Sitting down to write

30th April 2015


Sustaining creativity. Those are two quite abstract words to describe what is actually (in this context) just a case of sitting down and writing. For a while now I’ve been thinking I should put together a kind of one-page instruction manual on the subject, but of course life kept getting in the way. Then last night I spent a very pleasant couple of hours with a group of creative writing students on a Work Write Live course at the University of Brighton, and at last I decided it was time to heed my own advice. So I told them I would write something, post it on my blog and they should check it was up and posted by the end of today. Which means I have no choice but to do it. Here, then, both for my own conscience and for them, is my attempt at boiling down two hours of advice and discussion into a handful of user-friendly instructions.

1. Don’t sit down to write a masterpiece; sit down to write 500 words.

2. Be ready for your brain to do its usual ‘lizard’ thing. When faced with a blank screen, it’s highly likely you’ll get the urge to hide under a rock. This is normal, and it’s just your brain doing what brains do. Ignore it and write.

3. You’ll probably also start worrying about failure. This is normal, too, and again it’s your brain doing what brains do. Ignore it.

4. If your brain is at its best in the morning, don’t use the mornings to check your bank statement. Use them to write. And turn off your internet connection if Google is luring you into supposedly essential research.

5. Give yourself deadlines that you’ll take seriously. Writing a novel by June of next year doesn’t quite penetrate one’s consciousness as much as writing 300 words by 5 o’clock this afternoon.

6. Allow yourself whatever scaffolding you need to give yourself a framework, even if you know you’ll probably end up taking it down. You could decide to use a certain number of chapters or you could decide to mirror the structure of a symphony – whatever makes you feel secure. (This is a paraphrasing of Zadie Smith’s excellent advice on page 105 of Changing My Mind.)

7. Running out of steam is completely normal. Sometimes a cup of tea does the trick. Sometimes you have to accept that a ‘project plateau’ is a natural part of any creative endeavour. Keep going, and you’ll get through it. And don’t forget to look back at what you’ve done and enjoy a sense of achievement. Then keep going.

8. Your first draft will never be perfect – and is usually the hardest – so just get it down on screen. Then at least you’ll have something to work with.

9. Give yourself time away from it, and then come back ready to cut and rewrite. Change the font if that helps you see your words afresh. And remember that rewriting is an essential part of writing, not an optional extra.

10. Stop reading about writing. Instead, sit down and write.