The Problem of Beginning + First Draft Anxiety

For the first post in my writing advice series, I thought it would be appropriate to tackle the subject of how one begins writing: not just beginning a story, but beginning an everyday writing session.

The biggest secret about writing is that the physical act of putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) is the most difficult part of the process. This isn’t all that surprising when you think about it. In today’s interconnected reality where our phones are always buzzing and social media is always updating, keeping your attention on one task can be a chore. It’s always more tempting to watch some YouTube videos or type out a few tweets when you’re confronted with a blank page that needs to be filled. And that’s even before factoring in the neurodivergent perspective. As someone on the autism spectrum, I can have trouble concentrating on my writing even when I’ve eliminated all possible distractions.

I think another big problem that impedes us when we start to write, however, is simply the fear of starting. We fear that what we create on the page won’t match the story we have imagined, that we’ll get hung up on trying to find the perfect word for that one sentence and never finish what we set out to accomplish. And if we don’t finish what we set out to do, why should we even start? It’s a valid fear – in that it’s a fear many of us have, not that it’s something we should actually be afraid of.

A common piece of writing advice that you might have seen is “the first draft is supposed to suck.” That, I believe, is a somewhat negative way of phrasing the idea. To me it implies that part of the ideal end result is a sense of resentment towards your own work, that you should already be picking apart what you’ve written. I prefer a slightly different idea: your first draft should be whatever you want it to be, as long as it inspires you to improve on the foundation you’ve made. It’s all about exploring the core ideas and characters that form the heart of your narrative, and because of that, it’s going to be messy and unsightly in places. But that shouldn’t make it abhorrent to you and deter you from going forward. It should make you say “I believe that this story is worth telling, and in the future, I can make it the best it can be.”

In short, the phrase you should be most liberal with in your first draft is “That’s good enough.” Jot down the words that seem right to you in the moment. If you find yourself tempted by the urge to edit as you go, stop for a moment. Take a breath, say “That’s good enough,” and then move on to the next sentence.

The problem of first draft anxiety and editing as you go are why we have writing software that punishes you with jump scares if you don’t maintain a certain number of words per minute or deletes your work if you take a few seconds to catch your breath. Do not do this to yourself! Writing should never be a stressful activity. Making it one only impedes your progress further by making you dread the act of writing. Instead, encourage yourself by using positive reinforcement and working towards a tangible goal. A finished draft is its own reward, but you might also be motivated by a snack or some time playing that new video game you like. For example, my current system is that one hour of fiction writing equals one episode of whatever TV show I’m currently watching. Your writing sessions don’t have to be very long, either. You can go for a couple hours or just a few minutes. I would recommend a modified version of the Pomodoro technique developed by Francesco Cirillo: two thirty-minute sessions with a five-minute break in the middle and a ten-minute break between hours. You can switch to a new task or subject after each hour if you want. Another potential method is to write down a few sentences at a time when you come to a lull in your daily routine, like when you’re stuck at the doctor’s office or waiting for your oven to heat up. What’s important is that you’re going at a pace you feel comfortable with. A content writer is a more productive writer.

In conclusion: starting a first draft and establishing a regular writing routine can be daunting, which is why you should have a plan for managing your writing time. Set a goal to work towards. Find a pace you feel comfortable with. If you find yourself stressing out over the quality of your first draft, take a moment to remember that you need to get all your thoughts and ideas out in the open before you can refine them. Save the revisions for another time and tell yourself “That’s good enough.” A flawed but complete first draft is always better than an unfinished one.

If there’s a writing topic you’d like me to cover here on HH, please let me know. I’m always open to suggestions. See you next time!

— Dana

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