writing

6 Easy Ways to Start Writing

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The blank page is terrifying.

But the good news is, writer’s block doesn’t exist.

Not really.

Not being able to think of anything to write is easily overcome with a few strategies.

And if writing is what you do, and you’re serious about it, not being in the mood is not a good enough excuse. You just have to keep turning up, and getting started.

Which is not to say that I’m not the world’s greatest procrastinator. Lately I’ve been tackling this head on.

Here are 6 of my favourite ways to get started.

1. Start by writing an email to a friend

Here’s a lovely way to trick yourself into writing when you’re not feeling it.

Don’t.

Start an email to a friend instead!

Address the email to a friend you think might like the post or the story you’re about to write, and start writing directly into that email, instead of into a word document.

This also helps to make the style of writing friendly and relatable.

2. Start first thing in the morning

First thing in the morning, our brains are at their quietest.

If I can wake up early, and give myself a couple of hours in which to get some writing done, it can feel like there’s nothing else I should be doing.

No children clamouring for me to download them an app, no washing to put on, no emails pinging around or messages coming in on my phone.

3. Start by getting really bored

The Internet is sometimes not terribly helpful for writers. It can provide a million different types of distraction.

And yet, the most powerful way to overcome writer’s block is to have nothing else to do.

So if it’s difficult to start writing, and there seem to be a million and one other things you could do to procrastinate, turn all of that off.

Put your phone on airplane mode, and sit quietly until ideas start tumbling around in your brain.

4. Start by writing longhand

I was writing a couple of days ago about Pen and ink vs computer.

Starting to write with a pen in a notebook might be less intimidating than watching a cursor blink at you on a screen.

It can change the style of writing that you do as well. Having to physically form the words we want to write can make us more thoughtful.

5. Start by knowing what kind of writer you are

“There are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners.

The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house.

They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be.

They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up.

The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it.

They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever.

But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows.

And I’m much more a gardener than an architect.”

George R.R. Martin

If you’re an architect rather than a gardener, it might be helpful to plan your writing before you start.

More and more detailed planning can be satisfying if you write this way. All you need to do afterwards is fill in the sections you’ve created in your blueprint.

I love everything that ConvertKit does, they have a great blog template on their site.

If you’re a gardener, the best thing might be to just start writing. Don’t worry that you haven’t had an idea yet. Allow the idea to emerge as you write.

To know what you’re going to draw, you have to begin drawing…

When I find myself facing a blank page, that’s always going through my head.

What I capture in spite of myself interests me more than my own ideas.

Pablo Picasso

6. Start by blocking distractions

Having Whatsapp messages, texts or carrier pigeons flying in through the window can be distracting.

Start by putting your phone on airplane mode. Or use an app like Flora to keep you on track. This is a lovely app. You plant a seed, the tree grows while you’re writing. If you close the app or wander off into other apps on your phone. THE TREE DIES. Brutal.


Above all, don’t panic! Writer’s block can be more to do with what else is going on in our lives than a lack of ideas.

If you can make space for it and try all these techniques, the ideas will start to flow.

Unless you’re trying to come up with a completely new idea. I’m not sure that’s possible.

Leave me a comment if you have any more ways to start I should know about. What works for you?

Pen and ink vs computer

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Is it harder to write now that it’s easier to write?

Hundreds of years ago, there was no digital editing, paper was expensive and to find a pen you had to butcher a peacock*.

*Or something. Turns out quill pens were made from goose, swan and turkey feathers.

19th century landowner, explorer and ‘first modern lesbian’, Anne Lister used to write her letters using every last inch of paper – it was pricey stuff.

In a ‘cross-written’ letter to her lover, Sibella Maclean, she turns the paper to write across what she’s already written.

In it she says, “I am an enigma even to myself and do excite my own curiosity.”

With thanks to the West Yorkshire Archive Service.

When writing materials were expensive, you would want to have a pretty good idea of what you wanted to say before committing quill to parchment.

Shakespeare, (who may have written King Lear during lockdown) never crossed a line, according to legend. But maybe he just had a massively inflated ego.

These days, you can just digitally vomit onto a word document, and there is no cost to you if the majority of it is garbage.

But is this a less satisfying way to write?

Some modern writers still swear by the pen and ink approach.

Neil Gaiman explained on The Tim Ferris Show that he usually writes his first drafts longhand, with notebook and fountain pen.

Nobody is ever meant to read your first draft.

Your first draft can go way off the rails, your first draft can absolutely go up in flames, you can change the age, gender, number of a character, you can bring somebody dead back to life.

Nobody ever needs to know anything that happens in your first draft. It is you telling the story to yourself.

Neil Gaiman

Then he extracts the best lines to type up..

Then, I’ll sit down and type.

I’ll put it onto a computer, and as far as I’m concerned, the second draft is where I try and make it look like I knew what I was doing all along.

Neil Gaiman

Creativity is about gumption as much as it’s about talent.

And there’s a lot to be said, psychologically, for doing things this way.

A second draft sounds more satisfying if the method is to select the best lines from a notebook, rather than deleting great swathes of digital text.

There might be something to slowing down and writing ‘analogue’ before committing finger to keyboard.

Coming Up with ‘New’ Ideas

First of all, forget new ideas. There aren’t any. See through toaster? Already exists. Dusting drones? Done. DIY bath milk? What are you even talking about Harriet, that’s not a thing. Oh alright then, it is.

