February 13, 2024

To write more, lower the stakes

Stew Fortier

Co-Founder & CEO, Type


Table of contents

Here’s a secret: writing is not actually that hard.

What's really hard is sitting down and getting the first word on the page. As the old joke goes, if you want to clean your apartment then start writing a book.

When you do sit down to write, though, momentum usually follows. The first word is the hardest to write. The second is a little bit easier. And, at a certain point, it becomes harder to stop than to keep going.

Hence, this is one of my favorite piece of writing advice:

Lower the stakes.

If you feel stuck, give yourself permission to write something stupid, boring, or confusing.

Julia Cameron advocates for something similar in The Artist's Way.

She encourages a daily writing practice with a simple objective: "put three pages of anything on the page... and then do three more pages tomorrow." You can literally just write "I don't what to say," and that's okay so long as you keep going.

Stream-of-consciousness writing helps you clear out your mental cobwebs, but it also lowers the stakes to get started. Even if you write three pages of crap, you've still won. You've proven to yourself that you can write! And you can carry that momentum into tackling some "real" projects later.

We're not the only animals who have discovered this wisdom. Scientific American once studied why animals play. The answer they found was simple:

Engaging in play allows animals to experiment with new behaviors in a protected environment without dangerous consequences. The unwritten code of conduct surrounding play lets them explore many possible outcomes.

When baby elephants wrestle or dogs chase each other, they're honing real survival skills. By "fighting" in a low-stakes, playful environment, they get more practice in – practice that might come in handy in real life.

So the next time you can't think of anything smart to say, try writing something dumb instead.

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