I’ll admit, writing comes easily to me. I know many people struggle when they stare at the blank page. Where to start? What should those first words be? It’s particularly difficult if you don’t write often.
A few years ago, my husband tried to teach me how to snowboard. He is athletically gifted and things like snowboarding come naturally to him. Not so much for me. He had a difficult time breaking the process of snowboarding (without face-planting) down into doable steps for me. He just did it right, without thinking about it. For him it was like explaining a sneeze. The result was a very long day and some sore body parts.
Writing can seem like standing at the top of a steep mountain for some people. I get it. Scary. But there are a few very important differences with writing (besides no risk of broken bones):
- Unlike the mountain, you don’t have to start at the top. The beginning of something is often the trickiest to write. Your kernel of truth is usually more toward the middle, so write that first since you feel most confident about that idea
- It’s ok to suck at your first draft. Unlike snowboarding, no one needs to see that first run. Just get it out on paper. It’s so much easier to revise than to start from scratch. Plus, once you let go of that dream of perfection, you’ll find the words flow much more easily
- There’s no right way to do this – if outlining your thoughts first works for you, then do it. Here’s an outlining tutorial if you need one. If it’s painful to outline, don’t. I like to think of all the rules we were taught in school as mere suggestions. If your process brings you to a good result in the end, then it’s a good process for you.
One of the hardest parts of writing is knowing your work is going to be read and critiqued. But getting feedback is important for ensuring you’re getting it right and at the risk of sounding like my parents (both teachers), important for becoming a better writer.
When it comes to getting feedback, there are two camps of thought. The first says you should get feedback as early as possible on your first draft. This ensures you’re on the right track from the start and since it’s only a first draft and you haven’t agonized over it yet, you’ll be less emotionally attached to it and therefore more open to the feedback.
This first method does not work for me. It took me a number of critique classes to realize this. I find that it gives me writer’s block because I want my first draft to be worthy of being read by someone. So the second method is to only give a final draft for review. You risk being totally off course and forced to start over, but if you do your homework ahead of time that risk is minimal. You also have to put on your big girl pants and take criticism on writing you labored over.
That said, not all criticism has to be followed. If you’re just getting started in your career, you might get edited more than someone with more experience. Sometimes it’s justified, sometimes it’s not. If you find you’re arguing with every single edit someone makes to your work, you’re probably wrong. But likewise, if you’re making every change that others’ suggest, you might be losing your own writing flavor. Find the line of how much of the critique you need to follow, but be ready with a good reason if your boss wants to know why you didn’t make the edit she suggested.
Many of your readers won’t read every word of your piece (gasp!). I know, hard to believe. Research shows they read the headline, the first sentence, any bullet points and maybe some words you bold throughout the piece.
You might think that the conclusion doesn’t really matter when the vast majority of the non-scrolling public won’t ever see it. But conversely it actually matters more. So maybe only 25 percent of folks are reading all the way to the end. But these people are really engaged with you. They put time into actually reading what you wrote. These are your people (hi, people!). Don’t disappoint them at the end!
Your conclusion is a great place to crystalize the idea you presented in the rest of your piece. Summarize it in a sentence or two. So for those who only skimmed the rest, they’re still getting the gist of your point. You should also tie back to any stories you told throughout your piece. Just like good snowboarding technique, you need to stay consistent with your form and try to enjoy the process (see what I did there?).
Writing doesn’t have to be an avalanche-prone slope of terror. Give yourself a break, get the words on paper, get some help along the way and keep doing it. I might have quit snowboarding after that first try. Don’t be like me.