Category: Writing

Writing warm up: set or restate your work session goals

Warm-up routines and rituals are a great way to overcome inertia and ease into productive work. Natalie Houston suggests setting or revisiting goals by writing them down in an idea notebook as a way to kick-start the creative process:

I’ve found this to be a helpful way to get focused and in the right mental state for writing. Sometimes I just restate the key ideas for a project (“I am writing about X in order to show Y”); sometimes I set a specific goal for that morning’s work (“Today I want to figure out . . .”).

See the original article, Why I Keep an Idea Notebook.

Words to lose: utilize

utilize |ˈyoōtlˌīz|

verb [ trans. ]
make practical and effective use of : vitamin C helps your body utilize the iron present in your diet.

To improve your writing, strike the verb “utilize” from your vocabulary. If it were a person, it would be a self-important snob, a loud-mouth schnook. Instead, try “use.” It’s unobtrusive. It doesn’t call unnecessary attention to itself, it doesn’t distract your reader from your ideas and most importantly, it gets the job done.

On Original Details and the Truth of Experience

In a 2008 New York Times Measure by Measure column, Rosanne Cash writes about the power of original details in writing, and about writing as work and as discovery:

Facts are not necessarily the best indicators of the deepest human experience. The table where you found the suicide note, the cup of coffee that turned cold because you were distracted in a painful reverie staring out the old wavy–glass window at the rain dripping off the eaves, the seashell left in the coat pocket from the last time you were at that favorite spot at the ocean, when it all came clear that you were at the right place with the wrong man, the letters, the photos, the marbles and jewels—all these physical, material, real-world artifacts carry poetic weight and should be used liberally in songwriting. These are the facts that convey truth to me.

The exact words he said, who was right or wrong, whether he relapsed on the 7th or the 10th, why exactly she does what she does, the depth and weight and timbre of the feelings, whether Love Heals Everything — these aren’t facts, these are ever-changing blobs of emotional mercury…it can be much more powerful and resonant to write about the shards of the coffee cup than about the feeling that caused him to throw it across the room.

Cash says that as a writer, you must suspend your certainties to find out what’s really true. That takes work:

Real artistic accomplishment requires a suspension of certitude. E.L. Doctorow said that “writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go.” He may not have been referring specifically to songwriting, but it applies. Great songwriting is not a poor man’s poetry, or a distant cousin to “real” writing. It requires the same discipline and craft. Bright flashes of inspiration can initiate it, but it cannot be completed that way.

Original details are the “facts” in great writing that create meaning:

But in the space where truth and fact diverge, a larger question arises: if the facts don’t lead us to meaning, what does? Perhaps a willingness to live with questions, not answers, and the confidence to ascribe meaning where we find it, with our own instincts as guide.

Steven Pressfield and Paul Graham on writing

From Steven Pressfield on how to get started:

Start before you’re ready

Have you ever asked a friend who’s an artist or entrepreneur how they’re doing on a project you know they’re psyched about? Sometimes you get the answer, “I’m getting ready to start on it.”

“I’m working up the outline.” “I’ve almost got the business plan.” “I’ve got a little more research to do.”

When Resistance hears phrases like that, it can hardly contain its glee. Resistance knows that the longer we noodle around “getting ready,” the more time and opportunity we’ll have to sabotage ourselves. Resistance loves it when we hesitate, when we over-prepare.

The answer: plunge in

Short on ideas? Don’t know what to write about? Paul Graham says the ideas will come, you just have to start writing. From Writing, Briefly:

Write a bad version 1 as fast as you can; rewrite it over and over; cut out everything unnecessary; write in a conversational tone; develop a nose for bad writing, so you can see and fix it in yours; imitate writers you like; if you can’t get started, tell someone what you plan to write about, then write down what you said; expect 80% of the ideas in an essay to happen after you start writing it, and 50% of those you start with to be wrong; be confident enough to cut; have friends you trust read your stuff and tell you which bits are confusing or drag; don’t (always) make detailed outlines; mull ideas over for a few days before writing; carry a small notebook or scrap paper with you;