writing too late

Open notebook on table with pen

Sometimes people delay writing. I’m not thinking of work avoidance, kidding yourself that a household chore somehow takes precedence. That’s common, but different. I’m thinking of over-research, spending too long gathering information and postponing the start of actual writing.

It’s a bad idea. Jobs take longer. You risk losing freshness in the writing. The more you research, the further you get into the mindset of the expert and the further away from the readers, the ones who really matter.

You also risk gathering too much material. You’ll then be tempted to make full use of it – a big error, like trying to fit all your food into a single meal.

As a general rule, it is a good idea to start writing sooner rather than later. Even if you know you still have people to talk to or research to do, if there’s a section of the project that you can start writing now, don’t hesitate. Get on with it.

learn to type

Notepaper and pencil resting on keyboard

Really. I’m not joking. Learn to touch type. If you’re using a keyboard as part of your working life, get proficient at it. Some old-school journalists took pride in their uselessness at typing, relishing their reputation as fast, furious and inaccurate. Breaking keyboards was a badge of honour. Forget it. You wouldn’t be impressed by a plumber, joiner or chef who misused or broke the tools of their trade. You want someone who has achieved some mastery over basic techniques.

If you can type automatically, accurately and without effort you can put your energies into what really matters – thinking about sentences.

words like vegetables

Assorted fresh vegetables including carrots, aubergine, mushroom, peppers

Imagine preparing a meal for some friends. Part of the process is shopping. So you trot off to your supermarket, street market, specialist shops or wherever. On the way you’re likely to pick up other useful items too, that are nothing to do with the meal but you know you need. So your shopping bags include cleaning materials, birthday cards, light bulbs… as well as stuff for meals later in the week..

Then imagine all that shopping laid out on the kitchen table in the state you bought it. Spices, cauliflower, bleach, garlic, lemons, sweet potatoes, breakfast cereal, leeks flour, herbs, avocados, bin liners, fish, onions, tomato puree, aubergines, oil…all in an unsorted jumble.

Let’s say you have four hours before your friends arrive. You have to process that material in some orderly way into a welcoming meal. If you set off on your task focused on your shopping, trying to make it all fit together and determined to make best use of every item, you are heading for a kitchen crisis. It won’t work. You will burn out and despair.

That is exactly how some people approach a writing project. They stare at the material they have gathered. Some of it clearly fits. They know what they want to do with it. But other stuff doesn’t seem to belong, or there’s too much of it, or it doesn’t fit alongside other bits. They think it’s part of a writer’s skill to handle that material in a way that somehow magically makes it fit. It isn’t.

Instead, as with cooking, you must be guided by your menu, not by your ingredients. You imagine your guests arriving, and think through the dishes you’ll present and the order of them. You draw up a prep list based on those dishes. You tidy away all the stuff from the kitchen table and go to it only when your schedule says you need it.

It’s just the same with writing. The menu is your project’s structure, the contents list, which you’ve drawn up on the basis of your readers’ needs. You gather material that allows you to deliver that. You use only the material that fits the end product. You are not led by it.

clear out the throat clearing

Cup and saucer with tea and notebook

You’ve finished a piece of writing. You’ve revised it and it seems ok. What next?

Try deleting your first paragraph.

Why? Because it often consists of introductory remarks – the kind of thing that people begin speeches with. That’s why in the trade it is known as “throat clearing”. In writing you don’t need welcoming thoughts, background, explanation for why the piece is important. You’re not waiting for your audience to settle down. The real beginning of the piece, where the content starts, is often the second paragraph. You don’t need a delay.

So do yourself, and the reader, a favour. Delete your first para.

Could this post do without its first paragraph? Sure.