What writing is really like

Editor’s note: This post was originally published on my previous blog, The Existential Grammarian, in July 2012. 

If you meet someone who prattles on about how his or her latest New York Times bestseller just solidified out of thin air, politely excuse yourself and run.

I can almost guarantee this person is not a writer because writing is not that effortless. He or she has probably never put letters together other than to say “OMG, LOL!”

There’s a faint chance this person is telling the truth and is insanely talented, but if you’re nurturing any aspirations of writing, you should probably still dash to the nearest exit. Anything this person tells you will only discourage you.

For those of us who didn’t pen our first novel at age 3, here’s what writing is really like:

Sit down at your computer and type your first sentence.

Erase it.

Type the exact same sentence again and realize it looks just as stupid as the first time you wrote it.

Erase it.

Close your eyes and try to imagine what the idea will look like as words on the page. Lean back in your chair or pick up a tennis ball and bounce it against the wall — thump, thump, thump.

Repeat until someone, probably your editor or your conscience, tells you to quit loafing or thumping or whatever nonsense you’re doing and get to work.

Open your thesaurus. Look up the lame word you were going to use in your first sentence and find a word that sounds much sexier.

Go to a dictionary and look up the much sexier word to make sure it really means what you think it means. There’s nothing more embarrassing than using the word “troll” instead of “search” only to later learn that “troll” has a much more sinister meaning than you thought it did.

Now, quit fiddling around and write.

Write even though you’re convinced what’s coming out on the page is trash. Write even though that voice in your head is saying you’d be better suited in a factory, shoving dead salmon head-first into a can.

You’ll probably hear another voice — mine sounds like a prune-faced English teacher — asking you if that’s the right way to spell “turnip” or whatever.

This is your inner editor. He will do you some good later, but right now, you need to let your mind work with as little interference as possible. Tell your inner editor to go play solitaire or watch the Braves game  — anything to get him out of the way for a while.

Write until you have enough words on the page. A couple paragraphs will do. Savor the  satisfaction that you have something to show for all that inner turmoil, then steal away for a few minutes to think about something else, preferably something stupid.

This really does work, so don’t feel guilty. It’s called constructive goofing. You’re distracting your conscious mind so your subconscious has some room to work.

You’ll be standing there, thinking your utterly useless thoughts, and, bam — the answer will hit you like a delivery truck. You’ll know what word to use in that second sentence or how to make that transition. Now, finally, you’re on your way.

Never underestimate the power of the subconscious. That should be the second rule of writing for a living, right after the first rule: “Write, darn it, write.”

Go back to your computer with renewed purpose and focus and type like a demon.  If you feel yourself losing your way, step away again for five minutes and think some useless thoughts.

Once you’ve finished your first draft, bring your inner editor out of the utility closet you stuffed him into earlier. Let him loose on the page as you polish your writing to a sheen.

Now, turn it in to your editor or push the “publish” button on your blog or do whatever you do to put your writing in front of an audience. This stage comes with much fear and trembling. Don’t worry. This is normal.

Congratulations: you’re a writer. Maybe you’re not a great writer or even a good one, but you’ve done the hard work of putting words on a page, which is a lot more than a lot of other would-be writers have ever done.

If you get discouraged, don’t give up. Instead, refer to the third rule of writing: keep writing.

Jot that rule down on sticky notes and post them everywhere — on your computer, in your refrigerator, on your spouse’s forehead — just to remind yourself when you feel like quitting.

I promise, it get easier. All it takes is doing and the determination to keep doing it.

It’s as hard, and as simple, as that.



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