How to Start Writing Something

Start Writing: Begin With First Drafts

“I have rewritten – often several times – every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.” – Vladimir Nabokov

As any seventh-grader should be able to tell you, the first stage of the writing process is prewriting – planning out what you’re going to say. And, in some cases, how you’re going to say it. Depending on what you’re writing, this could involve anything from scribbling on a Post-It to constructing a multi-page outline with footnotes. Then, it’s the moment of truth: time to start writing your first draft.

First drafts are the worst. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – as Anne Lamott memorably argued, terrible first drafts are often exactly what enables good writing. That’s because most writing is actually revising – pondering every word, sentence, and paragraph, and polishing them until they shine.

Cognitive psychologists warn that humans can handle only a limited cognitive load. In other words, if you have to focus on too many things at one time, you won’t perform as well as you otherwise could. Often, your writing will be better served if you focus first on getting your ideas down completely, and then on making sure your phrasing is clear and you’re following standard conventions.

Practical Solutions

A good rule of thumb, therefore, is to never actually use your first draft of anything. It will almost always be worth the extra time and effort to focus on content as you’re writing and then double back to work on your phrasing, grammar, and spelling.

Of course, in the real world, you don’t always get the chance to revise when you start writing, especially if you’re working on something time-sensitive, like an email. If you find yourself in this situation – and you will – the best thing you can do is clean up as you go along. In other words, try to catch any grammatical errors or awkward phrases while you are typing them.

This is difficult to do effectively, which is why if you possibly can, you should really try to leave time at least to give your draft a quick once-over. For times when you can’t, two things can help you out. One, of course, is eType. It will suggest and autocomplete words as you go along so that you don’t have to give spelling a second thought. The second is increasing your knowledge of the dominant English conventions.

An Investment

One of the best ways to get better at using the grammar and spelling conventions of standard English is plain old exposure. A baby learning her mother tongue or an adult learning a second language needs to be immersed in the target language in order to be able to use it fluently. Likewise, if you want to write well, you need exposure to good writing.

It’s a good idea to read solid examples of the type of writing you’re trying to produce. Like, if you’re writing grant proposals, you may want to check out successful grant proposals. And if you’re writing advertising copy, you may want to check out successful advertising copy. It’ll help give you a feel for what works (and maybe you’ll be able to steal some secrets while you’re at it.

However, if your goal is to improve your grammar and spelling more broadly, feel free to read something else. You can read anything you want. If you have no idea where to start, though, literary fiction or literary nonfiction is a good option because the prose is so finely crafted. Think of it as brain food. The more you read, the more you’ll expose your brain to the spellings and grammatical structures you want it to create. And as a bonus, you may increase your leadership skills.

The rest of the posts in this series will share techniques that you can use while drafting or while revising to help your writing shine. In the meantime, feed your brain – pick up a book and start reading!