NON FICTION: Why ‘Just Write’ Isn’t Just Cliché Writing Advice

A woman writing in notebook

Photo: Trent Szmolnik

I know, I know. Enough of ‘just write’ articles. If you’re a writer worth your salt, you’ve probably procrastinated more than five times the amount you actually work, so I’m sure you’ve come across your share of similar articles during these times of ‘creative rest’.

I’ll be upfront and say that this article is probably not for you—no wait don’t close the browser. What I meant to say was, I had a rough time piecing this story together and I almost sent this draft to the trash, but I’d recently made a decision to increase my writing output, and part of that commitment involves finishing my shit.

So what you’re about to read is mostly published for my sake. Better out than in, people always say, and who knows? Maybe one person on the other end of the world might find this useful. That’ll be reason enough to exorcise the literary grinch that’s taken to the cobwebby corner of my mind.

Enter the rough waters

Why am I having such a bad time writing this? I don’t know. Call it writer’s block. Blame the literary grinch. Maybe add in a sprinkle of inebriation. Everything just doesn’t sound right. The topic feels staler than a Christmas fruitcake from 2015. Does this simile even work? Would anyone want to read this crap? Is ‘staler’ even a word? You get the point.

What’s worse than putting out shoddy work however, is the possibility of not publishing at all, and that doesn’t sit well with me as far as my writing goals for 2019 are concerned.

So buckle up, pour yourself a stiff one, and let’s see if I can make any sense about ‘just write’ and how you can use this clichéd writing tip to your benefit.

My own ‘just write’ journey

For eight years I’ve hid behind news pieces, travel articles, hotel reviews, and advertising copy, telling myself that my day jobs were what made me a writer. I mean, it’s not as if I didn’t lust over having my own magazine bylines during my days as a hairdresser.

I’ve since written for a few publications and have made some leaps in the publishing industry, so I have made it, have I not? After churning out endless copy variations of the same marketing message, I came to the painful conclusion that no, I was far from where I wanted to be.

In fact, my day job seemed to pull me further away from my literary goals. Behind each social media post I wrote was a little goblin that snatched away a tiny morsel of my soul every time we met.

It wasn’t until this year that I finally decided to use mortality as my main motivator. The book has been put off way too long, and I haven’t been writing—really writing—as much as I wanted to. I wanted to grab the writing bull by its horns and see what would come out of it.

I’m still trying to figure things out, but I’ve since completed that cyberpunk novel I’ve been meaning to write, as well as received my first acceptance letter for a short story.

I’ve also met my aforementioned commitment to write more, which varies from 1,000 to 3,000 words a day. That’s 1,000 to 3,000 words more than my average output these past eight years.

Even on the days I didn’t feel like writing, I still forced myself out to a coffee shop to describe the sights and sounds in my notebook.

I know that some writers don’t subscribe to the ‘write every day’ school of thought—neither did I—but I’m beginning to see the logic to this path. You practice, you get good. That’s just the way it is.

Don’t get me started on ‘perfect practice makes perfect’ saying though. That only applies if you’re practising enough beforehand. I wasn’t.

Woman's hands writing on book

You just gotta get down to it. Photo: Cathryn Lavery

How you can use the ‘just write’ advice

Your stories matter, so you should write through the doubt no matter what it tells you. Doubt and writing go hand in hand. You’ll never truly be free from its grasp. Best to accept the fact that it’ll be around whenever you so much as fire up a word processor.

But leave the likes and dislikes to the audience. Don’t disqualify yourself before you even start.

Isn’t it funny how writing has one of the lowest barriers to entry, yet many people treat the blank page as though it’s brain surgery (yours truly included)?

Better not screw up the first sentence, you tell yourself. That’ll ruin the entire story.

No it won’t. In fact, drop all expectations. Why not ask yourself which you’d rather do, to share a story that might or might not be liked, or to not publish entirely out of fear?

That was a trick question. Of course you’d rather share your work with others. Why else would you bother thinking up your best sentences, a hundred times over? To impress yourself? Well we already have a word for that. It’s called journalling.

All the arts involve being vulnerable, as well as the need to bare your soul to some degree. But you have it pretty easy as a writer, unless you’d rather be an actor, singer, or a dancer. Me, I’m pretty okay with sharing my intimate thoughts from an unlit basement and not having to deal with rotten tomatoes (actual physical tomatoes, not the website) and heckling.

People are going to hate you no matter what you do. Even Mother Teresa was called a ‘religious imperialist’, and the Dalai Lama labelled a ‘white supremacist’. If people of this calibre catch this much flak, then I don’t dare imagine what others would think about an article on ‘just writing’.

So why not do it anyway? It’ll be worth it to those who actually appreciate you.

No matter how you plan to go about it though, do try your best to set a routine before you even begin. Neil Gaiman said it best when he, in an interview with Tim Ferriss, described one of the main facilitators to his craft: “Writing a novel works best when you can do the same day over and over again. The closer you can come to Groundhog Day, [the better].”

I would take this one step further and establish a writing ritual. Set aside your writing time of the day, then add a few little ceremonies that tell your brain it’s time to get to work.

My daily ritual these days—I write best in the nights, but draft best in the mornings—involve waking up, making myself a cup of coffee, writing my morning pages, doing penmanship practices, memorising a few new Chinese characters, meditating, then writing.

