500 Words, Day Six / by dan turner

It's the end of the first week of the 500 Words of September. So it's time to get meta and ask, "What did we learn this week?"

The focus of my week was just sitting the hell down and getting some words on a page. This may sound like a trivial exercise, but it's a big barrier for me.

For over a decade, I wrote for a living. News, feature articles, reviews, etc., professionally edited. Every article was assigned, complete with deadline; this definitely conditioned me against ad hoc blogging (and writing for free).

Without that structure, I fell out of the habit of writing. Grad school meant only assigned papers; moving into the UX field limited writing to documentation, mostly.

So here are a few things I've noticed in this week of "shut up and write".

Writing is hard, but not as hard as you think it is if you're not doing it

Of course, there are some people who seem to churn words out effortlessly (Kerouac, Rilke, Charlie Pierce). But all you see is the end product, not the lifetime of false starts, blank stares, revising, and fruitless hours that result in garbage.

This isn't to endorse the "10,000 hours" trope uncritically – no matter how much time you put in, it's no guarantee you won't write crap – but there is truth in "the more you do, the more you can do", whether that's getting around to cleaning your apartment, running a half-marathon, or writing. Actually, I'm not sure why we understand this more easily for athletics; it's as though we see creativity as a limited resource, available only when the muse bops you on the brain, rather than something you can practice.

"Don't just stand there – write something!"

We are addicted to rewards. Use that. Use the writing to feel like you've accomplished something, if only crossing something off a list. Making a public commitment, or being responsible to someone else, can help motivate you.

Caveat A: This is not completely like the endorphin reward system we encounter in games or when we eat something tasty. Just about anything else will provide an easier jolt. But it'll feel good to have it done. Work on linking delayed gratification to, well, gratification.

Caveat B: Be careful that this writing doesn't become the sum total of your "I got SOMETHING done" of the day. I've found that these daily essays can trigger the "hey, good job being productive, let's go read a comic" response. Note your success, but move on. Sure there's always something more to do.

"But wait, there's more"

There's more to writing well than just getting the words down, of course. There's having a point, practicing style, building a story that people will read, and a million other things. The next weeks of September will, for me, be working towards building structure, or logical argument – basically towards the goal of writing something halfway decent. That people will read and possibly even enjoy.

And that's 500 words.