Not long ago my wife and I finished reading Roald Dahl’s classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to my son. A great feature of the particular edition we read him was an interview with the author in the back. One of the questions the interviewer posed to Dahl was, “How do you keep the momentum going when writing a novel?”
Dahl responded with a writerly hack he learned from Earnest Hemingway. Apparently they knew each other, which incidentally is just fascinating to me. Think about the places they must have gone in conversation. Anyway, to keep momentum going, Dahl said, echoing Hemingway, “When you are going good, stop writing.”
That’s right: When things are going well, stop.
It takes great discipline to stop when you know where you want to go next, but that’s the advice of these two great literary masters. Stop, they say, so you’ll be excited to get back to work the next day because you’ll know what you want to say.
If instead you keep writing until you’ve teased the whole thing out, you’ll get there and think, “Okay, hm. Where to now?”
The nemesis of any productive writer is the blank page. Dahl says it’s “not very nice.” I say it’s positively awful.
It’s relatively easy to see how this would work when writing a book. Books are long-arc projects. If you find yourself three-quarters through a chapter and you know where it’s going, halt.
Unless you’re writing something that will take only one sitting, you can use the same tactic when writing articles and blog posts too.
But how do you beat the blank page to begin with? Hemingway was concerned with harnessing the momentum of an idea or storyline as it’s developing, but his hack can be applied as well to an idea as it is germinating.
Here’s what I mean. Any writer worth her salt knows it’s important to be in the habit of capturing good ideas. That’s the key to beating the initial blank page—idea collecting.
Take this blog post. When I read this bit of wisdom from Dahl/Hemingway, I could have thought “Wow, great tip!” and then forgotten about it. Instead, I took a picture of the quote, saved it to the “Blog Post Ideas” notebook inside my Evernote account, and started a draft blog post about it using just a few words to jog my memory.
I actually use a tool called Zapier so that as soon as I save a note to my “Blog Post Ideas” notebook in Evernote, a corresponding blog post is drafted automatically. To watch a brief screencast about this, click here. I try to do this regularly so that I always have several blog post drafts waiting for me. That way I’m never starting with a blank page.
And of course you can use a similar system for ideas related to whole books, essays, articles, and chapters. Once you’ve captured the idea, you have some stored-up momentum for when you sit down to write.
It sure beats staring into the great white abyss!
Question: How can you use Hemingway’s Hack in your writing projects? You can leave a comment by clicking here.