The most common question my little writer coach ears hear from clients and students is how to start writing (especially if you’re a beginner). People are scared to start writing.
Which, when I say it all direct and straight up like that, may sound a little snowflakish.
As in get over yourself, you dainty easily umbraged petulant person. It’s just words on a page.
If only the buck-up buttercup approach worked.
To be sure, it can–short-term but long-term? You’ll chafe your soul until it refuses to do much of anything except encouraging you to cram more and more heavily buttered popcorn into your piehole while watching Inventing Anna and mimic her terrible yet oddly compelling accent.
Could be fun but it’s not writing.
But wise and sage-like Jen, why is it so hard to start writing?
Because your resource-intensive gray matter–aka the 3 pounds of your brain–has zero interest in wasting calories on something that A) doesn’t keep it alive and B) doesn’t spread your genes.
(We could argue with your brain that writing can make you a lot of money that you could spend on food, and people could fall at your feet because you’re such a brilliant writer which could hypothetically spread your genes but your gray matter cares about now, not the future. Silly gray matter.)
Thus, grasshopper, you must learn to trick your brain to make it easier to get started writing.
How precisely do you do that? Oh, be still my writing coach’s heart while I reveal the secrets to the writing bliss. Or if not bliss, then getting started writing.
How To Start Writing Most Especially When You’re Scared to Start Writing
1. Nothing Can Eat You
✍️ Believe it or not, that pesky gray matter thinks writing can kill you. Like a tiger!
✍️ Put your hand on your heart, take in a full breath, pause, sip a tiny bit more, exhale out of your mouth with the rudest sound you can muster. Ahhh….
✍️ Remind yourself, “Nothing can eat me. I’m not in any danger if I tell this story, express this idea, fumble around with words for 15 minutes.”
✍️ For more about teaching your brain a new trick, listen to this.
2. Shrink time when you’re scared to start writing (or anytime)
✍️ Have you ever gone on a writing retreat and suddenly been like “holy moly, I’m supposed to write all day? But the longest I’ve written in the last year is a Facebook post.” Cue a long nap.
✍️ This is why I start my writing retreats, online and in-person, with shorter writing times, and gradually extend to build up your stamina. Genius!
✍️ Do the same for yourself. Start writing for 5 minutes. But here’s my magic trick: stop at the end of that 5 minutes time! That’s a hard stop friend.
✍️ This leaves creative desire in your tank. You can write 5 more minutes in a bit or tomorrow but not right/write away.
✍️ Work your way up to writing for longer periods of time if you want. You never have to if you don’t want to. You can write a book a half-hour a day. I have.
3. Forge a creative cave to make it easier to start writing
✍️ Your brain craves flow. Flow makes it easier to write and harder to be scared to start writing.
✍️ Flow is not a brain state you can create on deman but you can create conditions in which a flow state is more likely to unfold.
✍️ Multitasking is the #1 enemy of flow. That includes news alerts, incoming email dings, visual clutter (face a wall so you can’t see the clutter), noise (noise-canceling earphones are a writer’s best friend), and lots of beckoning open tabs.
✍️ Your phone has to be out of sight.
✍️ Shut it all down when you sit down to get started writing. Make it a ritual.
4. Delete shoulds and forever decisions
✍️ I just got off the phone with a writing client who was scared to start writing because she thought if she picked one genre, that was it for the rest of her natural born life. Where do we get these ideas? You can write in as many genres as you want but you have to pick one at a time.
✍️ I asked her to tell me “what’s fresh for you now?” (one of my favorite writing coaching questions) and we worked through the shoulds cluttering her brain, got to a fresh idea in about 3 minutes for a personal essay, and then we brainstormed what her hook would be. Pow.
5. Screw order
✍️ The way you learned to write in school likely makes you scared to start writing. It was all about focusing on the finishing product and getting a decent grade. You were supposed to sit down and churn out a reasonably cogent piece of writing.
✍️ With transitions! And logical order! And if you have a brain like mine, a logical order is hard as my daughter’s head (she’s a double Taurus, you get me?).
✍️ Instead start with a cluster map or a quick list of things you want to include or explore.
✍️ Then write in chunks with no transitions and don’t worry about the order of said chunks. Let it be messy and out of sequence.
