Beginners Guide to Writing
People come to me all the time with a desire to improve their writing. They know writing skills are a solid foundation for success. Efficient written communication is always a bonus no matter your profession. Get better at writing and gain clearer thoughts. Get real good at writing and persuade others with ease. With better writing skills, you can pen better emails, write an enticing resume, produce convincing business plans or proposals. Heck! With a little bit of training, you can start a blog, write articles, distribute white papers, publish a book…
Most of them know all of this but they haven’t started yet. There’s something daunting about writing. A resistance to overcome. But I promise it’s worth it. And once you build momentum, it gets easier.
Your first priority is to start. Forget everything else for now. Forget about defining a topic. Stop your research. Do not spare a thought for publishing. Ignore your inner judge. There’s just one thing that matters: you open the first text editor coming to mind and type one word after an other. Don’t stop to think. Don’t touch the delete key. Type.
Beat the Resistance
Total beginners must learn to beat the resistance. The resistance would rather have you shut up and not put ideas on the page. According to the resistance, it is safer to not formulate your ideas. “What if my ideas are terrible?”, says the resistance. So the resistance throws up obstacles and distractions. That’s why you never feel like moving past the research phase or keep tinkering with your tools.
No research is better than never-ending research. There are enough articles, videos and books out there to research any topic forever. The fear of not knowing enough never goes away. We continue to research long past the point where we know enough to start writing. You’ll never get anything written if you don’t break out of that mindset.
No Tinkering with Tools
Another well-documented way of not writing is to get stuck on tools. You don’t need a distraction-free writing text editor or a fancy Moleskine notebook. Nor do you need to figure out which blogging software is best or which premium website design to buy. Writing workflows and tools are full of intricate details that you can get stuck on. There’s a whole advice industry living off your confusion. These details don’t matter to beginners. Write.
If you need more encouragement to start, renowned podcaster and productivity expert, Merlin Mann has more advice. He presents his insights about starting to write in a 28-minute NSFW talk featured in Bullseye.
Once you have finished your first draft, set it aside for at least a few hours before reading it. Promise yourself not to get discouraged. You’ll realize that first drafts are most often terrible, as Anne Lamott points out in “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life”. Her book contains nuggets of wisdom for all writers.
When you come back to your first draft, resist the temptation to delete it. All drafts can be redeemed by editing. It won’t always make it good to publish or be worth the time… while you’re building up your expertise, you should give it your best anyway.
Editing is a different skill set than writing. It is taxing in a different way: you have to read the text over and over each time looking for different things. If you can’t hire an editor or make a deal with a friend to trade services, you’ll have to edit yourself. It isn’t ideal but possible. Copyblogger has a very good guide to editing your own work in five steps. You should take some distance with the text and with yourself. Trim it and trim it some more. Look at the style and the form. Read it aloud. For more details on what to look for and what to do, you can refer to this complete self-editing checklist.
For web writing, there are a few more things you should always do:
- Test your links in “Preview” mode.
- Illustrate your posts and credit your images.
- Add five to seven tags.
- Craft an excerpt if your blogging tool can manage them.
Send, Publish, Ship
Now, you’re all set! Ready to let go of your work and send it off into the world? The “publish” or “send” buttons can be the hardest buttons to push. Seth Godin, entrepreneur and author, calls this the fear of shipping. Exposing yourself to criticism is always hard. Yet, you have to ship because as he writes:
It’s not clear you have much choice, though. A life spent curled in a ball, hiding in the corner might seem less risky, but in fact it’s certain to lead to ennui and eventually failure.
Click the button. It’s going to be relieving. I promise!
Now, you’ve written, edited and published at least once. What’s been done can be repeated. It is a state of mind that you have to reach each day anew. You can make the process easier by training yourself to write in a specific position, place and at a specific time of day.
Mornings are popular among writers of all kind. To start your process, you may commit to Morning Pages. They are three leaflets that you should fill with stream of consciousness prose. You don’t even have to make full sentences. Total freedom. Julia Cameron, US teacher and writer, suggests making it a daily practice in her “Artist’s Way”. After you’re done, you’ll be able to work on other assignments with more ease.
As for the place where you write, experiment with different ones. You can write anywhere that suits you best, everyone has their own preferences. In this post about the best places to write, Joe Pawlikowski says he gets the best results in hotels and libraries. I find libraries to be dangerous places to write: whenever I get frustrated by my writing, I jump to the comics section and there’s no turning back. So, yes, your mileage may vary.
The trick to getting good at beating the resistance and ship, is to do it often. It’s never trivial to sit down and write or push the “publish” button. Once you’ve done this enough times, you can work towards better tools and smarter strategies.
Changelog: This guide first appeared as “How to Establish a Writing Habit” on Paper.li’s blog, it was originally published on June 20, 2012. Republished here with permission on January 07, 2016. The guide was reworked and updated February 1, 2019.
Image credit: Detail from Saint Paul Writing His Epistles, Valentin de Boulogne, 1618/1620.