There’s a reason so many of us procrastinate with our writing projects: it’s hard work. Particularly when writing the first draft, it’s easy to get stuck in a perfectionist mindset, to listen to that mean little voice in your head that says “you really suck at this.” This internal critic can slow your writing to a snail’s pace and nip your best ideas in the bud. Writing a faster first draft means ignoring your internal editor (for the time being) and putting words on the page. Here are five strategies that have helped me do just that.
Research more efficiently.
Beyond simply improving your time management, consider tools designed to make research and note-taking better. There are an overwhelming number of browser extensions, programs, search engines, and databases designed for researchers, so I take a minimalist approach. If 5% percent of the tools will give me 90% of the benefits, the choice is easy. I’m happy to sacrifice that 10% improvement for the simplicity of using 95% fewer tools. Put another way, if a tool doesn’t make me wonder how I ever lived without it… pass.
Of course, the tools I find helpful might feel useless to you. But if you think your research process could use a boost, check out Zotero, ZoteroBib, and Evernote. I’d wager that leveraging just one of those three (free) programs will help you to research more efficiently.
It doesn’t matter where you start—just start somewhere.
The first sentence you read in this blog wasn’t the first one I wrote. There is no wrong place to start an article, or even a paragraph—or even a sentence. Just start writing and worry about minor considerations like order later. Many successful writers have said some variation of “Worry about perfection later; you can’t fix a blank page.”
A perfectionist mindset is the leading cause of death among first drafts. So instead of getting stuck trying to come up with the best headline ever written, write a mediocre placeholder and come back to it later. As Ernest Hemingway reportedly put it, “The first draft of anything is shit.” The important thing with first drafts is to keep moving.
Take a break at least every 25 minutes.
It’s called the Pomodoro Technique. All you need is a wind-up timer and an article to write. Put away your phone, close your email, and set the timer to 20 or 25 minutes. Give your full concentration to your writing until the timer rings. Then take a little break: grab a cup of coffee, walk for a couple minutes, meditate, whatever. Just don’t think about what you’re writing.
After a few minutes of intentional distraction, set the timer again and repeat. After you’ve done four Pomodoro sessions, take a 20-30 minute break. This might seem a little counter-intuitive; can a 20 minute break really be productive? For most people who try the Pomodoro Technique (myself included), the answer is absolutely. Those breaks free your brain to get much more out of the hyper-focused sessions of uninterrupted work.
So next time you’re feeling like you just can’t concentrate on the task at hand, drop it and take a short break. Then come back, set a timer, and get to work. And if giving up Facebook for a few hours feels impossible, consider adding the browser extension StayFocused and activating “the nuclear option.”
When you get stuck, free-write.
Most writers experience frequent writer’s block. You sit down, open a fresh document… and the words refuse to come out. You don’t know what to say or how to say it. The muse is silent. You start to question the topic itself and the very premise of you as a writer.
My solution is to free-write. Sometimes that’s with pen and paper. Sometimes I open a fresh document in Draft and switch on “Hemingway Mode,” which disables backspacing. But it really doesn’t matter. Sit down. Take a breath. Write.
No matter how “at a loss” you feel, you can always free-write. Sometimes you end up with a vomit draft, a very rough first draft where facts and ideas are spewed across the page with little coherent structure. It’s a lot better than a blank page.
Sometimes you end up with ten paragraphs about how much you loathe the topic, the weather, the noise outside, society… followed by that one golden nugget that you were searching for. It’s a breakthrough.
And sometimes, you free-write a page or two and still come up with nothing.
Frame the problem in a different way.
If you’re anything like me, you often forget what you’re writing about. More importantly, you forget why your audience should care. When I feel this happening, I turn to my list of quotes and thought-starters to get me thinking about my subject in a different way. I’ll leave you with some of my favorites:
- Play “angel’s advocate” and revisit bad ideas. What did you like about it? What made you think of it? (Hey Whipple, Squeeze This)
- How would you explain it to your best friend?
- “Write the truest sentence that you know.” (Ernest Hemingway)
- What is the core problem you are addressing?
- “We all have in our conscious and unconscious minds a great vocabulary of images, and I think all human communication is based on these images as are our dreams; and a symbol in a play has only one legitimate purpose which is to say a thing more directly and simply and beautifully than it could be said in words.” (Tennessee Williams)
- Say more with less.
- How are you keeping them interested?
- “A story isn’t what happens. It’s how what happens affects the protagonist.” (Lisa Cron)
- Rethink it as a children’s story.
- Trim your idea down to one breath.
- Who is the hero?
- “You want to write a sentence as clean as a bone. That is the goal.” (James Baldwin)
About Trevor Stauffer
Trevor unites a passion for clarity with a love of beauty in his approach to writing. His academic mastery of great writers gave him a strong foundation in classical writing skills, and his time teaching English in Spain taught him to strip language down to a basic, universal essence. For Trevor, writing isn’t just about communicating well – it’s about communicating beautifully.