Whatever you come up with, it won’t be new. New is just old + old smooshed into a ball. All the way back to, “I wonder what happens if I bang these rocks together?”

Think about it. See through toaster = toaster + window. Dusting drones = drone + your Nan. You can work out the bath milk one.

Point is, you’ve got nothing. I’ve got nothing. Nobody’s got anything – every thought has been thought before. The good news is, it doesn’t matter. Smashing old ideas together is a valid way to become Elon Musk/Cardi B/any other entrepreneur you can think of.

How is it done though?

Years ago, this dude J.W.Young wrote a thing about how to come up with fresh stuff. He was in advertising, so we can assume he had to produce every day. He didn’t believe in ‘new’ either.

Here’s his method:

  1. Collect ‘materials’. Both general materials and those specific to what you’re making.
  2. Digest the stuff. Here we have to be like a ‘curious octopus.’ Pick each thing up, feel it all over like a randy, sorry, curious octopus. Feel for the meaning of it. Bring two things together, see how they fit. You’re looking for relationships and ‘synergies’.
  3. This is my favourite part. ‘Make absolutely no effort of a direct nature.’ I read this as: take the afternoon off and go to the pub.
  4. The ‘A-ha’ moment. Yes! This is what we’ve been waiting for. The ‘new’ idea hits us as we soak in a tub full of bath milk. There’s nowhere to write it down so we squirt it as best we can on the wall in Original Source Shower Gel.
  5. Idea meets reality. “The cold, grey dawn of the morning after.” We’ve all been there. See if the thing has legs. Tell people whose thoughts you value for feedback.

The good idea, according to Young, has ‘self-expanding qualities.’ If a friend thinks of things to add, you may be onto something. If they say nothing but nod politely as their eyes glaze gently over, you might want to drop it.

Coming back to his method years later, Young added that pursuing ‘general materials’ for the idea producer’s reservoir is best done as an end in itself, rather than whilst boning up for something.

With thanks to Maria Popova at Brain Pickings for an article about Young and a bunch of other stuff on creativity, productivity and how to be a human in the world.

Do creative projects have a life of their own?

“There are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up.

The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows. And I’m much more a gardener than an architect.” – George RR Martin

This gave me great hope when I read it a few weeks ago.

“Maybe I’m a gardener!” I thought to myself, watering some tomato plants. Maybe that’s why I’m rubbish at writing long stuff. I get scared by the bigness of a project and dive into a completely alien way of working.

Maybe, I think, if I work out what all the sections of this are, and plan it to the nth degree, then eventually I’ll just fill in the detail in all the little compartments I’ve created and the thing will be finished and beautifully structured.

But I just don’t work like that. Neil Gaiman explains his writing method:

“Your first draft can go way off the rails, your first draft can absolutely go up in flames, it can — you can change the age, gender, number of a character, you can bring somebody dead back to life. Nobody ever needs to know anything that happens in your first draft. It is you telling the story to yourself.

Then, I’ll sit down and type. I’ll put it onto a computer, and as far as I’m concerned, the second draft is where I try and make it look like I knew what I was doing all along.” – Neil Gaiman (The Tim Ferriss Show”)

Another gardener! Write it, allow anything at all to happen, and then pick out the bits that make up an elegant plot in draft 2. He even goes on to say he prefers hand-writing his first drafts because then he can pick out the bits he wants when typing up, rather than having to delete whole pages of work on the computer.

Then I listened to another interview today which suggests that we may not be in control of our creative projects at all.

A true creator knows that you follow the thing to where it’s going, not where you think it ought to go.” – Adam Savage (via Tim Ferriss, again.)

Now that’s really interesting.

Is it that a creative project has a life of its own, and we’re not the master of the thing we came up with at all?

“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” – Michelangelo

It’s all very well for people of extraordinary vision like Michelangelo, but not everything is captured inside a block of marble. And if it is, not everybody can see the statue. Some just see a very difficult and painful afternoon.

I guess if you look at it from outside your own skull and the point in time that you’re at, every creative project has a trajectory and a rate of ‘success’, but we can’t see all of it from the beginning.

So maybe the point is just to set off along the path, and see where we get to.

Edinburgh show: Meet in the Middle

Show posterIn three days time, Nicola Houghton and I will be heading up to the Edinburgh festival to perform our brand new show, Nicola Houghton & Rachel Wheeley: Meet in the Middle.

The Edinburgh fringe is the single biggest celebration of arts and culture on the planet. Last year there were over 50,000 performances of 3,398 shows in 300 venues all over the city and this year there will be even more.

This year, one of those 3,000 shows will be ours!

Nicola and I are neighbours with three kids each, but we’re from very different backgrounds. Nicola grew up in a working-class household on the gravy-soaked cobbles of The North, surviving thanks to raffle prizes, knitted underwear and treasures found in skips. Meanwhile I was growing up at Eton College, entirely failing to get off with Prince William and mixing with teenagers who had never seen an onion. I didn’t go to school there, because they don’t accept women. This is the story of how that panned out.

If you’re going to be in Edinburgh between the 4th and the 11th, drop into Bar Bados on Cowgate at 6pm to see what we’ve been working on! We’re hugely indebted to Steve Cross and Andrew Smith for photography and poster design respectively. Thanks to everyone who came to see our London previews. I’ll let you know how it went when I get back!