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March 20th, 2020
This episode is dedicated to Devon who asked about how to start a writing practice. You can connect with Devon on Twitter with the handle @raidevon
A writing practice is a bit like a meditation practice. Sitting down to practice everyday yields a lot of unexpected good, and over time, this good may compound in other unexpected ways.
But where to start?
This is often the most difficult question when it comes to just about anything. The advice to just start is quite a bit better than the old faithful advertisement to just do it.
Starting involves a much smaller step than the whole. Just do it refers to the entire task.
So how does a person just start when it comes to writing?
There are a few basic parameters that were adopted when Tinkered Thinking was just getting started that have turned out to be incredibly effective, and as per some initial experiments with others, these parameters prove to be useful for the person who feels like a beginner.
First is to set a time limit. Say just 20 minutes a day.
The reasons for this are three fold.
When faced with a blank screen and a desire to write, it’s easy to sit there all day imagining the perfect piece of writing while the screen remains completely blank. Setting a time limit is a forcing function to get started. It’s not 20 minutes from the moment you start writing. It’s 20 minutes from the moment you sit down to write. Which means any time spent staring at the blank page is eating into your valuable 20 minutes. The small pressure this situation creates is extremely useful, and perhaps the most useful thing that will be suggested here.
The second reason why this time limit is so useful is because it forces you to try and write something mildly cohesive during that time. After enough time, writing becomes like anything else, enjoyable. Once you’re on a roll, you can find yourself writing for hours. This time limit also functions as a way to manage the new practice inside of your existing schedule. You don’t have to allot an unknown amount of time. The constraint helps a writer get a sense of arc. By repeating this exercise day after day, then a writer practices beginnings, build ups, and conclusions, over and over. As opposed to working on one thing and editing it to death. Or simply letting the piece of writing metastasize to an enormous and ungainly size.
The third reason is that this practice creates a cannon of work in relatively short time. After attempting to write something cohesive 7 times in a week, you suddenly have 7 pieces of writing from which you can choose from if you wanted to expand and hone one of them. Do this practice for a month, and then not only have you practiced beginnings, build ups and conclusions 30 times, but again you have quite a sizable library of mirco-writings to choose from if you so wish to tinker with expanding and polishing a piece of writing.
In addition to this parameter of limited time, there is also the question of topic.
That is, what to write about.
The working rule of thumb here is that essays are far more useful than diary entries. Keeping a journal has a history of being touted as a practice for good mental health, but attempting to write micro essays might prove to have an edge on diary entries as more and more people explore the practice of writing. As for what these micro-essays should be about, curiosity is key. And curiosity can be a response to confusion. So this also makes confusion a guiding light. One daily activity where these two often pop up is while taking a shower. It’s one of the few times during our day when our mind is left to wander, and it’s a particularly ripe time when topics for writing emerge. Where diary entries tend to be more of a record of action and feeling, micro essays go in the other direction. They are exploratory.
Indeed, the strange thing about writing is that even though our alphabet has been around for quite a while, and we’ve been slapping words together in all sorts of ways for much of that time, the world of writing might just be getting started. Giant libraries seem to broadcast the idea that everything has been written. What’s there to add? But this is the wrong perspective. It’s the wrong question. A better one is: can writing clarify my thinking and help me understand the way I see the world? The answer is yes. This leads to a final point about how to start writing.
The written word has an implicit assumption that it exists to be read. But this is not true. Writing for an audience, or even feeling like you are writing for an audience creates a self consciousness that often hinders far more than it helps.
Tinkered Thinking was started merely with the intention to write. The content found it’s way onto the internet by accident more than anything, and then slowly it has gained a much loved audience. But even after that process of growth, the initial reason to write remains intact. It is a method for examining and analyzing the way we think. This begins to trot into the territory of why we should write. This final point is simply to highlight the benefits of intentionally not showing one’s writing. There is freedom without an audience, and when starting a new practice like this, it’s best to keep the pressure off. Once the practice and habit has it’s own momentum, then who cares who reads it and what they think. By that time, you’re practice can’t be stopped, only improved, and that’s exactly how the opinions of others become useful. Even those who hate what you produce. With enough momentum, everything in your way can become fuel for the practice.
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