How to Begin?

pieces of puzzle

Getting started on a writing project, according to my anecdotal research, is the hardest step to take.

How do we get all the pieces to the writing jigsaw puzzle to coalesce into a masterpiece?

There are almost as many techniques as there are writers, but there are a few main approaches that center around how best to organize the material.

Knowing the purpose and audience makes organizing things much easier, but we still have to take that first step, write that first sentence.

There seem to be two camps of action: the “seat of my pants” scribes and the uber organization writers.

Just Write

Some people have to get the words out of their heads. For them, just plunging in is the best method to start.  Don’t worry about mistakes, transitions, or even clumping information logically.

This reminds me of when I took swimming lessons as a child. There was no slow progress into the cold pool. We just jumped in, making sure to get our heads underwater. After the initial shock, our bodies were accustomed to the temperature, and it was easier to concentrate on swimming.

This method requires vigorous revision, though. The writer must go back and clean up the content to make sure the reader can follow. (Most effective writing is not Finnegan’s Wake.)

Organize, Organize, Organize

Some writers are compelled to have everything laid out nice and neat before they type a single word.

This always reminds me of going on vacation with Clipboard People. They always have every minute scheduled and no time for just lounging around or winging it for an adventure.

While this approach can save a lot of time in revision, the danger is spending so much time organizing that you never get started.

Take a Pinch of This, a Pinch of That

I find the best approach to be a hybrid. Have a basic idea of where to place the pieces, then dive in.

I have a friend who will sit and stare out into space for a while, then start writing. She organizes the material in her head before she composes anything.

Many experienced writers will do this. They look like they’re goofing off, but they are processing things. Even jotting down a few phrases in a rough outline helps give a writer a path to follow.

Whichever approach you take, never forget that you need to take the time to revise. There is no “first time is always right” shortcut in writing.

Finding the most comfortable method to begin makes a writer’s life so much easier.

The Distractions of Organizing

mark-twain-at-desk
Somewhere, someone has designated today National Clean Off Your Desk Day.

This is according to checkiday. Personally, I could use a month (or two… or three).

It’s a good idea to clear the decks periodically. Unfortunately, when I do this, I usually end up revisiting stuff I’ve put aside for “later consideration.”

This is not a new characteristic for me. When tasked with cleaning my room as a child, I usually ended up finding a beloved book under my bed that I just had to reread – right then. This meant that tidying my room usually took all day (if I was lucky).

When I clean my desk of paper or electronic files, I still get distracted. There’s that scrap of paper with an idea for a new blog post! There’s the notebook with scribbles for a Christmas story! There’s an old newspaper clipping about September 11, 2001. There’s the project file for a graduate class.

This isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes I trip across just the right item I’ve forgotten about that proves useful right then.

Cleaning my desk – getting rid of things I don’t need any more and properly filing the things I do – saves me time in the long run. I don’t end up plowing through debris to find what I need when I need it.  On the other hand, a bit of chaos is the spice of life.

When I worked for a newspaper, we used to joke that that my desk was a transfer station and the senior news editor’s desk was the landfill (which I inherited when I took the post). I just can’t have a clean, neat desk. It’s just not in me.

But I am determined to decrease the piles substantially. Now all I have to do is to steel myself against all those temptations!

Happy Smile Power Day!

You know me. I’m interested in anything that will make my life easier, especially if it helps keep me organized. So, when I started reading all these posts in the blogosphere about the benefits of having a blog calendar, I said, “Great! Let’s do it.”

CalendarEveryone raves about how a blog calendar will make things easier, faster, more organized, and more cohesive.

“Okay, I’m all for it. How do I do this?”

Having a blog calendar is essential, they said. You can’t have a successful blog without one, they said.

What they didn’t say was how to create one. I realize that might be because a blog calendar is an individual thing. Some might prefer a paper version over an electronic one; some a grid calendar over a list.

So, I started out with a traditional, paper monthly calendar. There I was with dogs and cats in cute poses peeking out at me as I plotted what blog I wanted to write when. I took the notebook and mound of paper scraps where my scribbled ideas were living, rolled up my sleeves, and dived in.

The grid calendar was useful for seeing upcoming holidays and ticking off blog milestones (I’m coming up on my 100th post!), but it was a little clunky for me. So, I wrote out a list with post dates and put corresponding ideas next to the dates.

This was a better visual for me, but I had two problems: I have a really hard time reading my own handwriting, and I couldn’t easily move topics around to group them better.

