I came to a realization today. Many of my recent blog posts have been about sustaining and refining your writing habits. What I haven't provided much of lately are posts about getting the first few words on the page once you sit in the chair. If you're a writer who has trouble getting past the blank page or the blinking cursor, today's post is for you.
Training yourself to start writing requires getting rid of your worst writing session habits. People who tend to struggle during "butt-in-chair time" have difficulty sitting in one place for too long, come into the session with too much on their minds and think too long before putting their first words down on the digital or physical page. One way to get rid of a habit is to train up and practice its opposite. Here are five ways to build up your writing session capability.
1. Don't Just Do Something, Sit There
This is an adaptation of an old Clint Eastwood acting quote. In this modern age, we're too used to doing multiple things at the same time. We have three apps open on our phone, the TV blaring in the background and a tablet telling us how to cook our next meal. If you've been living the hyper-electronic multitasking life, you may have difficulty focusing on writing when the time comes to it. To learn how to do just one task at a time, it's helpful to practice doing nothing at all.
Set yourself up in a room, preferably the room in which you plan on doing your daily writing. Your goal is to make it 30 minutes without doing anything at all. No phone. No computer. No tablet. Sit down and think without any distractions. Set an alarm for 30 minutes and see if you can reach it.
This exercise will not only get you in the correct mindset to focus on your writing, but it will help you clear out some of the clutter that comes from being glued to your many devices. Once you're able to reach 30 minutes three times, you're ready to move onto the next step.
2. Free Your Mind
You've practiced being alone with your thoughts. Now you're going to see if you can quiet your mind down and think of nothing. Going into your writing sessions with a blank slate is important, because thoughts of the kids, the mortgage payment and taking the dog on a walk can distract you from your primary purpose of getting words on the page. To ensure you're able to think only about your writing, you need to be ready to think about nothing.
Unlike the previous exercise, you can do this for five minutes at a time. Set a timer for five minutes. Let your mind wander for a bit, allowing it to think about whatever you want. Start the timer and try to let your mind go completely blank. If an errant thought comes in, try to let it slowly fade away. If that thought leads to at least two related thoughts, stop the timer. That's how long you were able to make it before getting truly distracted. Keep training yourself until you get five minutes without picking up speed on a train of thought. It's harder than it sounds.
Even if you never quite reach five minutes, falling short at around three or four, you don't need to be perfect on this exercise. Thankfully, you'll have writing to concentrate on during your sessions, and that should keep your brain occupied once you've practiced getting rid of mental distractions. If this exercise doesn't work for you, you can always try a guided meditation, many of which are available for free on YouTube and in more niche online locations.
3. First Sentence Sprint
If you've reached this step on the start writing journey, you've practiced sitting in one location without doing anything and you've trained yourself to go nearly five minutes without over thinking. Please go back and complete the previous two steps if you're trying to "skip to the good stuff."
Now you're ready to start writing. This exercise involves a stopwatch and your brain. The goal of the First Sentence Sprint is to get your first sentence down on paper as early in your writing session as possible. It's been said that starting something is the hardest part. By getting the first sentence out of the way, it'll be much easier to keep your writing session going.
Start your stopwatch as soon as you enter the room for your writing session. Stop it when you've written your first sentence. It's as easy as that. At first, you may not have your room configured quite correctly or you'll think too long about the "perfect" first few words. To be a true pro at this exercise, you should have your room set up before you enter and you should write down the first words that come to mind. If you take longer than a minute to get your first words down, you need to alter your system. If it takes 30 seconds or less, you're getting there, but you may be over thinking. The goal is to write your first sentence and stop the stopwatch within 10 seconds.
I've been fortunate enough to have some improv comedy training on starting scenes quickly. It's made a major impact on my ability to write as soon as I get into a session. This exercise is essentially an adapted version of my stage training. Get the words out fast and don't look back.
While I'd prefer you get to 10 seconds or less, you can move onto the next step when you get it down to 15. Extra credit if you can do it in five.
4. Paper Is Your Friend
You've cut down your start time, which helps you to get right into your writing flow. But what happens if all of a sudden, your fingers no longer move along the keyboard like a piano? What if your eyes have been caught in the screen and your brain is holding back from sending you the words you need. In that case, it's time to switch to paper.
Remember when we all wrote on paper? It was slower, it was tedious and some of us had handwriting that wouldn't have passed the fifth grade. Then again, there's something about writing by hand the brain seems to like. When you use your hands to connect the letters, words and sentences together, it can really unleash some major creativity. I'd suggest that you train yourself to occasionally write on paper, even if you're not having much trouble starting and finishing your writing sessions. It's good to have the training in case of a creative emergency.
Set yourself up for a typical writing session. Get your first sentence down quickly and go on your merry way. The first time you get stuck for more than a few seconds, switch to paper for the next five minutes. It may take a minute or two for you to get used to writing on looseleaf again, but keep it up until you get into a comfortable flow. When you feel like you're at the beginning of a massive paragraph or two where you know exactly what to write, you can switch back to your computer. Continue this throughout your writing session, moving over to paper whenever you feel stuck.
Writers, like Boy Scouts, should do their best to be prepared. Having paper, a sharpened pencil or brand-new pen and a writing surface available is key, as is having had some recent experience writing on paper. Some writers give up because they get stuck too often. When you hit the same roadblocks, switching over to paper may give you the push you need to write for an entire session from beginning to end.
5. Writing Goal Staircase
While I tend to start writing sessions with a word-count goal in mind, I think you should begin with an amount of time as your goal. If you've struggled writing consistently, you're not trained to sit and write for two or more hours at a time. I suggest using a writing goal staircase to work your way up to your desired writing session length.
Let's get out the trusty old stopwatch again and start it at the beginning of your session. Start your first sentence quickly and switch over to paper and back to the screen as necessary. Keep the stopwatch going until you can't handle writing any more. See how long you lasted. I think a smart first goal is 15 minutes. You can get a few hundred words down in that time when you're really in the flow, and that's pretty darn good.
Once you've beaten 15, train yourself to go up in 15 minute increments until you reach your desired writing session length. Mine is around two hours and 15 minutes, though I tend to take a little snack break halfway through. Yours may be shorter or longer. Training yourself to get there step-by-step will keep you from trying to jump right into two-hour sessions every day and feeling burned out after a week. If you've struggled with longer sessions, try the Writing Goal Staircase to give yourself the fortitude to make those sessions happen.
I designed these exercises with my own preferences in mind. You may adapt them to fit your own life, but the goals should stay the same. You need to learn to calm your mind, write fast and keep yourself going through any blocks. Once you've achieved these objectives, you can start playing around with some of my other tips for sustaining your sessions in the long term.
Don't shoot for perfection on these. Do the best you can most of the time. Even the best writers in the world have off days. Train yourself to limit these problem sessions, and you may find yourself in the top tier before you know it.
Bryan Cohen is the author of more than 30 books, many of which focus on creative writing and blasting through that pesky writer's block. His books have sold more than 20,000 copies. You can find him on Google+ and Facebook.