“I hate writing.” It’s a line that you hear a lot when you work in content. And believe me, there are moments I’ve felt the same way. Only the answer is always to write more, and not less.
After all, I’m not a huge fan of death or taxes either — yet they, like writing, are virtually unavoidable. And of the three, writing is far more fun.
Chances are that you have a writing task on your desk right now, nagging at you: it could be as simple as a loving birthday card to a pal, a CV cover letter or a long-overdue blog post.
As Agent Smith noted ominously to Neo in the Matrix, it’s a sound that won’t go away: “Hear that, Mr Anderson? That’s the sound of inevitability.”
So here are some quick hacks to get you out of your writer’s rut and back into business again. May there be a virtual cacophony of clicks as a result.
1. Don’t Skip Round Two
Even for seasoned writers, the curse of the blank white page gives you two distinct choices. You can either sit under a tree like the Romantic poet of yore, seeking that next lightning bolt of inspiration — or you can just get started. Clearly you should choose the latter: and imperfect though it may be, the sooner you make that start, the better.
One of the main reasons for haste is to allow you the time to edit afterwards. As with any activity, our brain typically gets up to writing speed a few paragraphs into a task, before you get that sudden hint of recognition (hey, there it is again) as you leap from that starter-wheels near-illiterate state, up to your best writer form again — sometimes in the space of a paragraph. As the momentum gathers and your voice returns, the feeling is thrilling.
Just don’t get carried away with all those thrills. When you are finished, re-read it carefully. If you involuntarily groan at the notion of rechecking your own writing, then I know why you’re not the writer you want to be. None of us, not even the most accomplished of writers, gets by with a single draft.
Even those famous for so-called ‘stream of consciousness’ (like Beat writers Jack Kerouac or William Burroughs) still worked super hard in the re-write, in order to achieve the ultimate effect they wanted. Because to put it simply, the appearance of effortlessness does in fact take a lot of work.
Ernest Hemingway once famously quipped: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
2. Don’t Undercook the Lead
One of the downsides of needing to get back up to speed with your writing each time you have stopped for a while, is ending up with a weak beginning to your piece by the end of your first draft.
The fact is, you really don’t completely know what this piece is properly even about until you finished draft one. So now that you think it’s almost there (like, say, 80%) think about whether your original beginning really nails it.
Don the hat of your reader, and consider whether you have really injected enough of a ‘hook’ into your piece. In news journalism terms, we call this start point the ‘lead’. And don’t be fooled — it’s super important.
As journalism blogger Dennis G. Jerz aptly puts it: “The lead, or the first sentence of the story, is arguably the most important part of the article. Based on the content of that first sentence, a reader will either look deeper into the story, or move on to the next one.”
The rule that every young journalism cadet gets reminded of, sometimes loudly, is don’t bury your lead. There’s a really good reason to read your piece, otherwise you wouldn’t be writing it. If I’m your reader, tell me immediately why I’m here, reading you — otherwise you risk losing me completely.
3. Phone a Friend
And if you feel like this sounds hard, that’s because it is hard. Just imagine being a novelist though, and thinking, “What on earth should the first sentence of my 600-page epic sound like?” As Stephen King notes, sometimes first sentences take months or even years to perfect.
If you just don’t have months or years to spare though, you need to make friends really fast. Find a person whose writing and accuracy you admire, but who you know will give a sympathetic read to your piece. Your choice is important: you want them to turn your piece into a better version of what is now, rather than attempting to change it entirely.
A great copy editor is invaluable. When you find one, buy them barrelfuls of snacks. Believe me, keeping them sweet will help you to improve your writing and ultimately, make you more daring and confident in delivering your message.
As Novus Asia’s own copy editor always reminds me, she will always read a piece differently — with fresh eyes, as each new reader would read it. And remember, that’s the exact point. You aren’t writing this for yourself, but for your reader.
4. Make it Yours
Ernest Hemingway once famously quipped: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” To me, at the heart of his gruesome metaphor is the idea that good writing is brutally honest — so in its perfect form, it should speak the way that you speak in real life.
To assure the reader that they are not about to waste five minutes of their life, deliver them a take on the world that only you could have seen. Share some writing that makes them sit up and say: “Oh yeah, that sounds just like me.” Do that, and you are well on your way.
It’s not nearly as hard, or as messy as it sounds — and ideally your copy editor and those who regularly listen to you can help suggest ways in which to phrase things that are more “you” than what you started with.
Writing will at times be a battle — many typewriters and laptops have been hurled at walls to bring us great works of insight and ambition. But it is blood given to an excellent cause. Go out and fight the good fight.