For Those About To Write (We Salute You) #1: Pencil On Paper

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For Those About To Write (We Salute You) will present a writing exercise to the Ploughshares community every few weeks. We heartily encourage everyone reading to take part! 

I have a bookmark list on my browser that seems to scroll on forever. It consists almost entirely of creative writing tips and tricks culled from the far corners of the web: The Daily Routines of Famous Writers; Why We Procrastinate, and How to Stop It; The Ultimate Guide To Writing Better Than You Normally Do; An Invocation For Beginnings; and more; and more; and more. There are entire sections in my local bookstore, too, that are dedicated to the topic (and yes, a handful of the titles there line my own shelves at home).

Goofy or embarrassing as it may (or should) be, I genuinely enjoy reading about writing, and find it endlessly fascinating that there are so many ‘how-tos’ out there for doing something so personal. I kind of collect ‘em all, convinced on some level that one of them might contain the spark that will flicker from a slow burn into a full-blown, completely unstoppable creative wildfire—but for the most part, this helpful and diverse info languishes on my ever-growing, eternal to-do list.

Advice is a thriving industry, but requires an essential next step that no amount of prep can force you into: action.

So, this series is all about casting aside your inability to commit and just starting something. Yes, there are a million possibilities out there, but here, you’ll get one at a time to try out.

Over the next year, I’ll introduce a different strategy to work on every few weeks. These will vary greatly in scope, ambition, and approach, but they’ll all be totally do-able. It’s an experiment—a little like One City, One Book, but for writing. I’m hoping that you’ll join me, putting away your hang-ups and writing just to write. We’ll take the time to refine pieces we’ve been wrestling with, or simply put down words—any words!—where previously there were none.

I’d also love to hear how it goes for you: what worked and what didn’t, your helpful modifications and surprising breakthroughs, and, as we edge deeper into the year, your experiences to share here on the site.

So here’s to fulfilling our dreams by filling notebooks upon notebooks upon notebooks with those raging literary blazes (eventually).

#1: Pencil (or pen) on Paper


-one (1) notebook

-one (1) pen or pencil

First off, make like you’re heading back to school and treat yourself to some sweet new gear. There are few objects more intimate than a blank notebook, so pick out stuff that feels good to hold, stuff you’ll be excited to see day after day—maybe stuff that’s easy to toss in a bag or briefcase for a little on-the-go action.


-Put pen (or pencil) to paper every single day for the next three weeks.

Time commitment: 

-As long as it takes you to scratch out three-ish pages worth of thoughts, whatever they may be.

Ages ago I was gifted with The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron’s thoughtful workbook on creative discovery, and there’s one exercise that stuck with me. When I’m way out of the loop and need to ease back into things, I find myself returning to Morning Pages. If you’re not familiar, she describes them thus: “Put simply, [they] are three pages of longhand writing, strictly stream-of-consciousness … They might also, more ingloriously, be called brain drain, since that is one of their main functions.”

They’re a form of journaling, a practice that, at best, offers the opportunity for a cathartic clearing away of all the flotsam and jetsam floating around in that brain of yours—and, at worst, feels like a tedious and self-indulgent slog through some of the most complex yet also oh-so-boring nooks and crannies of your mind.

For the purposes of this series, try to put your pen to paper first thing—even one less slam on the snooze button will give you a few minutes before checking in online and stumbling to the shower. If the morning doesn’t work out, however, give it a go at lunch, take a quick-but-dedicated break to jot a bit after dinner, or get snuggly and put your thoughts down right before bed.

One more thing: once you start—in that brief period when you’re truly focusing—don’t check your phone. Or your email. Or Twitter, or whatever other distraction that is beckoning you, willing you to break concentration. This is free-writing, so even if you find yourself drifting off to consider what comes next, just keep on keeping on.

We’re aiming for the Cameron-approved three pages here—just enough to get you into a groove, but not so much it feels like an insurmountable challenge. If you don’t have enough time to do the trio, do one page; or a half-page; heck, even a couple sentences with a mental note that you’ll fill in the rest tomorrow counts. I can usually jam through mine in less than a half-hour, but have taken as little as 30 seconds to scrawl myself a vow to do more in the next go. Consistency is ideal but life is, as ever, unpredictable; so even if it’s just few quick scribbles, do it do it do it, every damn day.

Recommended Reading:

The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron

(photo: Craighton Berman’s Sharpener Jar, a tool to measure creative output. Support production of the product on Kickstarter here!)