I tend to write in a "spiral," not linearly. I think that is a big secret to my approach to writing, and one that was not explicitly taught to me. The common approach for teaching creative writing is to "just write." To spew out your thoughts unedited so you can get them down and then refine them later. That is a good way to get past "writer's block." But I don't think it goes far enough in helping, because it implies that "just writing" is still done the way most people think writing is done - in a linear fashion. And that is what causes true writer's block. It implies knowing where you're starting, what you're going to say and where you're going to end before you even know what the hell you're going to write about in the first place.
Sometimes I can sit down and write out a long rant in one pass. [Hint: If I ever use the word "screed" in something, that is probably how it was written.] But often I start with a shell, a shadow of an idea, and will fill it in and figure it out as I go. For that type of writing a direct, straight line is never the right way to approach it. Instead I "spiral" in on the idea. I may write a bit of the beginning, then suddenly know what I am going to say at the end, after which something I want to say in the middle shows up. Thinking of a (usually cute or ironic) title helps (see above). And I rearrange during the whole process incessantly, which is not the same as "editing" in the sense of "critically thinking about it, correcting and excising." I page up and down furiously, transferring text, filling in a sentence, then that changes something I want to say later and I race back down to capture that. Over and over and over again, until something in me says, "Finished."
Earlier tonight I wrote the following screed (see hint, above) to help a fellow student who was having trouble getting started with a term paper for class. It describes my approach to writing about as well as anything, so I thought I would capture my process here (since it gives me a blog post - I am a big believer in recycling). My advice:
I would concur that just starting to write (while turning off the internal editor until you're finished) is best. But that can be hard to do. Here are some practical tips I've evolved over the years and used in the current assignment:As a follow up I would add that for me the first pass at editing at the end is removing 95% of all the commas.
- Create your new Word doc. Title it, put your name on it, get the headers and footers set up for page numbers, font size and line spacing for the paragraphs, etc. There! One thing done! Only 99 left to go. :)
- Lay out a few section headers titled for where you think you may be headed. NOTE: These are not permanent! They are just way stations and placeholders.
- As thoughts come to you - from one word that reminds you of something you want to cover later to a whole paragraph of inspiration, WRITE IT IN THE DOC, AS QUICK AS YOU CAN TYPE IT, in the "appropriate" section.
- Ctrl-X (cut) and Ctrl-V (paste) are your friends, as are Page Up and Page Down. I write something quickly, then realize five minutes later it belongs with something two pages up, so I cut and paste it right then. BUT I STILL DON'T EDIT, not yet. This is just "organizing" and watching my thoughts coalesce.
- Be open to the possibility that halfway through the paper your focus will change - that something is suddenly going to jump out at you as a "theme" you didn't even know existed when you started. This happened to me in this very paper, in fact. I was going in one direction and ended up in a completely different place, and threw away about a third of what I wrote on the way. THIS IS A GOOD THING, not to be seen as a "loss" of that work. It means when you find that theme you will suddenly have the bursts of inspiration, because now you know what you're going to say, where you're going.
- Wander in front of your bookshelf a few times, looking at other books you've read in the past that may have something to bear on the topic at hand. Pull 'em out. If you have dog-eared pages or highlighted sections, glance through them. Do they have something relevant to say? If so, use it. If not, don't. Let the "past you" who thought certain theological points important enough to remember help the "current you" by pointing them out via those highlights. Gee, you just experienced time travel! Pat the "past you" on the back and say, "Thanks, pal! I owe you one!" :)
- Lather, rinse, repeat.
- DON'T WORRY ABOUT POLISHING UNTIL YOU ARE 75% FINISHED. Then, start getting a bit more serious about editing. Continue to cut and paste stuff around to make it "flow" better. This process will actually help you refine your points and you'll come up with still more to say, hopefully.
Anyway, this process works for me, and has for a couple of decades now. It was only in the past five years or so that I actually started to recognize it as my "process" and appreciate it and let it work for me, as opposed to trying to write "the right way." It helps.
So...How do you write? Do you have any "tricks" that help you get "unstuck?"