How to Write, Part 3

Image courtesy of Andreas Krappweis via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Andreas Krappweis via stock.xchng

In Part 1 of this series I listed four parts to this event we call writing, and in Part 2 I talked about the first two steps, suggesting some ways to get unstuck, and taking a detour at the end to address the question of why we write at all.

Here in Part 3 is my wrap-up of the four-step process.

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If step-3 (translation from language-in-the-head to language-on-the-page) is your sticking place, it probably looks like a reverse of the 3 a.m. epiphany.

Instead of having your mind unflatteringly blank at just the wrong time, only to have the *perfect* zinger at 3 a.m., this challenge looks like the confidence of *just* the right words slipping from your mind’s grasp or memory before you can pin them to the page.

This, like step-4, is a bit of a mechanics thing, and may require a mechanical solution.

There are a couple different exercises you can try.

Image courtesy of linusb4 via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of linusb4 via stock.xchng

First, try copying a poem, quote, scripture, or paragraph you haven’t memorized. Read a set of words and try to hold them in your mind while you write the whole set without looking again.

When that feels comfortable, or you’re ready for a different challenge, ask someone to read you chunks of text, then wait while you write it down (this might be easier or harder than the last exercise, and you can do either first, depending on your preference.)

Once you’ve gotten used to holding words “in your ear,” while you write them in silence, practice taking notes while somebody is speaking. Pretend you’re a reporter, if that helps. Again, your goal is to capture an entire quote or thought, but if you find that’s currently out of reach, pick something more manageable.

If you do this with a movie or TiVo, you’ll have the bonus option of checking your work, and seeing how accurate your capturing skills are.

This also works for song lyrics off the radio.

The goal is to learn how to hang on to a complete thought even while more ideas are coming at you. Often when you are translating ideas into words this is what you experience in your own head: the need to continually capture, without the new information overriding the earlier stuff you also want.

The faster you write, the easier this can become (because fewer ideas overlap), and this leads us naturally into:

Step-4 (the physical act of recording words).

This was my bottle-neck growing up. The physical act of handwriting was very hard for me. My handwriting was either poor or laborious and always slow. There was no way I could keep up with my thoughts, so I rarely tried to write them down.

It was only with the introduction of typing, and more-specifically word-processing (so stuff could be saved and moved around painlessly) that I began to really see writing as something I could do, and eventually enjoy.

It was always a hoot in my (voluntary) writing classes at University when the teacher would go around and have each student self-introduce with writing background. Invariably everyone before me talked about “writing as long as I can remember” and “loving” to write and so on. I would always kill the rush with my, “I hated it.”

But I like to think of that as a nice hope-card for other folks who aren’t dialed in yet.

My biggest trouble was Step-4. I told stories with countless My-Little-Ponies for YEARS before I voluntarily put a story on paper. Without knowing it I was practicing Steps 1-3 all my life.

Image courtesy of Andrew Steinle via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Andrew Steinle via stock.xchng

When it comes to improving Step-4, I have to give the bad news: this is all rote.

Maybe a studied teacher can offer you some other answer, but in my experience nothing makes up for the act of putting down words– with a pen, pencil or keyboard.

I am a firm believer in good pens and good keyboards, though.

Step-4 is infinitely easier with the right equipment. Go to an office supply or university bookstore sometime. Both these places, in my experience, have little scratch pads in the pen isle. You can try out some of the pens and find out what works for you.

I can’t say fixing your problems with these four steps will make you a good writer.

I can say that finding the places you get stuck, and fixing those, will make writing much more comfortable, and we all are more likely to spend time where we’re comfortable.

It’s that time spent that will give you a chance to answer the question, a very important question, about whether you want to go farther.