The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing. – Walt Disney

Tell me if you can relate:  410697715

  • you’ve checked Facebook 15 times, scrolling back about three days just in case you missed something.
  • you’ve answered every email, even the one from the girl who wants to know if you’ll do her job for free.
  • you’ve build a Tumblr account because, well, you heard somewhere it was a good idea.
  • you’re on your third cup of tea and second snack
  • you’ve organized your desk from top to bottom.

This is what my day looks like when I sit around thinking about writing instead of actually, well, writing.  Sound familiar?  (Note, your version might include washing all the curtains or sharpening the lawn mower blades.)

This week, several people have asked me how to “get started” with writing – how to get the ideas from their heads onto the page.  And the answer – as hard as it actually is – is also very simple – you have to just write.

The mind is just not a good place to do writing – it’s abstract up there – all Pollack and Sheleg – and no actual words.  Words are physical things with shape – even on a screen. They are made up of letters and curves and those little lines called serifs.  They aren’t abstract at all – they are tools, hard, concrete tools. The mind is more mushy and soft.

So what we’re doing when we’re thinking about writing isn’t really writing itself – although it is certainly a key part of the process.  Writing only really happens when we put those words down – spin them out from that abstract mass of color in our minds and add them to the page.  (Plus, avoiding the writing itself tells me that something else is off with me – in fact, I’m probably lonely.)

Here are my 3 tips for how to get started with putting the words down:

1. Pick a word. Maybe in that mass of color and idea in your mind, a word keeps slipping to the surface.  Grab it and write it down, and then write more words led by that one.  Just get some words down – freewriting is what we call this in classes. You can shape them later.

2. Start with a character. Maybe you can sort of see this person in your mind – you know she wears a fedora and short shorts, and you can hear her talking.  Write down a description of her and see what she ends up doing as you write her out.

3. Begin with a scene. Maybe you have a book you want to write about your experience in a corporate bank.  Try starting with a scene that really spoke to you of what it was like to work there – something that comes to mind easily, something you remember well. That scene has stuck for a reason, so write it out.

One un-tip – I don’t recommend starting with theme or concept – i.e. I want to write a book about the evils of racism – because those books often end up pedantic and a little preachy.  If you have a theme in mind, try to locate that theme in a character or a scene, and then use those tools to carry the ideas for you.

It’s not complex to start writing – but it is really, really hard.  Somehow, we think we need to figure it out before we start, but the truth is we don’t. In fact, maybe we can’t.  We figure it out as we write the words – it’s the only way I know.

What about you? What keeps you from starting? Or what tricks do you use to get started?