So, my next step was to take what I had written and make it electronic. I now have this Blog Calendar Form in Word that allows me to easily move topics around since we all know that things will pop up to disrupt our best laid plans. Feel free to use the form for your blog or posting schedule (or whatever else you might cleverly adapt it for).

So now I can plan for Smile Power Day, National Lobster Day, National Dairy Month, or whatever!

A Frustrating Phrase to Focus On

It dependsWe all knew what was coming. Most of the students groaned internally, some even audibly.

With a twinkle in his eye, Professor Phil Doughty answered the question with his favorite phrase: “It depends.”

That response is as frustrating now as it was when I was a graduate student at Syracuse University more than a decade ago. It’s frustrating, but it is also wise.

A lot of people approach problems in a binary sort of way — is it this, or is it that? Unfortunately, life isn’t that tidy, which is where “it depends” comes in. We have to consider lots of factors when we approach a problem and consider solutions.

Writers need to consider many variables when we face our screens (or pages).

“Wait! I’m not solving a problem when I write.”

We actually do solve problems – we provide information to meet the needs of others. Every writer does, even fiction writers. (The problem: how do I escape from my hum drum life for a while?)

So, how do we take “it depends” and convert it into something useful? Here are the things we need to look at when we write:

  • Desired outcome(s) – We always have to keep in mind what we’d like to see come from what we’re doing. Keep a picture in your head of what the outcome will be like. Will the reader buy the product, become a loyal follower, successfully complete a training module, or buy our novel?
  • Reader needs – What does the reader need to reach the outcome? Where does the reader stand and what do we need to provide to successfully get her to the desired outcome?
  • Other stakeholder needs – Let’s face it; most of us are writing for someone else: a client, a boss, a publisher. When we look at outcomes, we also have to look at what these stakeholders require. Do they need to increase sales by five percent over a year? Do they need 100 percent of their employees to successfully complete training? Do they need a blockbuster fantasy novel to boost their sales? Do they need 100,000 blog followers to promote their products or services?
  • Tools and methods – Once we know what we must achieve and what our readers and stakeholders need to get there, we have to match up the correct tools and methods. Web writing or long writing? Bullet lists or paragraphs? Chapters or hyperlinks?

Yeah, yeah. I know this sounds like a lot of work. Why can’t we just sit down and write? Well, we could do that, but our writing probably won’t be as effective; it won’t get us to where we need to be as successfully.

Will doing all this front end work make us better writers? It depends…

How to Have Great Intercourse–Writing

Good writing is like good lovemaking. When you concentrate on your partner’s needs, you both experience more pleasure.

Writers often forget this reciprocal relationship. Many don’t take the time to501-Troilus-and-Criseyde-III-the-kiss-picture-and-frame-wallpaper-q75-267x200 construct their ideas in a way that meets the needs of the reader. They either don’t know how, or they don’t want to.

Wait, what were those words? “Time,” “reader”? Good writers, like good lovers, discover what “turns on” their audience. They match the ideas they need to express with the interests and concerns of the reader. The result is a perfect communication connection.

Somewhere along the way, someone decided it was of utmost importance for children to express what they were feeling through their writing. Things like grammar, spelling, or word use (not to mention organization) were just shackles for the “creative spirit.”

The result is a whole bunch of sender-centric writers. It’s “me, me, me – this is what I want to tell you. I can’t help it if you’re too stupid to figure it out.”

These writers don’t understand that grammar and organization are the structure of writing, the Kama Sutra of the writing world, as it were. They are selfish writers forgetting that, if no one can understand what they are saying, their message fails.

In good writing, the idea is supreme. The reader loses herself in the idea and is unencumbered by the mechanics of the writing. This is like making love where the mutual emotion of pleasure transcends the lovers’ actions.

Here are some things to keep in mind for successful communication:

  • Never forget it takes at least two to communicate.
  • Proper grammar and punctuation are subtle triggers that move the reader toward ideas.
  • Organization is the structure supporting the communication process.
  • Don’t rush the writing process or there will be incomplete communication.
  • The harder the writer works to make things easy for the reader, the more satisfied both will end up.

Selfish writers, like selfish lovers, are concerned only for themselves. They write in a way that may give them release, but makes their readers work too hard to get a hold on their meaning. They leave their audience unsatisfied and frustrated.

Good writers, like good lovers, keep their readers’ needs in mind while working to share their ideas. They delight in the pleasure successful communication gives.