6. Write all the way to the end even when you are scared to start writing
✍️ It is a terrible idea to get three messy paragraphs on the page and then go back and edit.
✍️ As hard as it is, keep going until you reach some kind of end.
✍️ Read what you wrote OUT LOUD while looking for your point.
✍️ Chuck Wendig says “Every story is you saying something… every story is you making a case for something…You’re trying to say that love is everything. Or love is hopeless. Or that nature will defeat man. Or man will defeat himself. Or bees will defeat bears. Or robots are fucking awesome. I DUNNO MAN, I’M NOT YOU. Have a point of view. Have a perspective.”
✍️ Find one point in what you wrote (I am repeating myself because nobody wants to do this part but it’s KEY).
✍️ You are allowed to have a say, a voice, an opinion without being an expert, having a tidy conclusion, or being free of self-doubt.
✍️ In fact, being the expert without self-doubt and having lots of tidy conclusions is basically being Dr. Oz and that would be very, very frightening and sad. And you’d have to eat a lot of green coffee beans. Ew.
7. Write what you want
✍️ Shoulds, smart ideas that you think will sell, writing the stories everybody else thinks you should write, writing in a genre you don’t read or respect… stop wasting your time.
✍️ Some writing teachers say “write what you want to read” and I like that but I also love to read fantasy and suck at world-building.
✍️ Thus wise Jen says, “write what you want to read and that’s a fit for you.”
✍️ You might like my conversation with Susan Shapiro, author of the Book Bible, on finding your genre.
8. Every writer is scared to start writing
✍️ When I talked to extremely-best-selling author Sue Monk Kidd, she said “…when I was writing The Secret Life of Bees, I was so stymied about the whole thing, how do I start? Where do I start? I would sit and stare at the computer and the tension builds up inside me. I’ve heard a lot of people say to me, ‘Oh, I must not be a writer, because I can’t sit there and think up things to put on the page’ and I always say, ‘sounds like you are a writer to me!’”
✍️ I’ve written 9 books and hundreds of thousands of words for other stuff, like this blog/newsletter, and every time I start, it’s as if I never wrote anything before.
✍️ Join our exclusive writer’s club and start writing whether you’re scared or don’t know what to say. Because we don’t either!
9. Don’t start at the beginning
✍️ Maybe the most important advice.
✍️ Write the end. Write the middle. Write 5 things out of order that you know might belong. Write the dialogue only. Write the trouble and what happens. Write the most juicy bit.
✍️ You can write the actual beginning later. Much later.
How To Start Writing for Beginners
But Jen, all of that sounds like I would have to first know I AM a writer and know what I want to write about but I don’t. I’m a total beginner.
No, you aren’t.
You’ve spent thousands of hours writing–school papers, emails, thank you notes (you write those don’t you?) texts, social media posts, grant or project proposals, and who knows what else.
1. Consider all the writing you have done in your life.
Whew! See, you are not a beginner.
You might be a beginner at writing for a particular reader in a particular genre or writing for a particular goal or outcome, or you might be a beginner writer when it comes to studying a certain aspect of the writing craft.
How fucking exciting. It reminds me of when I went to university at 17 and discovered foreign films (and cheap French wine but that’s another story.) A whole new world.
Be more excited at all that you are about to discover than where you think you should already be or know.
2. Love your beginner’s mind.
Then use all the ideas above.
3. Your Writing Won’t Look Like You Think it Should
Yes, some people write beautiful sentences and their first drafts come out polished and looking like Jennifer Garner’s teeth but for the rest of us mere mortals, our first efforts are more like Steve Buscemi’s choppers.
If you first allow something, anything, that interests you, that you are even vaguely curious about, to slither and plop and dribble and plonk onto the page, you can do anything with it.
If you judge what comes before it can even show its squashed little being, you will not only be scared to start writing, you will never start.
Remember my friend, everything you have ever read has been rewritten and edited, often dozens of times. Or more.
4. Now Go Forth and Write for 5 Minutes
And if you need more help, check out Let Your Writing Be Easier, a bountiful highly affordable audio collection of writing insights, practices, and pep talks. Get on-demand crackerjack good help for making starting writing and writing more regularly as pleasurable as watching Ryan Gosling do just about anything.