A Helpful Little Secret about Writer’s Block

Google unearths 11.5 million entries on “writer’s block.”

I’m going to tell you a secret. In fact, something that’s going to shock you to your core because you’ve believed in this ever since you became a writer.

There are millions of articles on the subject (in fact, the Gotham Writers’ Workshop newsletter asks published authors the same question every single week: “How do you get over writer’s block?”) and that might lead you to believe that there’s something there to help you.

When I tell you this secret, it’s one I wish you wouldn’t keep. Please share it with every writer you know, spread it far and wide. Here it is:

Writer’s block doesn’t exist!

You read that right. Writer’s block isn’t real. It’s baseless rumor. Urban myth. Nothingness. Shadow. Specter. And it can’t manifest itself upon your writing destiny.

Don’t believe me? Try looking it up. There is no medical or mental condition known as writer’s block.

(There is one serious exception. If you literally find yourself unable to write or speak, please dial 9-1-1 immediately. You may be experiencing a neurological or pulmonary event and need medical help. That is the only exception.)

Then Why the Heck Am I Having So Much Trouble Writing?

Excellent point. Let’s try to understand the problem, so you can apply a solution.

This is the first of a three-part series to help you analyze and solve problems that are keeping you from writing.

PART ONE: You can’t start writing

You’re waiting for inspiration – You’re depending on that light-bulb moment to kick off the creative process. The only problem is that writers often have to write for a living, on a schedule and on deadline, and don’t have the luxury of sitting around waiting for an A-ha! moment. The best way to outsmart this assumption is to try it the other way around: Write your opening line. Write it another way. Try it again from a different angle. Now, which version is closest to the one you imagined your Muse was going to dazzle you with? Choose that one and go on from there. You’ll be surprised at how fast genuine inspiration takes over once you get your piece under way.

You can’t write the first line until you know the last – You’re hung up on structure. So, start creating an outline, just like you did in 7th grade English class. What’s your theme? What major points must be made? What evidence backs them up? Where do you want your main character to end up at the end of the story? What do you want your audience to take away at the end? Hey, check it out: now that you know your last line, you can begin.

You’ve done too much research – This one’s awful, isn’t it? You’ve done your job so well, you’ve got too much information swimming around your brain and stacks of photocopies and reference books and files cluttering your desk. There are different ways to approach this. 1) Sort your research into separate stacks, each representing a different subject, message or character. Slap a Post-It on each stack, identifying the information it covers. Set the stacks aside, away from your eyeline, but near enough to dig into when necessary. Start writing and refer to each stack only when needed. 2) Clear the stacks off your desk and don’t go near them. Sit down and, relying only on memory, write down the salient facts, the ones that are key to your piece. Organize these into an outline, noting where you’ll need the research to back up an assertion or add details. Begin writing from your outline and refer to the stacks only when you need the specific reference.

You spend too much time reading books about writing and not enough time writing – While it’s admirable you want to improve your craft, if these books don’t create an impetus for actual writing, they’re not really helping, are they? Reading about writing is more about an aspiration to be a good writer. Nothing wrong with that. But good writers are born from a regular writing practice, and that takes discipline. Try establishing a schedule and figure out the best and most productive time of day for your writing. Be kind to yourself and ensure that you have the time you need to develop as a writer, as well as take part in the world around you and enjoy the people who are important to you. Set aside specific time on your schedule for reading, too (just don’t substitute reading for writing). Once you’ve established a regular writing practice, then take advantage of the books that suggest writing exercises; these will give you the most practical and helpful ways to improve your work.

You’re distracted/you can’t find the time to write – This is another case where you need a schedule and possibly a room of your own to write in. If you’re a PR, marketing or corporate communications writer, trying to concentrate in a cubicle can be rough. If you can’t negotiate some quiet with your neighbors, then you may need to reserve the time and a conference room on your schedule. Other good places to write in peace include the cafeteria after breakfast and lunch shifts, empty offices, or at the local coffee shop with all the other distracted writers. Most important is blocking the time on your schedule, so you have enough time to do your work and other people don’t impinge on it.

