“Priming the pump” is one of those expressions you probably use without thinking about it. Used metaphorically, it means to encourage the success or growth of a thing by taking steps to get it started. But literally, the origin of the phrase is the practice of pouring liquid into a line before you begin pumping, so as to force out air or gas that would otherwise interfere with getting a steady flow.
The Pulitzer-winning novelist Jennifer Egan uses the metaphor like this: “You can only write regularly if you’re willing to write badly… Accept bad writing as a way of priming the pump, a warm-up exercise that allows you to write well.”
Picture yourself wanting to achieve a steady flow of good writing. But there’s air in your pipeline. Hot air, perhaps — a bunch of empty words you churn out at the beginning of a writing session before you get down to the substance of what you want to say. If you want to produce good, strong writing, you need to get those words out of the way.
What if you were to assume that some not-great words will likely show up at first? Instead of typing them as if they were the real words, then editing them out later with a frown, you could plan from the beginning to prime your pump. Perhaps in one of these ways:
- Free write for 10 minutes at the beginning of a writing session. Scribble away without stopping for a set time, knowing in advance that these are not the real words you will write.
- Create an outline of what you’re about to write. Don’t start forming sentences. Just note words and phrases that capture the essence of the writing you want to produce, and list them in a rough order.
- Speak your thoughts aloud before you write anything. Talk to a recorder or just to your cat or dog.
- Visualize who you are about to write to, why you want to do this piece of writing, and what you hope the results from it will be.
Any of the above will help to prime your writing pump. Force those empty, unfocused, inept words that might emerge at first out of your pipeline. Then the good stuff will start to flow.