Writing comes down to two parts:

  1. Color the white paper dark
  2. Trim your initial scribbles into meaningful sentences.

That first step is where many of us quit. No matter how many ideas we have they can dissolve into the great whiteness of the blank page.

The answer here is to write. Just write. Write about your grandmother and dead goldfish. Write about the mint plant by the sidewalk so recently buried under mulch. Write around your topic and you may eventually hit it.

Writers commonly have the urge to edit as they write. Some think this makes for better work but it can too often destroy the flow of ideas and keep you from discovering what your piece is really about.

There is no substitute for sticking to it, but there are tools that can help you stay on track. There are browser-based writing apps that prevent the use of the delete key. There are practices like timed writing and writing in the morning before your internal editor has woken up. There’s even an app that deletes your text if you stop writing for more than 7 seconds before your time is up (unfortunately this is a paid app only available for Mac and iOS so the developers must be evil humans and I cannot recommend it).

For me one of the best ways to stay in the zone is to use a markdown editor in conjunction with the commitment to keep writing. Markdown strips away the visual formatting and gives you plain text. It is a simple formatting system that is compatible with many different apps. Bold items are displayed by writing **Bold**. Similarly Italics come from _underscores_. Other formatting tools like headings, bullet lists, and links are all similarly easy to use from the keyboard. I like using this markdown cheat sheet.

The beauty of using markdown is that it keeps your hands on the keyboard. Whenever you switch between keyboard and mouse you break the flow of language between your brain and hands. This is unhelpful.

Another benefit of markdown is that the editors are usually barebones with few buttons and messages to distract you from the words you’re trying to push out your fingertips.

Finally, markdown text works across many different editors. I shift between an open source note app called Joplin, vim with a markdown plugin, and a journaling app called Rednotebook. On this blog I use the “Parsedown for WordPress” plugin, which allows me to post text written in any of the other editors.

Whichever writing program you choose, the main thing to look for is a tool that gets out of the way. Then once you have muddied a page with thoughts and ramblings it is time to put your editor hat on and whip it into shape. But in order to get there it pays to actually write things down.

How about you? What tools and habits help you to write?

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