Anyone who sits down to write always faces the daunting first few moments of staring at the blank computer screen or notebook page. Even for accomplished novelists or famous journalists, the beginning can be very scary. And, for someone who hasn’t written much but a memo or email in ages, this can be an even harder task. Suddenly, laundry, dirty dishes and even paying bills seem appealing. Why not answer that phone call instead, or take the dog for a walk? Sound familiar? Well, here’s some simple advice:
STAY WHERE YOU ARE.
AND SET A TIMER FOR 15 MINUTES.
WRITE SOMETHING – ANYTHING – DOWN UNTIL THE TIMER GOES OFF.
When you start to write a few words on the page – even words like “I don’t know what to say” – something miraculous happens. Suddenly, there are WORDS on the page, not just blank space.
Many writers start the day with what can be thought of as “brain dump.” We just WRITE, anything, for 15 minutes. We assure ourselves that NO ONE will read it, just us. We whine, we complain, we worry about why we can’t write. We vent onto the page about our annoying co-worker, our mother, our noisy neighbors. Then we ask ourselves things like: what am I doing today? How am I feeling (about my job, my upcoming summer vacation, my birthday, my dating life…)? What am I having for dinner? And maybe, if we’re up to it: how do I feel about my future? What are my dreams? And before we know it, the timer goes off, and we have 2 or 3 pages. Not Hemingway maybe, not The New York Times, but it’s WRITING.
Now, this may sound like a big waste of time. So let’s think for a moment about exercise. If you haven’t been to a gym in years and decide to run a 10k race next month, what do you do first? Unless you want to pull a muscle or worse, you start slow. You get off the couch and jog around the block a few times (and, in my case, reward yourself with an ice cream cone afterwards). Then, you might try for a mile, or two. You jog, you stretch, you walk a bit. You’re sore, but the next day you do it again. As we all know, you are MUCH more likely to succeed in the race if you warm up, practice, and do several trial runs to prepare.
Writing works in exactly the same way. Before taking on the big personal statement for Harvard or the leadership essay for Kellogg, I’d advise WARMING UP. Some practice runs, nice and easy, where no one will see that you’re so out of breath you can’t even say hello. And this is the beauty of the rough draft. It’s the draft no one will see but you (well, and maybe your Accepted.com editor!). It’s the messy, sloppy draft (hence the name rough, not smooth) that lets you remember what it feels like to jog in place a bit, to get your bearings, to put a few tentative words onto the page. It helps you remember what your voice sounds like, and most importantly, why it’s unique.
When I sit down to write a first out-of-shape rough draft, I first turn off my phone, then my Facebook page, and finally those darn voices in my head that keep whispering “Are you nuts? This isn’t good writing!” I set a timer for just 15 minutes (no more!), and I promise myself a reward afterwards.
Then I take a deep breath and start typing. A few words. A sentence. Then there’s a paragraph. It’s not great writing, it’s not going to change lives or win the race, but it’s a beginning. I’m sweating a little, I can feel my heart beating. An idea pops up. Then another. I don’t sprint, and I don’t push too hard. But when the timer goes off, there’s something true and honest on that page by ME, about ME, which is the critical first step to any good piece of writing, especially a strong, effective personal statement.
Shut off the phone, and set an alarm for 15 minutes. Then ask yourself: What do I care about? What do I enjoy doing? What’s important to me? And write. Your only commitment is to keep going until you hear that beep. When the timer goes off, STOP. Hit “save.” And then go get yourself a double scoop of sweet, cold, decadent ice cream.
By Eliot Sloan, a college writing professor specializing in the personal narrative; journalist, writing coach, and admissions consultant. She has helped applicants gain acceptance to Ivy League and other top programs.