But the biggest reason people fear writing is that it’s hard to know what to write. How do you know what to write first? What if it sounds silly or uninformed? How do you know your words will communicate, much less persuade?
Facing into the Void
You don’t. No one does. Professional writers carry formulas in their heads, and if they can land a thesis on the page, it will lead them through the rest of the story. I offered the subject-predicate-object formula in an earlier EWC about active predicates, and you can review if you want, but it’s just one of many useful structures. Fiction writers can define characters, juxtapose them in an environment and the characters will come to life for the author and reveal the story.
It sounds easy, but every writer that puts her hands on the keyboard must get past the block: a glowing, menacing, sterile blank screen with an ever-progressing clock in the upper right corner.
The blank screen scares the bejeezus out of writers. It offers no guidance, no help, you are suspended in a white room, with no ceiling or floor, no window, no door. Writers read: we look stuff up, follow research paths from one link to another, discovering relevant and irrelevant data in the hope we can form an original thought from our fresh learning. Now the blank screen yawns before you, pearly white - the facts you have researched, all that fine data, float in a nebulous orbit around your head, tantalizingly within reach yet hard to wrangle.
The best and the lucky know that, eventually, a magic incantation will flow from brain through fingers onto the screen, tying objective to unique proposition corralling the known data, drivin’ the little doggies right through the branding chute. Don’t be scared – the opening sentence, your thesis always comes through. You always find lost items in the last place you look. It just takes a little time.
Take the Time it Takes
“And here’s my theory of punctuation,” Fenway Bergamot (Laurie Anderson’s alter ego) says in Another Day in America, “Instead of a period at the end of each sentence, there should be a little clock that shows you how long it took to write that sentence.”
Those little clocks would be very handy, and they would show that the first sentence and its opening paragraph takes inordinately longer to write than anything else on the page. Because the thesis is where your work is unique - all of the other information you are about to reveal already exists. Some of it has existed since the beginning of time, some of it was just discovered yesterday.
The truth is available to everyone – it’s up to you to cast it from your unique perspective, to make sense of the data. And it happens as you write: implications will occur as you lay the data in place, one word at a time, landing in front of your eyes. When it’s published, people read it, and they understand it from their unique perspectives. It’s magic, and it happens. Trust me.
Find the Words in Your Personal Experience
Of course, right now, the blank screen is still blank and you still don’t know what to write. Yet.
Everything you do, all the decisions you have made before the writing moment, all the experiences you have had, the movies you have seen and the songs you have heard have taught you a little something, have yielded their own bit of truth and it all lands on the page as you, as my old friend Eric says: “Push on through.”
How long did it take to write that sentence? Sixty-two years, 17 hours and 43 minutes. I may have researched the material for 5 hours the day before, sketched out a brief outline and stroked the goatee for 10 minutes before writing, but here it is, not a moment too soon and not quite too late.
Write First, then Edit
First words are not final. Like a pole vaulter, take a few trial strides before committing. Many golden preludes, and the crystal rhetorical illuminations that flow from their shining portals did not occur in their first drafts. Few, if any, do. They are rewritten and tweaked, reviewed by a good editor, questioned, honed and proven.
Naomi Shihab Nye was once asked in an NPR interview how she could write, then publish, intimate personal information in her poems.
“By the time they are in a book before the world,” Nye told the interviewer, “I have hammered on the poem so much that it is an object unto itself, apart from the experiences that gave it birth.”
The experiences that you add to the information still have their meaning in your life, but their contributions to the truth you have to bear today are perfected in the process of editing and proofing your article, or report, or story, or poem.
Writing is hard, but it is not impossible. You have a reason to write, you have all the words you need in your notes and in your mind. Someone on the other side of the screen, somewhere in the world, is waiting for your words. They are searching for the product you are about to present, they are yearning for the truth you have to share (hard won in that life you live), they need a good laugh. A Writer's Affirmation:
And writing is a joy. It organizes your thoughts, grabs chaos by the hand and creates a choreography of meaning that explains and inspires. Whether you are writing for the unenlightened masses or merely figuring it all out for yourself, order is beauty. Open a new document, put your feet flat on the floor, take three deep breaths, and enjoy a beautiful day.
“And what are days for? To wake us up, and divide the endless nights.” - Bergamot.
San Antonio copywriter gary s. whitford is half of Extraordinary Words, providing effective communications for business and non-profit development. You can find Extraordinary Words on Facebook, LinkedIn and its website. You can read more of gary’s writing on his personal blog and by searching The Rivard Report for “Every Word Counts.”