Sometimes writing seems to call me insistently, so that I can hardly wait to finish my chores and get stuck in. At other times I find myself doing all sorts of other jobs when I should be writing; things that could easily wait until another time. For me, this has a great deal to doing with self-esteem or fear of some sort. If I’ve reached a point in my work in progress that I don’t feel ready to tackle, or that I don’t think I can do justice to, I’ll find reasons not to work on it. Unfortunately, this can become a vicious cycle, as I can then cite how long it took me to write this type of scene as evidence that I’m no good at it, and this then fuels my low self-esteem the next time I need to write something in the same vein.
Today I want to share with you some of the strategies I have developed to work past this fear of writing something, in case I can’t write it well enough.
The first thing is to consider whether I am justified in not feeling ready. If I simply do not have the knowledge to write an article, for example, the answer is to do the necessary research, so that I then will be in a position to write it. This needs careful handling, however – I am perfectly capable of spinning out the research phase indefinitely, in order to avoid actually starting writing!
Accountability of a Writers’ Group
I belong to a local writers’ group: not the sort of group where we all read and critique each other’s work, but a group where we get together, either in a café or in someone’s home, have a short time for making or ordering drinks and socialising, and then we write. We each start by saying, in brief terms, what we intend to work on, we write for an hour or two, and then we discuss the progress we’ve made. The idea is not to police each other, but to bring an element of companionship and accountability to what can be a very solitary profession.
As Jodi Picoult famously said, you can always edit a bad page, but you can’t edit a blank page. Committing to working on a particular article, short story, or passage in my novel somehow gives me permission to write badly, as long as I stay on task, and I find that having something down on paper (or on a computer screen) makes producing a more polished second draft much less scary.
We have a regular weekly meeting, and some of us often get together at other times, because we find these sessions so useful. I even find that I set aside some of the trickier articles or passages I need to write, as I know that working on them when I’m with the group will ensure that I get straight down to business, rather than allowing myself to be distracted, which often happens when I try to work on something difficult on my own.
To make this work at its best, this time is only for writing. I don’t do research, spend hours searching for the perfect word, or check my emails: in fact, I don’t connect to the internet at all if we’re meeting in a café or someone else’s home, and if we’re at mine, I close my web browser. I stick in a metaphorical tag if I’ve done something that needs checking later, so that I don’t get sidetracked by looking something up, for example “Richard III was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 (BLAH – check battle name and date)”, and all I have to do later is do a search for BLAH, and then look up as appropriate.
Of course, there is far more writing to be done that can be fitted into my group meetings, and sometimes that means that there are too many tricky passages to write! This is where the Pomodoro technique comes in handy. If you’re interested in this as a time management tool, this is the website http://pomodorotechnique.com/. It’s basically a way of increasing productivity by focussed working sprints throughout the day. How I apply it to writing difficult passages (and to doing boring things like tax returns, incidentally) is to agree that I could certainly write about whatever it might be for twenty minutes (or fifteen, or ten, depending on just how much I have invested in putting it off). I prepare my desk, switch off my phone and the internet, shut and lock the front door, set a timer, and write until it buzzes.
Again, this technique gives me permission to write badly! And having something to edit is a whole lot better than not having written at all.
Incidentally, there are several people organising similar focussed short-burst writing sessions with a measure of group accountability on twitter – take a look at #wordsprint if you feel this would work for you.
A Journey of a Thousand Miles …
… begins with a single step. In this context, that means that, however long and difficult this passage is going to be, setting words down is the only way to make it happen. If I have a particularly scary commission, therefore, I sometimes split it up into bite-sized chunks, and allocate time to it within my schedule. Finding “add 200 words to Chapter 3 of workbook for next month” right after “edit last week’s short story” and before “source photo for new blogpost” makes working on it less worrying than some amorphous fear hanging over me that I won’t get it written in time. It’s best to ensure that the chunk really is bite-sized, by making it very specific; in this case, the low word-count and the specification of which chapter to work on makes it seem more manageable.
So there we are: my top tips for getting that tricky passage written. What do you do, to get over your fear and put pen to paper?