Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson is the author of the mad sci-fi epic Snow Crash and the even madder WTF epic The Diamond Age, among other books. What he shares in a 2003 keynote speech is an excellent key to getting writing done. For his first book, he had only ten days with which to write the thing, since his book proposal had been accepted. What happened next?

Soon a problem appeared: the typewriter had a modern plastic ribbon. The plastic mellowed and became sticky: it was July in Iowa City, and the apartment was hot. The only way to prevent the ribbon from getting stuck is to keep the ribbon moving. And the only way to keep the ribbon moving is to keep pressing the keys. That discovery did wonders for his productivity. He didn’t have time to think: he had to keep pressing the keys and write the first thing that came into his mind.

So two things spring to mind: first, this is a great lesson in the usefulness of thought. I know that sounds like a no-brainer, no pun intended, but hear me out. It’s a good idea to think while writing or at least think very fast. But you can also think so much that you get nowhere. Far too many people try to edit what they write inside their own heads. And if you can do that, then that’s cool. But I know too many people trying to get it perfect before they start typing and as a result…they never start typing. This might not be an original phrase and I fully admit I might have appropriated this from someone else, since it’s not exactly a new idea, but budding writers hear me: you cannot edit a blank page. Empty your head onto the page and then edit. There’s something to be said for finishing the first draft, even if it’s ugly and warty and smells like a cesspool. Because you can always clean it up after. And another tip: if you ever get to Point D and you haven’t figured out Point E, but by God, you know Point F–if you’re on a roll, write INSERT POINT E HERE and move on. I did that with at least one chapter in my book that I just didn’t know how to pull out of me, but I didn’t want to stop.

Second, somebody should really do this for computers. Seriously. Create something that dims the screen if you stop typing, so it constantly is prompting you to put something down. As long as the keys are moving you can see. But if not, eventually the lights go out. What do you think? Can’t be that hard, I wouldn’t think…

Found via Lifehacker.