The more I write full time, the more I learn about how to get started and when to stop, knowledge that makes me more efficient in a job that often is not.
I’m learning to start by writing a rough draft: Rough as in scrawled in a notebook or typed without consideration for spelling, syntax or grammar. Usually, doing this shakes the ideas loose in no particular order. Often, the order becomes apparent before I’ve finished turning out all the pieces, so I number the sentences but keep pushing on to what may be the end. Or not.
Ideally, I then wait. That is, if I’ve left myself enough time before a post has to go up or before a deadline arrives. When I can, I let the rough draft mature overnight and return to it the next day. I’m a strong believer in the process of fermentation for both writing and wine, and often while I kick back with a glass, my subconscious continues to work.
When I return to the draft the next day, I’m always surprised by what I find: sometimes it’s a welcome surprise, “Damn, that’s good!” More often, it’s a set of notes with a workable idea buried in it, and I have to dig to find it, typically by writing another draft. And another.
I’m freshest in the morning. Today, for instance, I started at 5:30, drafting Holiday Weekend for Living in Place, my personal blog, which publishes on Wednesday. That’s tomorrow.
Next, I turned to a fourth (or maybe a fifth?) draft of a piece I’ve been working on for days. It’s taken a lot of writing to hone the one idea into just four hundred words. Thinking I finally nailed it, I emailed it to my producer at Vermont Public Radio for edits. Meanwhile, she returned a draft of a different piece with small changes and approval to record it later today for broadcast tomorrow.
In an effort to get ahead, I promised myself I’d draft this post a week in advance so I could go backpacking in good conscience when this posts. But I knew my concentration was done in for the morning.
The tell tale signs of needing to stop are attention to email, wandering over to Facebook, and staring out the window. Even though it was just eleven, I stopped to eat lunch.
Usually, the dog takes me for a walk after I eat, but today I have to go to the studio to record for VPR before a slew of meetings for the Brattleboro Community Justice Center, where I volunteer.
So I returned to my desk, wondering what in the world I was going to write for this post; by allowing myself to write a rough draft, I found out.
How do you start a piece? And how do you know that staring at your computer any longer won’t help, so it’s better to stop?