I am sure that you have been in this situation before. The deadline for your university coursework is approaching all too fast. Therefore you have a Grand Plan to Get to Work ASAP. It’s Saturday morning, you’ve cleaned your flat and caught up on all your TV shows… So you take a seat in front of your computer with a strong resolution to get at least half of the work done. You open up a blank page in Word and begin. Two hours later… you’ve decided on the ideal font. You spend the next two hours setting the margins perfectly. The amount of text you’ve written so far? Zero.
Is it your fault? It’s not, regardless what all the coaches try to tell you. Well, not all of it. The fault partly lies in the choice of the wrong tools. The writing process can be divided into three stages and Word (or any other classic text editor) should only come up in the third and final stage. So what do we do beforehand?
Stage One: Inspiration
The famous “writer’s block” doesn’t result from lacking an idea. It’s not like you stare at an empty page on your screen and no ideas pop up in your head. I would say the opposite is true — you have way too many ideas! And do you know what the problem is? A computer keyboard is a tool that engineers would call a single input stream device. Using a keyboard (or a pen if you want to just write down a line of text) requires your stream of thoughts to be organized. However, it’s not always so. Our brain works on the principle of loose associations, processing a lot of threads at the same time. To start off, you need to tame this chaos. First in your head and then using external tools. How to deal with it?
- Do not start writing by opening a computer and a text editor! The conceptual part is based on loose associations. A blinking cursor requires a single stream of thought and only adds to your stress.
- A piece of paper, pencil, loose sketches are your friends. Loose sketches better reflect the natural work process of your brain.
- The result of this stage is the text outline. The things that come to your mind (and which are noted down) are divided into those you want to write about and those that you can skip.
When you’re done sorting out things that are useful and useless… go for a walk, take a shower, take a break. Because you will have to repeat this process. And now that you have decided what you are going to write about, you have to figure out how to write about it. Meaning: how to connect the dots. And again, loose sketching and mind maps will be your friends. Ready? Your text outline not only consists of the key elements but also includes logical connections between them.
Stage Two: Writing
What do you use for writing? Word (or another similar program)? That’s not good… Why? Let me tell you a story.
One day a client came to my company asking to design his business cards. He was an accountant who already had the whole thing quite thought through — he even brought a draft of the design for his business cards. Everything would have been wonderful if not for the fact that the sketch was done… in Excel.
Are you smiling now indulgently? Well, you shouldn’t. The accountant created the business card in Excel for two reasons. Firstly, because he could. Secondly, because he didn’t know what other, better tool to use. They’re the same reasons why you write your texts in Word; because you can and do not know of a better tool. Meanwhile, better ones exist. Why?
Writing is a difficult process. Cutting and bending words to yield to your will only make your brain squirm to find ways to get out of it. It tries to procrastinate, coming up with easier tasks, the effects of which are visible immediately, not just after a few hours. Such tasks as choosing fonts for example. Setting colors. Checking your e-mail or Facebook also seems to do the trick. When there is a blank sheet of paper in front of you and you’re aware that another 50 pages need to be filled, how do you deal with it?
- Make your computer… a typewriter. I know at least a few writers who have an old-school laptop on their desk just for writing. It’s main advantage? It is not connected to the internet. There are no programs on it except the simplest text editor. You can’t do anything else but write on it.
- Find a simpler text editor. The disadvantage of Word (and others like it) is the notion “because you can”. Only once you have a text to transform should you be focusing on changing fonts or adjusting the margins. There is a category of editors which we call distraction free — they do not have any interface elements except the cursor. You cannot do anything except write in them. What do I recommend? Calmy Writer (application for Chrome), iA Writer (Windows, Mac), Ulysses (Mac). There’s a blog post over at VentureHarbour comparing the apps. Check it out!
- Most of the tools recommended above support Markdown. It’s a markup language that allows you to format texts as you type. It sounds awful, but learning it will take you three minutes. And when you start writing in Markdown, you will not go back to traditional formatting.
The result of this stage is… your text is almost ready! There are many people who finish writing at this point. However, one more task awaits us.
Stage Three: Editing
We call Word a text editor because it is ideally suited for this stage. It allows you to format the text and have your fun with choosing fonts, setting margins or colors. But text editing is still working on its fluidity and style.
- Read the text aloud to see how it “flows”. Reading out loud will allow you to catch logical errors in the construction of sentences or phrases that do not sound too clear.
- Delete unnecessary words. There is no one rule to determine which words are “unnecessary”. You can have a more descriptive style and plant adjectives and adverbs in each sentence, or you can also write more to the point. It’s your readers who determine what they like.
- Avoid repetition. Unless it’s a conscious exercise. Also pay attention to all kinds of linguistic clichés. For example, describing athletes as “fit as a fiddle” is a cliché. Find your own style.
- Punctuation and signs show that you are not a slave to the keyboard. On a standard keyboard you will not find the “correct” quotes symbol, and you’ll be looking in vain for hyphens — long lines like this . This is something Word can help you a lot with.
The effect of this stage will be a well-formatted, effortless text that you can publish with a clear conscience.