Pieter Claeszoon – Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Lately, much of my time has been spent writing. Aside from the support emails I write at work, I’ve been building a practice for my writing. So far, the result has been that I spend one to two hours every day writing creative fiction. After writing tons of blog posts, a few conference talks and an article for Techwell, I now feel extremely comfortable with writing in various shapes and forms. There might be areas in my life where I work at having confidence, but writing is not one of them. If you like this post, you might also enjoy what I posted a while back On Blogging.
This post is my way of sharing what has worked for me. If you have something to say but are wondering where to start with writing, I hope some of what has worked for me will encourage you.
Start small with a focus on consistency
Although writing now takes up a chunk of my time every day, I didn’t start that way at all. Maybe give yourself 5 minutes 3 days a week or 10 minutes each Saturday and Sunday. The trick is to give yourself an attainable commitment and don’t focus to much on writing anything in particular. A 10 minute brain-dump will tell you a lot about where your head is. These are the creative breadcrumbs that will lead you to more writing later on.
Don’t be your harshest critic
Writing is an act of self love, especially if you feel ignored or dismissed by those around you. I never put anything on the page that isn’t 100% for me. This is why I haven’t done a lot of paid writing, but it keeps all of my writing true and helps me tap into my own thinking and opinions. It should be about what you feel and what you want to say.
Don’t worry about grammar or slang or whatever. I promise, Strunk & White are not gonna ring your doorbell if you misplace a comma. Just focus on getting your thoughts down however they look. If nothing else, some of the writing in my posts should prove that you can write even if you use way too many adverbs, capital letters or pepper everything with lol-speak. (Cuz, you know…<3<3<3)
If your writing is a reflection of you, then, well done!!
Write it when you think it
I never know when inspiration will strike, but when it does, I find a way to grab onto it no matter where or what I’m doing. Evernote helps because it’s on my phone, my computer and available through the web. While it’s not the most secure application, the biggest risk is that someone will get in and see my chicken scratch notes that don’t make sense to anybody but me. It is not uncommon for me to jump out of the shower, write something down and jump back into the shower.
If you are searching for words…mark your place and put the writing away
If I had a $1 for every time I heard someone say, “I just sit there and can’t think of any words,” I would not be living in a 1 bedroom apartment. If you are staring at a sheet of paper, it’s time to do something else. Believe me, this is how your brain works. If you continue to sit and stare at the page, you will fall into a cycle of beating yourself up for not having anything on the page which will make it harder for you to put something on the page. Remember: this is about being good to yourself and learning your own creative rhythms. If you are struggling for words, put the writing down and go do something else that makes you feel great.
Write like no one is reading
Fear is a huge creativity killer. It is also something that everyone faces at one time or another in their writing. I have found it helpful to tell myself, NOBODY IS GONNA READ THIS!!! Each blog post, article or whatever might as well be a message in a bottle I toss into a vast ocean. Even if my message reaches a few people, most of us are so far apart geo-spatially that it won’t matter anyway. The other side of it is that once you are writing for other people, your writing is no longer yours and that would be sad.
Know where and when you do your best work
Somewhere I read that Steven Spielberg goes for long drives with paper and pencil in his car because it brings up ideas. While I hope he pulls over when he starts writing them down, this is a great example of knowing what brings up ideas for you. For me it’s the shower and my walk to and from work. I also love writing in the early morning when everyone else is asleep. In fact, I go to bed early because I love getting up and writing so much. I’ve had a couple of jobs that required me to be working during this time and they completely zapped my creative energy. My husband will tell you that I am very cranky in the morning, but it’s definitely my best time for creative work.
The cabin is a MYTH
You are not a writer if at some point or another you don’t fantasize about a solitary cabin in the woods or at the beach where all of your needs are met and all you have to do is sit down and write. The reality is that most of us have to carve out time for writing. As I mentioned, I get up early because I’m committed. I know others that write late into the night. The goal is, to find your time and space during the week and do it consistently. This holds true even if consistency means a few sentences during time that you’ve managed to snatch away from your job and your family. I try to write a page every day. it works, mostly, but I also don’t beat myself up if life happens.
A blog is not a ball and chain
It always makes me sad when people think they have to write a post every week or have to stick to one narrow subject to have a blog or when they post something like, “I know I haven’t been writing enough but…” The posts on this blog range from conference notes to research to book reviews and even a few vacation reports. There’s no editor to tell me what is appropriate or not and I don’t have a schedule. There are times when I go a few months without a post and times when I post more regularly. While I see the readership go up and down, it’s more of an interesting for me than a goal. This is not a billable project and, believe me, velocity is the LAST thing that matters.
Once you think you need a certain number of readers, I don’t see how the writing can really be about you anymore unless it’s just because you want to make money. I’m not saying that wanting to make money with a blog is bad, but it does change the writing and it’s not a great way to build a beginning writing practice.
Find a writing class and see what happens
For a few years, I’ve had fictional characters move into my head and set up camp. While I did some sporadic writing mixed with bouts of self-denial and thinking they would go away, they didn’t. To be clear, I’m not saying they control my thoughts or anything like that, it’s just that they didn’t leave. For that reason, I started sneaking away early from work to take some writing classes this past Winter. The classes were terrific because they not only validated my need to write, they gave me hints on writing craft that I’ve found has spread into the other writing I do.
If you feel the need for a jump start for your writing, take a writing class for any type of writing that interests you. College outreach programs are a good place to look. In some cities, you’ll even find businesses dedicated to the teaching of writing such as San Francisco’s Writing Salon. Fellow blogger and tester Lanette Creamer will be leading a workshop at the 2012 Star East conference titled, “From Practitioner to Published Author: A Workshop About Writing About Software,” which will, likely, be a highlight of the conference for those who attend.
Be sure that if you go the route of taking a writing class that you email the teacher and ask how they will critique your work. You are looking for a teacher who believes in positive, constructive feedback. Anything else can be a hard strike at your confidence no matter how tough you think you are.
We need more voices in technology and I’ve met people with incredible stories. It doesn’t matter to me if the voices are similar to my own or quite different. I place a high value on differing opinions. By building your own writing practice, you can not only learn about your own voice, but, by building a writing practice you will be learning how to “own” your voice so that it is clear and distinct.
But don’t take my word for it, here are a few writers with their own opinions:
An interview where William Gibson describes some of his writing habits …hat tip @chris_blain
Neil Gaiman on writing (plus he links to tons of other “writers on writing)… hat tip @woodybrood
Stephen King describes his writing career and habits in his book, On Writing