HOW TO WRITE

A little-bit of hard-won wisdom I’ve managed to borrow* over the years.

The first thing to know is that many people confuse the act of writing with a different activity, one that is actually a mish-mash of three very different things: research, writing, and editing. If you have trouble writing, it may be because you’re trying to do all three things at the same time. You can’t. Give that up. Instead, do only one at a time.

Because this note is called HOW TO WRITE, I won’t talk about research, and I will say very little about editing. I am only going to tell you HOW TO WRITE. So, forthwith…

WHAT YOU NEED

  • You will need some EQUIPMENT.
  • You will need to know THE PROCESS.
  • You will need to know THE RULE.
  • Then you will need to START.

THE EQUIPMENT.

You will need a 20-minute timer and writing implements. The implements can be a word processor, a pen and paper, whatever.

Pro tip: equipment to avoid: an internet connection.

THE PROCESS.

When you have secured your equipment, use this process.
1. Find a place where you can sit without interruption for 20 minutes.
2. Set your timer for 20 minutes.
3. Start writing. Do not stop writing until the timer is done.

That’s all there is to it.

THE RULE.

Perhaps you didn’t notice, but I did something sneaky up there when I shared THE PROCESS. I snuck in THE RULE. THE RULE, in case you missed it, is this: DO NOT STOP WRITING UNTIL THE TIMER IS DONE. This may seem hard at first. You may run out of things to say. You may not know how to start. But these are not actually problems. Just write, “I have nothing to say.” Write that over and over until you get so bored with yourself that you are motivated to write something else. Then perhaps you will write, “I don’t know what to write about.” Write that for a while. Then maybe you will find yourself answering yourself with something like, “You said you were going to write a blog post about why we are now in a Post-Lean Startup Universe.” And then, “Let me tell you why we are now in a Post-Lean Startup Universe.”

If you can see where this is headed, great. If not, let me spell it out for you: as long as your hands are moving, your brain will eventually start to engage with a topic, and before you know it you will have filled pages and pages and pages with words.

When I say, “DO NOT STOP WRITING UNTIL THE TIMER IS DONE,” I mean it. Do not go back and correct your work—don’t even fix typos. (That’s editing. It’s not writing.) Do not go searching the internet for that quote you want to use. (That’s research, not writing.) You are just going to have to write something like, “And then Albert Einstein said to what’s-his-name that thing he said that I wanted to quote but will look up later.” And you keep going. Because you’re writing now. You’ll do your research and editing later.

THE IMPLIED COROLLARY TO THE RULE

I didn’t tell you I would include this, but it’s important so I’m going to throw this in for free: if you follow THE RULE, then you will write successfully. To write successfully is to put words on a page or into a text file. Writing successfully is not the same thing as writing well. To write well, you have to go back and do that other thing: editing.

THE ONLY THING I’LL SAY ABOUT EDITING

I said I wouldn’t say much about editing, but I will say this one thing: when you are editing, you are a deadly samurai warrior. You slash writing to bits until only the good and pure and worthy words are left. But when you are writing, you are not a samurai. You are a waterfall or some shit and your job is just to let those words flow and flow even if the good ones are all tumbled up and white-watered with the ones that are rotten and filthy and polluted. Just remember that you can’t write and edit at the same time. Why? Because you can’t be a samurai and a waterfall at the same time because that shit makes no sense at all. First write. Then edit. Then repeat.

IN SUMMARY, HERE’S HOW TO WRITE

1. Find a place where you can sit without interruption for 20 minutes.
2. Set your timer for 20 minutes.
3. Start writing. Do not stop writing until the timer is done.

NOW, START.

Post-script to acknowledge my teachers: I first learned about these ideas from Suzanne McConnell, who was my first writing professor at Hunter College. The timed writing exercises in her class were a revelation to me. She will not remember my work, but her class turned the course of my life around. I think it was for that class that I was first read Natalie Goldberg’s “Writing Down The Bones” which describes this method in detail. I have shamelessly stolen the image of editor-as-samurai from her. I owe both women many thanks.