“Just get started.”
When I spoke with Jeff late last year as part of the research for a Problogger eBook called Blog Wise, this was his mantra. To be fair, he didn't make it sound easy. Jeff told me the way he gets things written is to trick himself into making a start.
It seemed curious to me. How exactly does a writer who doesn't love the actual process of writing “just get started”? How, specifically, do you get past that first hurdle? My research points to one answer:
Professional writers are constant writers.
What is constant writing?
Despite what you may be thinking, you don't need to quit your job, give up weekend sports, and chain yourself to a pencil to embrace constant writing.
In this case, “constant” doesn't even mean consistent. It's not about sitting down at your computer every morning at 7am and turning out 500 words of deathless prose. Constant writing is an ongoing process that lets the act of writing get under your skin and into your blood.
Constant writing is the easiest way to foster a writing addiction. To do it, you need to stop thinking of writing as “Writing” — an external, objective task. Instead, you need to start thinking of it as a natural part of you, an extension of who you are. Like thinking, breathing, and laughing.
How can you adopt that mindset? By writing something every day — ideally more often than once a day. But between text messages, tweets, scribbled notes, and emails, you're probably already doing that.
Now you need to go a step further, to use some of that writing time as your own time to reflect and express yourself in different, unprecedented ways.
To be clear, the point of constant writing is:
- Not to write blog posts.
- Not to journal or complete something.
- Not to focus on improving written expression, grammar skills, etc.
- Not to shut yourself away in a soundproof room and focus.
- Not to get too serious.
The point is simply to enjoy playing with words. Because if you enjoy words, you'll naturally want to get them out of the box and use them more often — in speech and in writing.
Once you begin to really enjoy expressing your thoughts through writing, the “just get started” challenge stops being such a hurdle. Suddenly, it's a means to an end — a necessary step in a rewarding process.
Once you're thinking like that, you're on track to becoming as prolific a writer as some of the best.
How does it work?
Constant writing starts with paying attention. It could be a text message or a tweet, an email to your boss, or a birthday card for a friend. Of all the things you write today, choose one — just one — and really focus on the words you're using.
Maybe in confirming that you'll meet a friend after work, you'd ordinarily text, “Sure, see you then.” Maybe today you'll try something different: an “Of course” or an “Excellent! I look forward to it,” or (my personal favorite) “Coolio.”
Attention to words also involves reading. Not necessarily books or blog posts, but the things you read every day: billboards, posters, headlines, signage, and even T-shirts (I just looked up in time to read a passing T-shirt as I wrote this sentence).
Think about the way those communicate ideas. What would you change? How else could you say that? Are there ambiguities in what's written? Where do they lead your imagination? Over the weekend I read this sentence in a New Scientist article:
Like many people, salt is a large part of my diet.
Visions of cannibalism swam before my eyes. I couldn't help it. Then, I thought of other ways to restate the message. But I didn't write anything down. Nonetheless, this is constant writing in action.
Through this practice, I've become obsessed with the way words combine to communicate. If there's scope for error, just imagine the innumerable possibilities for intentional clarity. It's fun.
Finally, constant writing involves listening. Overheard conversations, misheard snippets of speech and accents can reveal intriguing possibilities for language. They also allow us to learn from the ways others express themselves.
When you start thinking like this, the desire to play with the words snowballs. The impetus to stretch and bend language becomes irresistible. You'll be compelled to get a pen and notepad or pull out a word processor and play around.
At this point, you're writing just for the love of it. Not to necessarily achieve anything. You've officially got writing under your skin. It's in your blood now.
And the rest is your future
You can imagine where things go from here:
Now, you're the kind of person who writes down a word a colleague used in a meeting so you can look it up later.
You see a hand-written sign stuck to a shop window and mentally transfer in some other nouns.
You spend your commute drafting the opening lines of a never-to-be-finished story about a closet cannibal who's also a respected scientist.
You're a constant writer.
You no longer see getting started as a hurdle, except in terms of topic, perhaps. But that's easily solved with a little research or free time. The actual act — physical and psychological — of writing is now second nature to you.
Now you can just get started.
*Photo credit: Ben Sutherland (Creative Commons)