Monday, November 3, 2008

Writing: Where Do You Begin?

Do you throw down words the moment you have a thought or do you structure what you'd like to write before committing yourself? Whatever your approach, here's some common sense tips that are not commonly used.

It's been said that writing is hardest for writers.

The first time I heard that, I laughed. The second time, I winced.

It's true, when you consider that we write for pleasure, for purpose and for a living. Others, may pick up a pen to write a friend or maybe dash off an email in between meetings, but they rarely consider the language, the inference, the beauty of the written word as we do.

So why is writing so hard sometimes? And, more importantly, how can we improve the process ~ and save our sanity?

I think it all gets back to how you begin.

As Susan Shaughnessy says: "The only thing harder than writing is starting to write". James Russell Lowell agrees: "In creating, the only hard thing is to begin: a grass blade's no easier to make than an oak".

And so it is with our labor of love.

How do you begin writing?

Do you throw down words the moment you have a thought or do you structure what you'd like to write before committing yourself to paper or pixels?

For me, it depends on the piece and my mood.

I use one or the other method or a combination. Let me explain.

When I have a strong idea for an article, I generally go with the urge and write until there's nothing left to write. Then I will structure the piece and fill in the blanks, edit and polish. This is basically the style I adopted when I was a young journalist. There was never time to really 'think' about a story. I just needed to file the story to make the fast-approaching deadline.

On other occasions, particularly if it's a longer piece or more complex, I will begin by outlining the points I want to cover, organizing them and then writing, followed by the editing process.

But, often, I use a combination. Essentially, my outline turns into free writing. I generally find myself doing this when I am writing a chapter for a book, be it fiction or non-fiction. I begin including the major points as you would in an outline, then I break into 'free writing' and, before you know it, the work is well on the way to being finished.

When it comes to writing media releases, which involve an interview with one or more people, I take a slightly different approach again. I transcribe my hand-written notes and quotes on screen, then organize them and then begin fleshing them out. I was never very good at shorthand as a young journalist, so I have never been confident to rely on my notes for too long (hieroglyphics were never my strong point).

I think there's no right or wrong way of getting the job done. We are all individuals, and we will all find an individual solution to fit our needs.

Whichever approach you take to writing, here's a few final points that may help:

1. Outlining and organizing your writing can either save or waste time.

It will save time, if you act on what you have prepared. It will waste time if you continue to outline or add to your notes. Take a leaf out of Nike's book, and just do it. Often writers will get caught up in the outlining phase and, before long, writer's block will set in.

2. Take time out.

How often have you written something, proofed it and found no errors, only to find a day or week later, it's littered with mistakes or even needs a total rewrite? This happens to the best of writers. If you have the time, put your words aside, take a mental break from them and return refreshed several hours or days later. You'll see it with new eyes and your work will be better for it.

3. Talk it out.

Sometimes when you are outlining, you may reach 'information overload' and the whole writing process grinds to a halt. This used to happen to me sometimes, back in those early days as rookie reporter. My Editor would sit me down and ask me one simple question: "What happened?" That's all he had to say, then I knew how to write the story. You see, it's sometimes easier to tell someone what happened than to put it down on paper. We have an in-built organizer that sifts through the facts and puts things in order. When you get blocked, use it with a friend or maybe just a tape recorder. (Often I can be found on the streets of my neighbourhood, walking and talking into a little black box. It lets me get out of the house but still stay in my mind.)

Oh, and if you're wondering which way I wrote this ~ I used the first approach!

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