into your writing process a time when passionate creation can take place.
Speed writing works very much like freewriting, but you focus on getting from the beginning to the end of something: a paragraph, a section, an article, a chapter, perhaps an entire book. You set a time frame, you begin writing, then you do not stop until you come to the end of the entire thing you want to write: whether a sentence, or a novel. Yes, your novel will be reduced to six pages, your feature article will be nasty lump of clay, your screenplay absent most of its dialogue. But its flaws aren't the point. After a speed draft is done, you've got something you can either work with or throw away -- a choice you didn't have before. Other rules include:
Speed writing can be useful in just about every stage of the writing process: planning, drafting, revising -- any time you need to figure something out, whether it's a sentence or a book plan. But between the end of the material gathering stage and before the completion of the first draft, writers dwell in a place I call the "zero draft." That's when this technique can be important.
The fear of beginning a first draft is legitimate. Until it is complete, we have no way of knowing for sure that the right connections will be made and salient points brought out, or how many dead ends we'll hit and "do overs" we'll have to perform. The traditional answer to this dilemma is the outline, which can be helpful, especially in highly formatted articles. But outlines have the tendency to dissolve like toilet tissue in the rain once the real writing begins and each sentence must build on the one before it.
Another solution: the speed draft. During a speed-draft session, your goal is to get from the beginning of the entire piece to its end in a single block of timed writing. No matter what short cuts you must take -- summarize entire sections in a sentence, put in XXX's to substitute for blocks of narration or main points -- your goal is to get from beginning to end in some form without stopping.
Do this for an entire screenplay, and you've got your first stab at a treatment. Do it for an entire novel and you got your first stab at chapter summaries. Do it for an article, short story, scene or a book chapter, and you've got a first draft. Very rough, but very important. This speed draft serves three distinct purposes:
When I compose, my computer's screen has two windows open. In one large window is the actual piece in whatever form it happens to be at the time. The other window contains a "Speed Pad," which provides me a place to speed write. Any time I need to think about how to do something, instead of pausing to stare at the computer screen, I put the cursor on the Speed Pad and think by typing, whether to:
Think with writing; let writing become your way of thinking on the page or screen. Let it become your way of relating to the world. Your way of being. Don't let anything get between you and the words and the world you are exploring with them.
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