I was in an art class in college, when the instructor would give us a subject to draw for a limited time. Just a few minutes! One of the students would be enlisted to stand in front of the class, strike a pose, and freeze. The only art supply we could use was shoe polish on white paper.
The difficult and genius part of this exercise was that once you touch black or brown shoe polish onto a page, you can’t erase it. You can only keep drawing, keep adding more around or over it.
Because the time was limited, any of the students who tried to add detail and use small, precise movements were left with only a small portion of the person. Most of us did this at some point, I certainly did. We’d finish having only sketched a face or tiny head in a contrived attempt to imitate reality.
Meanwhile, other students had these flowy figures that had life, space, and movement. If we were playing Pictionary, these students would win.
Perfect is the enemy of done
This is the number one idea I’ve accepted that changed how I write over the years. Preventing myself from editing as I go, even at times turning off spell check to prevent myself from going back to fix a single word. There’s time for that later.
Even then, this is why I love deadlines. Deadlines, like the timer in my art class, keep you focused on moving toward the big picture. I have an hourglass on my desk at home, which I use when I need to make a short self-imposed deadline.
In this writing “mode,” there is only one direction. Forward. Do not stop, do not edit, do not delete, do not revise. That is for later. There is only one option, to keep writing. You don’t like the last sentence? Tough, leave it alone. But you can write another, totally different sentence after it. Only forward.
After dumping your thoughts on the page, like the contents of a junk drawer emptied onto the floor… then you start digging for the tool or item you want. Look for the gem, the thought that sticks out. Extract that thought from the first draft, take it to another blank page, and keep writing some more. Focusing only on that one thought you were interested in.
No writer starts with a blank page, writes the first sentence, and says, “This is brilliant! This book is going to be easy!” You write, rewrite, and edit that first sentence again and again. But if you stay working on that first sentence, trying to make it perfect, then you will never get to the second sentence.
We all have a shitty first draft. Use it as part of your process.
Go for the broad brushstroke. Find the outline. Revise and work on the details later.