November is National Novel Writing Month, which has inspired us to think about the best strategies for getting started at writing, and, perhaps more importantly for keeping going–especially when the work does not feel so rewarding.
At Zoho we write copy or code rather than novels, but we’re still inspired by all the budding wordsmiths using NaNoWriMo (as it’s nicknamed) as a catalyst to put their passions onto paper. But what should writers do when they’re not feeling passionate, when the ideas don’t come easily—or at all?
Building on my previous discussion of 4-Question Abstracts, here I want to touch on an even easier, more accessible tool for building a successful, predictable writing practice: brainstorming.
Blank Page Trauma
Getting started on a new piece is the worst.
Or, it is for me. No matter how many pieces I’ve written in the past, no matter how much practice I have, no matter how many times I’ve successfully done it before, I’m never sure I’ll be able to do it again. And the self-help technique I wrote about last week, 4-Question Abstracts, doesn’t help if I don’t have enough raw material to mold into a series of diagnostic questions and answers.
So, when I’m feeling completely traumatized, staring at a blank page, I back up and brainstorm. Brainstorming is an umbrella term for exercises designed to shake insights loose in your mind, and there are about as many individual approaches as there are people writing. I suspect that most writers are already brainstorming, whether they realize it or not. These techniques, then, need little elaboration. Many are simple, some are complex. Here I’ll briefly touch on two I’ve found reliable in my own work.
Freewriting Your Way Through
I love freewriting. There’s no barrier to entry, no infrastructure needed, just the writer and their uncensored thoughts running wild until they exhaust themselves. The process is simple: sit down and write. Open a new Writer document or a fresh notebook page and go for it. It couldn’t be simpler.
However, simple is not the same as easy. We all have an internal critic, an imperious, authoritative voice that undermines our work. Or, at least, everyone I know has an internal critic. If you don’t— if you’re able to write and feel success in whatever you manage to get on the page—count yourself lucky. For the rest of us, the process is usually slow and uncomfortable.
The trick to making sure your freewriting bears fruit is to turn off your internal critic. This is consistently harder than it sounds. The way out, I’ve found, is to write faster than you can undermine yourself with criticism. Freewriting is the means to that elusive end.
The most important thing to remember while freewriting is not to let that negative voice undermine your creative process. Ignore the internal critic, and keep going. You’ll have plenty of time to evaluate your work when you’re finished. Just get it down now. You’ll be amazed at the quality of content you’re able to create once you get out of your own way.
Six Ways to a Draft
While freewriting will get your ideas on paper, it won’t bear a working draft. To move from notes to a polished piece, you’ll need to bring more structure to your process. One rigorous yet approachable technique to my attention cubing.
Just as a cube has six sides, this brainstorming strategy involves exploring your topic from six angles:
By the time you’ve finished writing a paragraph (or page) in response to each of these six “commands” (tellingly, that’s the term they use over at the UNC Chapel Hill page), you’re guaranteed to have something tangible to work with. Accounting for your topic on its own, articulating its relationship to other topics, breaking it down into its components, then clarifying its consequences will provide you with the substance and intellectual architecture for a proper draft.
Cubing requires more complex thinking than freewriting, and is therefore a great way to manage a multifaceted topic with numerous trains of thought. (If you’re using Zoho Writer, you might find its Document Navigation feature especially helpful for shuttling between your “commands.”)
Freewriting asks you to produce without making choices, whereas cubing gives you a framework to start making those choices.
A Little Structure, Please
The unrestricted openness that these brainstorming techniques offer is at once a pro and con, depending on what stage of the drafting process you’re at. After a while, I find it helpful to bring in a little structure around the edges.
To take my brainstorming to the next level, to transform it into a maximally productive drafting strategy, I establish some parameters. I set a timer for myself, usually 20 or 45 minutes. If I’m at home, I actually use a real wind-up kitchen timer; if I’m out, my phone’s timer works fine. Anything less than 20 minutes and I feel like I’m still procrastinating. Anything more than 45, and I lose focus. I’ll sometimes set an output limit, either in terms of pages (if writing by hand) or words (if typing).
(Researchers these days worry that the human attention span is shorter than ever before. I, however, maintain that attention is like a muscle: its endurance increases with excercise. You just have to give your out-of-shape attention span a fair shot by turning off your phone and logging out of Facebook while you freewrite.)
After 20 to 45 minutes of honest-to-goodness work, I’m certain to have sufficient raw material to work with, even if it’s far from perfect. And that means I’m better off than I was before.
Outwriting Your Inner Critic
After some time away to reflect on your freewriting and cubing, return to your work and just read what you’ve written. I don’t even hold a pen at first, because I can’t trust myself take in my own output without changing it. Yet when I do this, I’m delighted to find a few turns of phrase, insights, or conclusions buried underneath the garbage that blow me away. If my inner critic had its way, it would cross out, delete, erase all the stuff that stinks. But here’s the thing: I have to write garbage to get to the gems. Without the trash there are no treasures. That’s just the way it goes. I circle the good material and use it to start building. Then I thank my lucky stars that I’ve been able to make it work one more time.
Next time, I’ll address a more rigorous way to generate ideas and organize a piece of writing: outlining.Thanks to Mark Davis and David Elkins for their revising help.
“Muses Are Fickle” is a series about best practices for starting and staying writing. Stay tuned for Part 3. Subscribe now to get notified about all the latest content from Zoho.