When you first start to write, it is not the time to edit. Don’t even slow down to check quotes or references. Just write. Write big and loose. Go wherever you feel called to. Jot down any idea that comes to you, even if it seems unrelated. The fact that the idea came to you while you were writing on that subject means it is connected somehow. It might be leading you somewhere really good.
I start with something I call seeds. Any idea can be a seed. Any idea can be the start to something great. I have a lot of them. I carry a small notebook with me at work so that whenever I have an idea I can jot it down. Those seeds then form the basis of what I start with when I have time to write.
Then is when I water the seeds. I take the time to add more words. I fill out the ideas. Sometimes my seeds are just a few lines, like four or five sentences. They are the basic ideas that I want to get across, but they aren’t filled out. I then take time to add to them so there is a logical connection between them. Then while I’m writing other ideas will come to me on that topic and I’ll add them. Sometimes I don’t know where these ideas are coming from, but I add them in anyway. This too is not the time to edit.
Once you feel like you are done, it is time to prune. Your seed has grown up into a big plant because of all the work you have done on it. Sometimes it has grown up too big and needs to be divided. Sometimes it is a bit messy and ugly looking because of typos or weird connections.
For me, there is a wave of energy that I feel when I’m adding to a piece, and when that wave dissipates I take the time to edit. Some sections work better than others. Some sections would work better being combined. Some sections need to be at the beginning, but I thought of them at the end. That is the joy of writing on a computer. It is really easy to edit.
I’m a big fan of writing longhand on paper because I don’t get distracted by the clicks of the keyboard on the computer and I don’t have to slow down to fix the weird autocorrect on the tablet. It is a lot more seamless. It goes faster. I think it is important that whatever tool you use to write, it doesn’t get in the way. You don’t think about it much, so you can concentrate on writing. But when I write on paper, I then have to type it up. I actually am envious of Neil Gaiman who has an assistant type up all his writing. The convenience of pre-writing on the computer or tablet is just too much to pass up so I’ve started doing that all the time. I’ve realized that I get about five hours during the week (in bits and pieces) at work that I am free to write. That is a lot of time.
Ideally, I’d get to write in several places at once. It would be nice to have three or four pieces I’m working on and be able to go to them wherever I am. I could start a topic at home on my computer, and then work on it a bit on my tablet at work, then finish it back at home on the computer. So far I’ve not found a way to do that. I don’t edit on the tablet because the last time I tried to cut and paste I lost three paragraphs forever. So I use it for raw writing. I then email what I’ve written to myself and I copy and paste it into a new Word document at home.
I usually have four or five different topics I’m working on at a time. Sometimes I’m more drawn to work on one. Sometimes I go to one because I don’t know what to write for the other ones yet. Sometimes I don’t feel like I’m ready to write on one because I am too close to it. Sometimes I feel like the yetzer hara, (the “evil inclination” that is referred to in Jewish philosophy) is trying to keep me from writing about what needs to be written about. I really want to blast on the “prosperity gospel” but I feel blocked right now. The fact that I’ve named it might give me the energy to work on it later.
I have at least 60 seeds on my computer. If I don’t have an idea of what I want to write about in the morning, I’ll look at them and see if any are interesting today. I’m ok with the idea that some may never grow. Some end up being grafted together. Some I’ll work on for a bit and find it is going nowhere. I then leave it and will work on it another day. Or not. At least I’ve spent some time on it. Any writing is better than no writing, and what I’ve done doesn’t go away. I’m closer to finishing that piece now. Even if I never finish that one, the fact that I wrote at all will help me with the next piece. Discipline and consistency is part of it. The only way to be a writer is to write.
I don’t feel like I have to have a finished post every day. I have a goal of three posts a week so I do have to be diligent and actually finish something every now and then. That is part of the problem – I have a lot of seed-starts. Because of the writing I’m doing at work on breaks I have a lot of one and a half page starts. Right now I’m getting a lot of new ideas so I’m trying to gather them in so I don’t lose them. I feel like I’m saving up for a dry spell when no ideas come. Then I’ll have pieces to work on because I’ve saved them now. Maybe I won’t have a dry spell, and ideas will keep coming and I’ll just have an excess. Who knows? Maybe the excess of ideas is a trick from the “evil inclination” to keep me from finishing up other things. Maybe even writing about writing is an excuse to not work on something important.
Sometimes writing is like going on an adventure. Sometimes it is like driving down a road. You have an idea where you think you are going. So you get started with the name of the city in mind. You drive a little way and you see an interesting store you’ve never noticed. So you stop. You get sidetracked. There is an alleyway that calls to you. Or you see a billboard for an attraction you’ve never heard of. You may never get where you were headed but that isn’t always the point. If you are writing creatively it is ok. Now, if you have an assignment then you have to rein it in and not go wandering everywhere. You may end up writing two different things- the one for the class and another for fun.
Sometimes the answer is within the asking. Sometimes just by writing the question you will hear the answer. That is the most magical part about writing. When done right, writing is like praying. You write, and you hear the answer. You learn from writing. You end up in places you never thought you’d go, and all from the comfort of your favorite writing chair.
How do you know when you are finished? Sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you’ll want to keep working on a piece over and over until you feel it is perfect. It won’t ever be perfect. It will be what it is right now. Sometimes it is good to just stop and let it go. You may have more to say on that topic later. Then write some more – but not on that piece. Start fresh. But just write.
By the way – the same rules apply for any creative exercise. Painting, beading, embroidery – the same is true. Just start. And then keep going. Or to quote from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland – “’Begin at the beginning,’ the King said gravely, ‘and go on till you come to the end: then stop.’”