I saw this quote on Twitter recently: “Every first draft is perfect, because all a first draft has to do is exist.”
Those two sentences were like a wake-up call.
I stopped putting off the assignment I was working on. I logged off Twitter. And I started to write.
Taking the good with the bad
Writing is task of endless fluctuations. It changes based on our moods, how much sleep we got the night before, and how many cups of coffee we’ve guzzled down.
And sometimes, it seems to go really well—or really badly—for no reason at all. If you’re a writer, you know that for each day the words flow from your fingers perfectly formed, you’ll have two days where your ideas are like cement, unwilling to budge.
Days like these are beyond frustrating for writers. Pretty soon, internal voices start chiming in: It’s not that I don’t want to write. But today I just… can’t. Anything I get down is going to be so awful, there’s no point in even trying. Why did I want to be a writer again?
Embracing lousy first drafts
It’s easy to get mired in this negative self-talk. But the only way to break this cycle is to accept fluctuations as they come—and to realize that every writer has these days sometimes.
For me, there’s no one who’s captured the anguish of beginning to write better than Anne Lamott, author of several books including the writing primer Bird by Bird. She reassures writers that there’s no use a worrying about “shitty first drafts”:
Very few writers know what they’re doing until they’ve done it. Nor do they go about their business feeling dewy and thrilled. They do not type a few stiff warm-up sentences and then find themselves bounding like huskies across the snow. … We all often feel like we are pulling teeth, even those writers whose prose ends up being the most natural and fluid. … For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.
I know that hearing “it happens to everyone” doesn’t make the feeling any less agonizing. Chances are, though, the mental gymnastics that good writing requires—the act of parsing out a problem through words—is part of what attracted you to the craft in the first place. Sometimes, you just need a little extra push to get started.
Next time you’re stuck, try one of these techniques to get the words flowing.
Write on paper.
Whenever I feel taunted by the blinking cursor on a blank page, I turn to my trusty notepad. Somehow, pen-and-paper scribbles me feel like I’m committing less to a particular idea or arrangement of words. I tell myself I’m just brainstorming. Sometimes, I come up with garbage. But before long, the words I need usually appear.
Shake up the scenery.
When it comes to mental tasks, context is everything. If your regular writing space produces anxiety and frustration, picking up and moving from your desk could make all the difference.
Or take your work to a coffee shop. A 2012 study revealed that ambient noise can boost creativity. Plus, once you’ve shelled out for coffee and a Danish, fought your way to a table, and figured out how to use the Wi-Fi, there’s no way you can wimp out… right?
Use a mindmap.
If high school papers left you outline-averse, a mindmap can be a lifesaver for organizing your thoughts. It’s a great way to free-associate and make new connections between ideas that are unclear when they’re stuck in your brain. (Check out Daphne Gray-Grant’s blog for more on this process.)
Try the Pomodoro Technique.
This method is perfect if you often find yourself distracted. It’s based on the idea that we’re not meant to slave away writing for hours on end—instead, we’re at our best when we work in short bursts, free of interruption. Learn more about the technique here. All you need are a timer and teensy bit of willpower.
Take a break.
Have you ever noticed that your best ideas often come to you at the most random times, like when you’re taking a shower or crawling into bed? For better or for worse, our creative brains cooperate better when we’re relaxed. Physical tasks that don’t require much thought, like walking, jogging, or even simple chores like doing dishes, help the creative muscles “stretch” and make new connections.
The great thing about these brain cramp-busting strategies is that they work great together. (Mindmap at the coffee shop; step away from your computer and try the Pomodoro Technique while writing on paper.) They’re not guaranteed to make you write flawlessly—but they will help you unclog your ideas.
And who cares if your first attempt is kind of, well, shitty? That’s what drafts are for. Take a deep breath, get some ideas down, then come back and revise. It’ll come out okay in the end.