Title image: The blank page, symbolizing the problem of how to get started writing.
Over the weekend, while discussing my blog with a friend, I asked what she would like me to address concerning the writing process.
Her reply was immediate: “How do you get started writing?”
She is a commercial real estate agent who often has to write copy for projects she’s putting on the market. The copy might be only two paragraphs, but these two paragraphs need to be persuasive enough to sell a property – or at least get a potential buyer interested. She is clear-sighted and confident about the qualities she needs to be an effective commercial real estate agent. She is less clear-sighted and confident about her skills as a writer.
The three things I have to say to her are exactly what I would say to any beginning writer, no matter what genre you want to master.
1. Allow yourself to be messy.
I chose the title image to give me an opportunity to critique the false sense of the writing process it suggests. The six crumpled-up pages on the left suggest that the writer expects to get down all in one go whatever she wants to write, as long as she can get started right.
The reality is she’s unlikely to do any better filling the seventh pristine page with perfect prose than the previous six, so she should quit wasting paper (metaphorically speaking) and recognize that putting words on a page is only part of getting started writing.
My point is: Get started writing knowing you are not going to get it right at first. Just keep going with whatever crummy stuff comes out on page one, because you are going to edit it. In fact, you might edit it so thoroughly that nothing of what you originally wrote appears in the final version.
The crummy stuff fills the blank page. It might even be something so rambling as “I don’t know how to get started writing this real estate ad. Okay, what do I know about it? It’s a renovation. It has mixed-use space. I think we got a good architect who updated the building but kept the design features that still work today. The location is great, up-and-coming, and so we priced the spaces so either a retailer or a resident who saw the potential of the neighborhood would see it as a good deal.”
My guess is perhaps 1/4 – at most! – of what I’ve written above would ultimately be kept. The good news is you now have something to work with.
Here’s a page from my notebook where I made a list of blogs I was writing this summer. Okay, it’s not a page of my self-edited writing, but it’s representative of how I work: really messily.
I changed the numbering on some of the blogs more than once, cut out certain topics such as #16, #17 and #18 and never pursued ideas scrawled in the middle right-hand page, namely The Repression (a period in Kazakh history) and KORT (a dried milk-based food; why did I write it in all caps? I have no idea).
By the way I revised this blog Get Started Writing a minimum of 15 times.
2. Read your work out loud.
This semester I’m teaching a creative writing novel seminar for the second time – and loving it! Last week a student whose work was being workshopped wrote it in narrative past tense but wondered if she should switch it to present tense.
I said, “Right now read the first two paragraphs out loud using present tense so we can all hear how it sounds.”
She did so, and most of us were amazed to hear how good it sounded (except for one student who was adamantly against).
I don’t know if she’s going to switch – both present tense and narrative past have their effects – but now she has an open mind about present tense.
My advice to my real estate friend: Read your real estate ad copy out loud. Revise. Repeat.
3. Read widely in your genre.
This is the Golden Rule.
You want to write good real estate ad copy? Read 100 real estate ads/brochures/whatever. Identify what you think works and what you think doesn’t.
Reading is always the remedy for what ails a writer. You read to get started writing.
See also: Writing Blogs
This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen