Do Your Warm-Up

The first thing you write — whether it’s the introduction to an article or chapter, the first few lines of a journal entry, or the words to a song or poem — is almost never the right thing.

The beginning of anything I write gets reworked far more than any other part, and it’s because what comes at the beginning sets the tone for everything else that follows. It creates the context, and determines how the rest of the piece plays out, from universal themes all the way down to word choice.

In professional writing, this is relatively straightforward. You’re usually working on a computer, and so it’s easy to fiddle around with your words until you’ve got them how you want them.

With private writing, though, it’s a bit more tricky. When you’re writing by hand, it’s harder to go back and revise.

You either make a terrible mess on the page crossing stuff out (I die inside) or you have to go through the laborious and mentally uncomfortable process of writing ‘Actually, that stuff is all wrong, I think it’s really this…’

Because I am fussy and hate looking at an inky blot, I always opt for the second option, and I think this has had the happy (if unexpected) consequence of making both my writing and my thinking significantly more rigorous.

By committing words to the page, you also commit yourself to thinking the same way. I don’t want to get trapped in inflexible, inaccurate thinking, so when I notice that I’ve written something that’s not really right, or not what I want to say, I physically unravel the connection by writing out my new perspective.

Giving myself the chance to revise my original thoughts, to subject them to a little prodding to make sure they stand up — it usually reveals something much deeper, more interesting and more complete than what came out at first pass.

There’s almost always something more to discover if you are willing to keep on questioning yourself.

It’s a lot like being at the gym: if you walk in and try to lift a personal best without any warm-up, you’re probably not going to be able to do it. But if you spend some time working up to it, you’re going to be in a position to make real progress.

Knowing this, here’s what I do: I write utter trash for the first few lines of any journal entry. It’s almost always some inane blather about the weather, what I’ve been working on, life admin stuff — nothing interesting or important.

I just start warming up.

After a few lines I can usually feel myself edging towards The Thing I’m going to focus on for the day. About half the time I have something specific in mind I want to work through, and the other half I’m just turning up and putting in the reps.

Either way, I disregard the opening material and focus on really pushing to the core of things as I get further along.

So if you find yourself feeling trapped by something you’ve just written, or a journalling session is not bringing the relief you were hoping for, skip to the next line and start again.

Warm up with something totally unrelated, and then give yourself total freedom. Contradict whatever needs contradicting. Question what needs questioning. Pull on the loose threads and the ‘hm-that-doesn’t-seem-right’s.

It’s your life, after all, and it’s worth getting a personal best every now and then.