Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Are You a Drip Who Leaves Writing to the Last Minute?

It was a Friday night and I was sitting at my computer studying Google maps. I had to give a speech to more than 200 people the next morning and — given my notoriously bad sense of direction — wanted to be sure I was heading for the right place.

Suddenly, my husband yelled from the basement four words no homeowner wants to hear: "We have a leak."

I raced downstairs to see water pouring from the basement ceiling. Then, our fire alarm went off. As the alarm shrieked (interspersed with the "helpful" audio message "there is a fire," in two languages) I tried to phone our security company. I reached a recording with an after-hours number — but the alarm was so loud I couldn't hear it. I shut myself in the bathroom and tried again.

Finally, I contacted the security guy on call and he had me run a bunch of tests (yes, while the wretched alarm was still shrieking) but we came up with nothing. "It's not the security system," he said. "You'd better call your builder."

My husband and I spent the last year rebuilding our house — including a brand new finished basement. We moved back in only a few months ago and hadn't expected a crisis like this for, say, at least 10 years, and, preferably, well, preferably never. As the shrieking continued, we called the builder who suggested my husband put on rubber gloves and sever the alarm with wire cutters.

Blessed semi-relief. We still had water pouring through our ceiling but at least we could contemplate it in quiet! We turned off the water to the house, but it continued to drip from the ceiling. Our builder lived too far away to drive in at 11:30 pm but he contacted a local plumber who showed up before midnight.

Diagnosis? It was likely a problem with our in-floor heat. The plumber turned the main water back on (Yeah! I could shower before my speech) and shut off the valve supplying water to the heating. Water continued to drip aggressively through the ceiling but it was residual, the plumber said.

Our builder called back to say another plumber would arrive early next morning. And at 1 a.m. my husband and I emptied all the buckets and went to bed. At 3 a.m. I awoke and start heading downstairs to empty them again, but my husband told me he'd already done it. He did it again at 5 a.m. and I emptied them at 7.

Despite the horror of this event, there was one little speck of good news. I'd written my speech earlier in the week. Thus, despite an unbelievably stressful night, and a distinct sleep deficit, I was able to deliver my speech without difficulty or hesitation. Twenty years ago, back when I was a blocked writer, for sure I would have been working on the speech the night before. In fact, I might not even have started until the night before!

Do you leave your writing to the very last minute? I don't need to tell you that's a bad idea. But perhaps I can help you break the habit.

I think many of us procrastinate about writing because we fear what we produce won't be any good. But here's a news flash. You can't make it good until you get it on the page.

Stop beating yourself up about what a crummy writer you are and, instead, concentrate on taking one tiny, baby step at a time. Use the same trick runners employ: promise yourself to write for only 15 minutes, set a timer and do it. If you feel like writing more after that, well fine, but you aren't obliged.

Better yet, write as fast as you can during those 15 minutes. Use Dr. Wicked to help if necessary. But get as many words on the page as you can. Don't judge. Don't worry. And most of all, don't edit. Just get the words out. You can do all the judging, worrying and editing you want, later.

As you open up your document the next time, your heart will leap with joy as you discover it already contains many words. No more blank page. Congratulations!

Now, let me tell you how our water saga finally ended. Turns out, the first plumber was wrong and the floor heating wasn't at fault. Instead, one of our brand new sprinkler heads had blown a gasket. Who'd have thought?

Fortunately, insurance will cover it. Despite the large hole in our ceiling, let's call it a story with a happy ending.

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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Monday July 12th 2010, 5:12 AM
Comment by: Cachelot (Fanore Ireland)
I totally agree. I used to do this as a sculptor, particularly when I started on a rough new log and it works for writing as well. I would like to introduce a verb for it: to aboutisize.
Monday July 12th 2010, 8:56 AM
Comment by: bluefade (Chagrin Falls, OH)
Good Lord! After all that and then a speech in front of of 200 people? Hope you got a good night's sleep the following night Daphne!

Your advice couldn't have come at a better time. A couple of weeks ago I was browsing through a friends library. I discovered a shelf of beautiful books from the Easton Press which are a part of their "100 Greatest Books Ever Written" series. After thumbing through Jack London, James Fenimore Cooper, Thomas Paine, Emily Bronte and other greats, you can't imagine how 'tiny' I felt as a writer.

"Who am I kidding?" I thought. I will never be able to write like these people. However, today I'm going to put aside that feeling and write for 15 minutes.

Sometimes all a writer needs is encouragement from another writer.

Thanks for that Daphne and hope you can enter your basement soon without a swimsuit!
Monday July 12th 2010, 12:05 PM
Comment by: Robin A. (PA)
Thanks so much, Daphne. It's not like I don't know this already. I taught freshman comp and said it many a time to my students. But now that I'm trying to write, my constant editing and picking cripple me.

The thing you said that made me laugh and that will stay in my mind and surely help me every day is: "As you open up your document the next time, your heart will leap with joy as you discover it already contains many words." Hahahaha!!! Yes!!! Many words ALREADY THERE just waiting to be reworked! How liberating. What a great reason to turn off the blasted editor and just type.
Monday July 12th 2010, 2:54 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks for the comments!

@cachelot: Aboutisize works well for sculpture. For writing, I prefer to call it drafting. But good idea to have separate words. People tend to fear writing but who fears drafting?

@bluefade: Yes, I slept very well the following night. Don't ever compare yourself to other writers. You're unique. You're you. Imagine if Alice Munro had never written because she feared she'd be no Emily Bronte! What an unspeakable loss that would have been.

@RobinA: The editor often deserves the adjective "blasted" because s/he is so useless until you actually have words on the page! Turn that editor off until you have a first draft!!
Tuesday July 13th 2010, 9:33 AM
Comment by: TANYA R.
I can appreciate your comments about not waiting until the last minute. I like to get my ideas down and no matter how rough my notes are, I have something to work with. I have heard some of my colleagues and friends say they are losy writers; I don't believe they are. I believe it is fear that is paralyzing them from writing in the first place.
Tuesday July 13th 2010, 5:11 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I think you're absolutely right, Tanya. Fear is exceptionally powerful! The important thing about writing is not to think about it too much. Just sit down and do it. Keep telling yourself, "I can always edit this later."
Tuesday July 13th 2010, 5:21 PM
Comment by: J B.
I am such a perfectionist and I have O.C.D. with symmetry, so trying to write something, anything, is a major task in and of itself. I like the idea of getting something on paper even if it's not perfect or correct the first time. I am definitely going to try this exercise of writing for fifteen minutes a day hopefully this will get me going and help me to get over my obsession with having it perfect the first time. The sad part about my obsessive personality is I either wind up not doing it or failing miserably at it anyway.
Wednesday July 28th 2010, 8:54 AM
Comment by: Karen G. (Washington DC, DC)
"your heart will leap with joy as you discover it already contains many words"

Love this! And it's so true. I've been trying to put something on the page when I start an article just to avoid having blank space. It seems like even a few words as trivial as "stunning text here" are enough to give me a place to put my cursor. Maybe this is like the runner at the starting blocks: all the prep work is done, just GO!

Years ago, I took an art studio class. We were using large 20 x 24 inch pads of paper and charcoal. The first day, the instructor told us to take our charcoal in hand and swipe it diagonally across the paper. Now the paper had a mark on it and wasn't blank anymore. The technique works for art as well as writing.

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