There is certainly a lot of writing advice out there. Whether you’re drawn to the pretty flowers and rainbows found in motivational advice or the brick-in-the-face bluntness found in others, one piece of writing advice eclipses the rest. One thing comes before all the style, sentence structure and storytelling rules...or the breaking of the rules if you choose to embolden your inner writing rebel.
One simple yet difficult fact is floating out there in the writing universe.
Ready to hear it?
Here it comes:
You have to put your hands on the freaking keyboard and start typing. (Or put your pen on the paper if you insist on kicking it old school.)
No other writing advice matters if you don’t actually start typing actual words.
Sounds easy right?
What stops us?
Almost everyone in this day and age needs to write - an email to a boss, a text to a friend, a note to a roommate who ate your expensive lactose-free yogurt, or a speech at a colleague’s wedding whom you barely know and aren’t sure why you were even invited, let alone asked to make a speech. You may have to write for a job, like an entrepreneur trying to write blog posts to increase a startup’s web presence or be in charge of social media content for a friend’s new Etsy store. Or maybe you are someone trying to fulfill a lifelong dream of writing a book or getting published in a magazine. We write more to communicate today in the digital age than we ever have before in human history.
But there is one main roadblock that stops us from writing. Something that rears its ugly head time and time again and pulls us away from our goals and dreams.
That thing is fear.
We fear criticism. We fear judgement. We fear making mistakes. We fear we’re not good enough. But it’s important that we fight it and not let it stop us. Regardless of whether a person actually enjoys writing or approaches their keyboard with a dread usually reserved for dentists and math exams, writing can be intimidating for just about anyone. There’s a vulnerability to having people read something we have written, especially if it is a topic we care about.
Tips to get past the fear and intimidation of writing.
- Writing is not an ethereal or mysterious craft. Like improving a golf swing or perfecting a cream sauce, it is a practical skill that is acquired and improved with practice.
- You can’t please all the readers all the time. Don’t even try.
- Everyone makes mistakes. Yes, you should absolutely proof read before you put anything out to the writing universe but mistakes will still happen. And, yes, the grammar police might land on you like a sumo wrestler if you write your when it should be you’re, but learn from your mistakes and move on. Care less about mistakes, more about getting better and learning.
- During the writing process, focus on what you want to say, not on what a reader might think. Thinking about other people’s opinions will take your focus off your actual writing.
There’s a big but coming…
When you ask someone to read your stuff, care about the opinions of people who want to give you constructive advice. Not caring or having too big an ego to listen to what anyone has to say, is not a constructive way to approach your writing.
- Read great books about writing. There are so many, but here are a few favourites: The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White (don't be shocked that it's 100 years old); On Writing Well by William Zinsser; On Writing by Stephen King; and Naked, Drunk and Writing by Adair Lara (best title ever.) Explore books dedicated to your particular craft, whether that's writing novels, short stories, personal essays or journalism. You will always find something you can use to become a better writer.
Give up the belief that talented, award-winning, best-selling, or simply published writers, write easily and flawlessly. Stories do not simply flow out of their brains into their keyboards in perfect order with perfect punctuation and spelling. Some writers have no clue about punctuation and couldn’t tell you what an Oxford comma is if you dangled them out a window by their feet. Some writers can't spell and some writers need help to put a story together and make it flow. Writers are not always good editors and editors are not always good writers, so don’t compare yourself to other writers. You do you.
- If you’re stuck or just starting, sit down and write with a wild, uninhibited abandon that's usually only seen in children and Labrador retrievers. Don’t worry about the rules, form, punctuation, grammar or anything other than getting your ideas out of your head and down on the page. You can always polish later.
- Let go of the idea that your topic, story or work is not important enough. Ignore the snobbery that can exist in some writing communities. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing about houseplants on your blog, sharing a personal story of loss on Medium, or writing a column in the New York Times – good writing is good writing.
- Write what you care about and if even one reader can relate to what you have written or finds enjoyment in your writing, then you've succeeded.
Fear will crush you if you let it. Do not let it stop you. Remember, being overwhelmed by fear when you feel sharp teeth brush your leg while snorkeling in Cancun is valid, letting fear consume you while sitting at a keyboard is not. Go ahead and be scared of writing, but sit your butt down and do it anyway. Just put your hands on the keyboard and start typing.