Shut Up and Write

By Eli Ryder

It happens like this:

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You make a commitment to have a piece of writing done, and then the day you’ve promised to have that piece of writing comes, but you’ve written a first paragraph four times and then deleted it, or rewritten one sentence for hours, or stared at a blank screen until your eyes crossed and you ran out of coffee. And that’s it. You’ve got nothing at all for that thing you committed to.

There are a few paths to take from there.

The obvious, least desirable, and maybe most common immediate response is to blame a lack of talent. How dare you even consider writing? you think. Hack, dreamer, failure, and myriad other insults come to mind, but they all say the same thing: you don’t have that piece of writing because you’re not artistically or intellectually capable of producing it. You didn’t write the thing because you just can’t.

Second, and better but not great, is to berate yourself until you’re blue in the fingers (because we type those admonishments out on the page or write them in our notebooks when things aren’t working, don’t we? No? Just me?) and sad of heart, and then delete or cross it all out, get up, and go do something else. Something sunny and boozy, or something day-jobby, or something horror-movie-y. Maybe boozy at the day job or horror movie, too, if you’re feeling particularly froggy and unconcerned about consequences. But, then you sit back down. You’re back at the keyboard writing another first paragraph. And maybe it works—but you’ve got all that self-doubt still looming from the last time you axed a junk paragraph to get over first, which means working harder.

I propose a third avenue. Instead of berating, editing, starting over, and repeating until hope is lost, instead of drinking the pain away, just stop deleting that first paragraph. Keep writing. It’s probably not as bad as you’re telling yourself it is, and even if it is, all you’re doing is dumping the bad writing out of your head to make room for the good. We have to remove a blockage, sometimes. Sure, what comes out may take a while to clear up, but once it does, you’re off and running with an idea that you can make work—because you didn’t quit writing before things started to work.

Quitting is no way to finish a project. It’s the opposite of finishing. Scenario two at least includes putting your ass back in the chair at some point, though the self-admonishment and -medication only make getting back into it harder, unless you’re one of those writers whose productivity soars with the right drink or the right dose—I’m not. But, there’s still that part where you quit for a time, which means you’re not writing.

And isn’t that the point? To write? So, don’t stop. Yeah, the first idea didn’t work, the first line is trash, the first paragraph is a pile of manure. Dig up the second and third and fourth and do it in the same session. Write until it works. Make the idea work. Write through the suck, as I-can’t-remember-who told me once.

The only real way to beat writer’s block or that overly-critical internal editor is to ignore them both and keep putting words on the page. Put your ass in the seat, put your hands on the keyboard, and don’t stop until it works. The one thing successful writers all have in common isn’t talent. It’s that they didn’t quit when the work sucked. Writers write.