Sometimes writerly challenges require complex solutions.
Other times, our challenges with writing arise from some very basic issues stemming from how we are approaching our early drafts.
It’s not that we’re choosing a wrong path, it’s that we’ve fallen into some subconscious patterns that are making things more difficult than they need to be.
Since the first step in changing those patterns is to become aware of them, I thought I would share a few reminders of common first draft traps that writers fall into.
Trap #1: Trying to write the whole thing at the same time
Note: This trap isn’t about trying to complete your story in one marathon writing session. We all have deadlines. Sometimes things go awry and we just have to blast through. We can try to plan better for next time. This might be a sign that we need to reorganize our schedule but it isn’t a trap.
The ‘do the whole thing’ trap happens when we try to tell all parts of the story or write all parts of the article at once. All of our ideas kind of crowd each other as they try to get onto the page. It’s almost like we are trying to get our writing to appear fully formed.
We want the piece written but our brains won’t let us start anywhere because of all the OTHER important things we want to say. This one is like one of those sticky rectangles that exterminators use. When we pull ourselves off the trap in one place, we get stuck in another.
I’ve used this analogy before but trying to complete a writing project is trying to shovel a driveway full of snow. (If you live somewhere without snow, imagine a big pile of dirt instead.)
You can’t possibly do it all at once. Even if you use a snowblower or a plow, you still have to pick a place to start and get to work.
If you are in the ‘all at once’ trap, try these steps:
- Acknowledge to yourself that all of the pieces are important but you have to start somewhere
- Make a list of your key ideas – in no particular order, you can move them later
- Pick a place to start and get writing. Your starting point does NOT have to be at the beginning or even at the most important idea.
The key here is to just get something on paper or screen, which brings us to our second trap.
Trap #2: Trying to get it right the first time
This one is like a cartoon bear trap but every tooth is made of self-judgement.
Your first writing for any project is going to be pretty awful. After a lot of practice, your first drafts will be better than they were but they will still be terrible in comparison to your finished piece.
Since everyone’s first drafts are terrible, you can let yourself off the hook for trying to get your piece right on the first try.
I like to compare writing a first draft to trying to find something in a junk drawer. Sure, you can pick through the drawer, trying not to disturb things, and you *might* find what you are looking for but it will probably take you a long time.
It would be much easier on your schedule and on your brain if you dumped out the drawer and spread everything out on a table. When it’s all spread out, you can easily see what’s there and you can pick out your treasures.
Once you have dumped your ‘junk drawer’ draft onto your page, you will be able see any treasures that you should revise for the next version of your piece.
If this trap has snapped closed on your writerly leg, try these steps:
- Acknowledge what is happening ‘I was trying to get this right in one draft. I just need to get my ideas out first.’
- Plan some short writing sessions (we recommend 10 minutes…or less) and use a timer
- Aim to be awful. After all, this is about getting your ideas out where you can see them. If you aim to be awful, anything else will be a bonus.
Trap #3: Writing to Size
Trying to ‘Write to Size’ is a very specific form of Trap #2. This one is like some sort of box trap that snaps shut once you are inside. You can’t see how to escape and you are limited by the dimensions of the structure around you.
In writerly terms, this happens when you have to write a piece that is a specific length or for a specific platform.
If you are trying to write to a word limit and you never let your draft go over that limit, you will spend a lot of time typing and deleting your words. You won’t, however, make a lot of progress.
If you are trying to write a post on Instagram or Facebook or a review on Amazon, and you are drafting in the little boxes they give, you are going to be intimidated about getting it ‘right.’ (And you’ll be worried about accidentally posting an imperfect draft.) This will lead to you taking A LOT of time to get that little piece of writing done.
Writing in the length, size, or shape required is important…in your final draft.*
In your earlier drafts, you need to give yourself some space to explore.
If you are caught in the box trap of writing to size, try these steps:
- Acknowledge what has been happening ‘I was trying to write to size! I don’t need to do that in my first draft.’
- If you have been trying to write in the little boxes of a platform, open a new document in your word processing program and work in there instead.
- If you have been trying to write to a word limit, let go of it for your first draft. If you find yourself going WAY over limit, revisit the scope of your initial idea. You may need to narrow it down to meet these limitations. You can always save the broader idea for another story.
A Final Word On Writerly Traps
These traps are the kinds of experiences that make us doubt ourselves. They can make us fear that we aren’t ‘real’ writers.
That is blatantly untrue. These traps are part of the process of writing.
So, don’t feel bad if you find yourself in one of them from time to time. I know about these traps, I teach about them, and I still fall into them. Luckily, after all the time I have spent talking about them, I can recognize them shortly after I fall in.
The next time your writing starts to feel confusing or you can’t quite get started, don’t criticize yourself. Instead, check for traps and follow the list to help yourself out.
*Note: When I’m coaching people, I often remind them that creativity loves constraints. Having limits can really help us generate good ideas and then can challenge us to sharpen our writing. However, don’t let them have too much influence in your drafting stage. Limits are great for generating ideas and improving later versions but, like I advise in Trap #2, dump that first draft out of your brain in whatever messy form it needs to be.
Christine Hennebury’s storytelling career began when she was four and her parents didn’t believe her tale about water shooting out of her nose onto the couch – they insisted that she had spilled bubble solution from the empty jar in her hand. Luckily, her skills have improved since then. Christine makes up stories, shares stories, and coaches other people who are working on stories, in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. Find out more about her at christinehennebury.com