How to start

Writing tips
Jake Jeppson

Note: This article originally appeared on the Playwrights’ Center member website, where practical, educational articles like this are published regularly. If you’re interested in this type of playwriting advice—in addition to classes, dramaturgy, a database of play submission opportunities and many other benefits—check out our membership program.

Writers don’t procrastinate because it feels good. We avoid because of fear: what if the thing we make is bad and confirms that we, in fact, suck? Much easier to just not write. A day of this can easily slip into a week/month/year(s).

What an ugly trap it is, because the less time we spend actively writing, the harder it gets to start, and frankly, the writing we eventually squeeze out has a higher chance of sucking!

Full disclosure, I am an incredibly effective procrastinator. Here are some of my favorite delay tactics:

  • Thinking about writing.
  • Checking email.
  • Worrying.
  • Looking at others’ accomplishments on Facebook.
  • Talking about how hard it is to be a writer.
  • Netflix. (1990’s British TV crime dramas anyone?)

Most people who enroll in my “How To Start” workshop are inadvertent avoiders – people who have thought about writing for a really long time but don’t have much experience putting words on a page. They want to know the key to starting. The answer is frustratingly simple: “to write.”

Instead of a reservoir of dramaturgical insight, the workshop becomes a sort of writing gym – a low-stakes opportunity for participants to work out their writing muscle, and in so doing, counter-condition their bulging procrastination muscle. Paula Vogel calls her weeklong workshops bootcamp for a reason. This kind of work exhausts and whips you into shape.

Here is a sample of the exercises we do in workshop. I’ve tailored them for an at-home experience:

  • With the help of an alarm, write continuously for seven minutes. It’s okay if you write nonsense, just keep WRITING. This is best done with a pen and paper. If you insist on using a computer, cover your screen with paper or turn down the light, so that you can’t see what you’re writing. Don’t think, just write.
  • Here’s an awesome one that involves some set-up. Print out this document (PDF) and cut it up so each line is on an individual strip of paper. Put the slips in an envelope. Each time you sit to write, take out a slip and write – as quickly as you can – 10 words/phrases that fit that description. So maybe I pull from my envelope the slip with “types of candy” – in my notebook I write as quickly as possible: gummy bears, Mike and Ikes, kisses… until you have ten. Then move onto the next slip of paper. The key is to write as quickly as possible and to not think too hard about being right. Don’t think, just write.
  • Pick a painting or photograph from a museum’s online catalog, like the National Gallery of Art. In one sitting, write a 3-page play set in the photograph/painting you’re looking at. Once you start writing, you are NOT ALLOWED to go back and look at the beginning. 3 pages. No more, no less. It doesn’t matter if it makes no sense. It doesn’t matter if it defies logic. Don’t think, just write.

If you do these exercises every day for two weeks, you’ll notice a considerable change in how easy it gets to write. Then, once you’ve gotten this churning habit going, you can step into the world of 10-minute plays, one-acts, and full-lengths.

None of this is revelatory, but it’s hard. The key to doing it, I think, is to really consider writing a practice, similar to yoga. I don’t know about you, but I’m forever buying introductory passes at trendy studios with lots of sexy humans and then never going because of intimidation. Wouldn’t I be happier stretching to YouTube videos before anteing up to the Lulu Lemon table? (In this metaphor, the fancy studio is writing big important plays. The YouTube videos are writing exercises.)

Participants in my workshops often say they have a play they’re dying to write. This is typically an idea they’ve been turning over for a long time, but they seem to be unable to write it. A really lovely byproduct of the gym-like exercises is that writers discover the stories they write are different from the ones they think they were going to write. This makes sense because our stories reside in our DNA. They’re ghost stories. They’re dreams. They’re nightmares. Our analytical brain can only identify part of them. The automatic writing exercises described above help get to the deeper, resonant, illogical stuff of our soul. Some famous writer – I think it was DH Lawrence – asked, “how do I know what I think until I see what I write?”

The key to starting is simple but really hard: if you want to be a writer, you have to write.  Regular writing, free of self-punishing expectations, helps diminish habits of procrastination, liberates the stories that reside inside of us, and feels damn good.


Gym photo used under Creative Commons license from Flickr user Martin Abegglen.


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About the author

Jake Jeppson

Jake Jeppson is a Playwrights' Center Affiliated Writer and was a 2013-14 Jerome Fellow.