Saturday, April 25, 2009

Start Arbitrarily, Edit Relentlessly

Looking at a blank page, trying to figure out what to write on it has to be one of the most frustrating experiences in the world. When I can do anything at all, the most likely result is doing nothing. A dozen possibilities stream through my head, and none of them makes it onto the page. Trying to pick the best, I'm paralyzed and close the notebook.

Start Arbitrarily

I take a sip of my cappuccino, reopen the notebook, and write down a topic at random. A few words, a line or two... the pen picks up speed, and I'm off.

For many creative tasks, trying to optimize too much up front is not just doing more work than needed, it's actually inhibitory. Instead of trying to come up with the perfect idea ahead of time, I remind myself to just get started and get the thoughts moving. Don't worry about the quality of the writing; that comes later. Just go!

There's an activation energy to any activity, even one I enjoy. No matter how excited I am about writing, until the pen hits the paper there's still resistance. Once I've started, keeping going takes much less energy, and usually before long the ideas start pouring out.

Edit Relentlessly

Once I've got a lot of things written, now it's time to worry about quality. I try to not be afraid to change around something I've written, rewrite it completely, or even throw it away. As I work on something, I get more and more comfortable with it as I go. This is actually one of the reasons starting is hard: when I'm deciding what to write, I usually don't feel very confident about any of my possible subjects. By the time I've thrown away my first draft, I'm halfway to feeling like an expert.

This method for creative work is actually one of the core insights behind a programming methodology known as Agile Development. By planning less and focusing instead on making it easy to continually revise and iterate code, Agile developers not only end writing software faster but the result is often higher quality.

So the next time you've got a project where you don't know where to begin, try flipping a coin, or otherwise starting arbitrarily. Let me know how it goes!

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  1. After decades of writing, including several regular columns, I can confidently say that that's what works for me, too. Even when I have a subject the same approach works.

    It's why I find writing on a computer so much better than on a typewriter. There's no temptation to keep the first draft. I've heard from professional writers of an earlier era that they wrote the first draft longhand for the same reason

  2. Hi sjmalarkey, thanks for reading and commenting! I think lowering the barriers to throwing away the first draft is really important. Its hard to be willing to get rid of your hard work. I also often have at least part of the first draft in a Moleskine notebook, which means I'm going to have to at least re-enter it once, usually heavily modified as it goes in.

  3. If the object is something I care about, I usually don't try to edit the draft. I just print it out and type it in again so I'm willing to do the heavy modification it takes. Then I start with the editing.