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the messy 20: how (and why) you should do a 20-minute brain dump before writing

If you write, you know how daunting that little blinking line at the beginning of a blank document can be.

You start to enter a staring contest with it, wondering if you glare intensely enough, you could get it to start writing for you.

Minutes pass, and nothing appears on the screen.

The longer time goes on, the more you struggle to get started. How can you have all the ideas in the world, all the stories to share, all the inspiration at your fingertips — and not be able to translate them into words?

Writing has this funny way of stumping us, a phenomenon commonly known as writer’s block.

However, when you dig deeper, you realize it’s not writing that has us tripped up; it’s the idea of *perfect* writing.

Think about it: you communicate all day long via text to your friends and emails to clients, likely without much thought or concern.

But when tasked to write something more than a quick reply or that *gulp* will be seen by multiple people, like a blog post, a press release, or website copy, we think we need to pump its final iteration in the first go.

That’s hardly ever (arguably, never) the case, even for the most seasoned writers.

So, how do you overcome that initial hurdle? Start with a 20-minute brain dump, aka The Messy 20.

The Messy 20 is a judgment-free opportunity to get anything and everything, no matter how wild, bizarre, or strange it may seem, on the table. The Messy 20 doesn’t care about grammar, spelling, syntax, or any of those English class rules; that’s why it’s messy.

Let’s look at some approaches to the Messy 20 and how doing one will improve your writing.

The Art of the Brain Dump

A brain dump is a writing exercise where you let your thoughts spill onto the page without worrying about structure or coherence; it's about letting yourself be imperfect and your creative juices flow. Here are some benefits of starting any writing project with a brain dump.

It Helps You Overcome Writer's Block

Free yourself from the burden of drafting a solid piece from the start. Writing is a process, and brain dumping is part of it. The best way to overcome writer's block is to begin. Getting those fingers moving on the keyboard is the hardest part. But once you get the first few words down, you'll be surprised how more start to follow them.

It Allows You to Start Generating Ideas

Doing a brain dump lets your ideas and thoughts run wild and capture them on the page. Plus, by exploring a topic without constraints or limitations, you tap into different ways to think and talk about it.

Naturally, You'll Start to Structure and Organize Your Thoughts

Now that you've extracted the thoughts from your brain into something visual, start to connect the dots and hone in on the ideas that best support what you want to say. You can shuffle things around and group similar ideas and concepts for cohesion and flow.

How to Tackle 'The Messy 20'

Now that we've covered the benefits of a brain dump, here's how to get started:

Set a Timer

Start with a 20-minute timer. This time frame prevents you from overthinking or getting stuck on one idea. It also holds you accountable by making you stay committed to 20 minutes without distractions.

Write Freely and Furiously

Just go for it, no judgments. If you think spelling errors, time, or general messiness will distract you, some tips you can try include closing your eyes as you type, turning off the brightness on your computer screen, or putting a sheet of paper over it.

Don't Stop Until The Timer Goes Off

If you run out of things to say, write about the topic from a different angle or explore related concepts. The key is to keep your fingers typing (or your pen moving - you can also do the Messy 20 with a pen and paper) for 20 minutes straight. No exceptions.

Walk Away

Don't review your brain dump right away. Take a breather, even if it's just for five minutes, to let yourself reset after a big creative release. Try to do something other than think about what you just did and what you will do with it. Maybe go for a walk, grab a bite to eat, and relax.

Organize and Edit

Now that you're rejuvenated and have material to review, you can start to edit it and organize, grouping like-minded ideas. You might be surprised by new ways of approaching the subject you came up with and how much you wrote.

So next time a writing task makes you feel like pulling your hair out, let your thoughts flow freely for 20 minutes — and let yourself be surprised by what magic you can conjure up when you loosen the reins on your writing perfectionism.

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