I do all this before the day even begins. Then I go about my day, and rewrite any drafts after the sun sets.

I recently picked up a 21-day assignment in Myanmar that wreaked havoc to this routine, and I’ve now grown extra protective of my own Groundhog Day. Routines really work, and rituals solidify your routines.

These are just things to do prior to actually starting. Here’s a little intermission before we delve into doing the actual work.

Kitten and puppy rubbing heads

No better picture to wash your eyes with. Photo: Krista Mangulsone

Actions speak louder than speakerphones

Okay, you now have a ritual and you’re raring to go. Now comes the important bit: actually putting in the work. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a 1,000-word article or a tome of a fantasy saga, there’ll come a time when you’ll actually have to make words. And that part sucks, I know.

But you know what sucks more? The shame that comes with not writing for the day. You can live in denial for a year or two, chalking your inactivity to long hours at work or having to take care of the kids, but we all know you can bang out 100 words on the toilet. We all know because we all can. We just don’t want to.

So how do we get around inaction? Here are a few things that work for me.

Shitty first drafts are not a myth. I never really took a liking for this method as I prefer having my words the way I want them to be before moving on to the next sentence. In my experience, shitty first drafts only end up being unfixable first drafts.

But where this technique shines is when it highlights the different tangents you never thought to take. For instance, this article started out as Another Just Write Article. I had written an entire story on the times I had to ‘just write’, but that turned out to be a slow read.

I deleted 80% of that draft and reworked it into this piece. Would my previous angle have been better? I’ll never know. But I wouldn’t have stumbled across this idea had I not written that shitty first draft.

If you’re having trouble with this method, just imagine that you’re writing to a non-native speaker. That’ll help you forget the prose and focus on what’s important—the actual content and story.

You can also flesh out an outline. Write the most skeletal outline that comes to mind. Then pad each outline up. Then pad those pads further, until you’re left with enough padding to line an entire asylum.

I’d come across this technique on my own, necessitated by the insane deadlines some companies impose on their writers. I’d soon learn that this was a common method used by many people, and it’s real easy to do too.

I’ll use this article as an example. For my first draft, I outlined: troubles writing, why ‘just write’ is good for writing troubles, how you can ‘just write’.

Of course, you can now see the difference between my initial plan and the final product, and that’s where outlining can take you. I’m a pantser by default though, so do take my outlining tips with a grain of salt.

Or you can just embrace the hard work. Writing’s hard work. There’s no two ways about it. Even those of you who’d relished the ‘Write about yourselves’ assignments in high school will find the craft unbearable more often than so.

And that’s exactly why you should write. David Goggins credits himself for doing things that people don’t want to do. Many people talk the talk, but very few walk the walk.

Be the David Goggins of writing. As stated above, writing has one of the lowest barrier to entry ever, yet so many people struggle to write their story. Muster up 250 words a day for your personal projects and you’ve just set yourself apart from 90% of the other writers out there.

What could you do with 500, 1,000, even 10,000 words a day? Even Hemingway reportedly produced just 500 words a day, and look how he did.

Woman in purple top yawning

Hang on, we’re nearing the end. Photo: Kevin Grieve

Finishing up

You’ve gotten started, you’ve put in the work, now comes the ancillaries. Believe it or not, there are many more things involved beyond writing.

If you’ve just finished a novel, you’ve gotta pitch to publishers. If you’ve written a short story, it’s time to research literary mags. Ditto for poetry and scriptwriting. Each of these subcategories require a deeper dive into the respective distribution channels.

I was lucky to have a mentor, a nine-time novelist, to show me the ropes of the publishing field. I’ve sent in my manuscript to a novel-writing competition, and depending on how it does, I’ll likely have to continue sending it in to publishers worldwide, seek agents, or even—not looking forward to this—write a second novel.

What about you? What’s the follow-up plan to your project? Are there any particular Medium publications you can send your article to? Are there comments to respond to on your blog? Maybe you could share your work in a subreddit? All these little things play a role in the big picture, so make sure you don’t skimp on these administrational activities.

Speaking of which, did you actually finish your shit? Because that’s one of the most important rules of writing. There are certain flows to the writing process, and you’ll never be acquainted with the entirety of the craft by just half-assing your ideas and aborting at the first signs of a challenge.

Chuck Wendig put it much more eloquently than I ever will, so if you’re looking for extra information, just click on this link and read why it’s important to see your projects through.

With all this said and done, I really do hope you benefit from this piece somewhat, because I’m clicking the ‘Publish’ button with much more doubt that I usually harbour at this stage—and that’s exactly why I need to publish this.

Because in the end, we’ll never really know anything until we try.

If you liked this piece, do follow my Facebook author page where I’m more liberal with memes and reposts.

3 thoughts on “NON FICTION: Why ‘Just Write’ Isn’t Just Cliché Writing Advice

  1. Good piece, well penned.

    What about you? What’s the follow-up plan to your project?

    I would most heartily recommend Scribophile as the next step after ‘completing’ a piece of work, to give it an extra polish. But if I were you, I wouldn’t listen to me; I can only point to a single book, and that one is self-published. My expertise in the field of procrastination, together with my intense fear of rejection have held me in check for decades, and continue to keep me from pursuing the teenage dream I once had. (No need to pity me: I came to terms with the reality long ago.)


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