As writers, we attempt the impossible: generating new content from a blank page. As we stare down our screens, willing our thoughts to life, we often experience some of our worst writing.
I have the pleasure of reading some truly awful writing in my role as a writing instructor. For nearly a decade, I had to choke down some of the worst sentences imaginable. Most of these sentences appear at the top of the page, and the words feel like a toddler is flicking my eyes with his tiny, chubby fingers.
Here is the principle I want you to remember: Our first words are not our best words.
The brain, like the muscles in the body, works best when it is properly warmed up and stretched. We need to give ourselves time to prepare for the challenging mental task of writing. If we open a new document and start writing, we will find the first few sentences sluggish.
What my students often don’t realize (even after I point this out) is that it is difficult to sit down in front of a computer on deadline (self-imposed or otherwise) and crank out good writing. Starting with a cold brain will likely lead to several false starts.
Here’s a few tips for avoiding the cold start syndrome:
- Free write – Open a new document and just begin writing. Eventually the ideas will catch on. You can always eliminate the first few sentences (or paragraphs, if it is a particularly rough start).
- Exercise – Go for a brief walk. Lift some weights. Do some yoga. Physical activity is a great way to let your minds wander and search for ideas while the body is otherwise occupied.
- Use writing exercises – There are several good books with short writing exercises on the market. My favorite is Take Ten for Writers by Bonnie Neubauer. There are 100 different exercises in this book with at least 10 variations for each, so if you use every variation, then you will have 1,000 different things to write about. I’ve found that some of my best ideas for future stories have originated in one of these activities.
- Edit – Go back to something you wrote earlier and revise the last few pages. By engaging in this earlier material, you are coaxing your brain to start thinking creatively. As a bonus, you are also cleaning up any writing messes you left on a previous day.
Regardless of what method you use (or if you use none at all), your brain will eventually warm up. Avoiding cold brain is more about managing your expectations. If you are not aware of this syndrome, and you attempt to write brilliant prose, you will inevitably become frustrated. Frustration leads to doubt which leads to the dark side of the force.
Seriously though, a frustrated writer is one who is prone to give up and not dedicate time to the discipline of writing. By realizing that your brain is not at its best when you start, you can start training your brain to respond to rituals that lead to better writing.