You’re procrastinating – An oldie, but goodie. Procrastination is all about fear. If you can identify what’s causing the fear, you frequently remove the obstacle to writing. Are you dealing with an external cause? Are you worried what your client or boss will think of the piece? Are you afraid the writing won’t be effective at marketing or promoting a product or brand? (That’s a lot of weight to carry on your shoulders, by the way. Remember, your writing is one piece of a larger effort; everyone’s contributing and accountable, not just you.) Or could it be an internal fear? You just don’t think you’re up to the job. You don’t understand the subject. You’re afraid of being criticized. Everything you write is terrible. Notice how procrastinating “helps” you in each of these cases: With nothing to show, there’s nothing to hold up to scrutiny, and your fear can’t be realized. But a larger problem looms: You’ve failed to do the assigned work and you get in trouble or you don’t get another chance from that magazine editor, author’s agent or PR firm. Procrastination creates a vicious cycle of fear, failure, realization of fear. The smartest way to deal with it is to do an honest assessment of what you’re afraid of, rather than feeling generalized fear. Then, write something called a DRAFT FOR REVIEW and use the feedback process to guide the direction of the writing to make it stronger and give others a sense of accountability for the success of the piece. Focus on drafts – not producing the best work ever the first time – and understand that reviews aren’t firing squads, instead they can function like jam sessions where everyone contributes to getting the best ideas into the piece.

You don’t like the writing assignment or feel it’s overwhelming – We’ve all been there, and there’s nothing worse than being stuck in a job you need for the paycheck, doing work that isn’t rewarding. For the sake of the paycheck, you want a way to keep producing. I’ll be honest, I’m not one for self-help books, but there was a point in my early career where I desperately needed my low-paying writing job, and I couldn’t get myself to write. I was lucky enough to have a friend who recommended this book, which is based on behavior therapy. The exercise I found most helpful for approaching work I didn’t want to do involved using a 1 – 10 scale to rate just how awful I anticipated the assignment was going to be, then doing the assignment, and rating it again afterward. Invariably, what I found was that the anticipation was always worse than the actual writing, and you quickly realize that doing something is the only way to really know what it’s going to be like.

You use deadline-panic to force yourself to write – This often happens to young writers or those who trained as journalists, especially broadcast and wire service reporters. You know you can write fast and the deadline spurs you on. Whether you pulled all-nighters to finish papers in college or you love the thrill of putting a news story together up against a tight deadline, it’s the adrenaline rush that gets you through. At least, that’s what you tell yourself. There’s a point in your writing career, though, where the adrenaline no longer kicks in and fear takes over (see Procrastination above), and you discover you’re having trouble writing and meeting assignment deadlines. It’s best not to get hooked on the adrenaline beast in the first place because it unwisely convinces you that 1) you do your best writing at the last minute, and 2) you need to delay until the last minute to produce your best work. There are very few writers who look at their published work and think it can’t be improved. Often you see whole subject areas that were left out because you were too rushed or more polished ways to express your thoughts or typos and missing words that set your teeth on edge. Giving yourself the time to write is important; it’s even more crucial to allow yourself the opportunity to improve your writing through editing, seeking the input of colleagues, and rewriting.

NEXT TIME: Stuck in the middle.
THE FINALE: Why you can’t finish.

Boom for Real

There’s a reason I’ve been focusing on practice writing all week.

No matter what kind of professional writing we do – corporate, marketing, journalism, PR – when we’re working on an assignment and it’s time to get our fingers on the keyboard, typically two things are going on at once while we’re trying to craft great sentences:

  1. We’re on deadline, and
  2. We’re trying to find unique, meaningful ways to put words together to connect with our readers

Even if we’re used to turning out solid work on deadline, the combination of these two things can be deadly for interesting writing that resonates with our audience. It’s why practice writing is so important, because it helps take the pressure off the deadline (we’ve done this before and learned to do it well) and allows us to concentrate deeply on writing that connects.

I saw a beautiful documentary recently, called “Radiant Child,” about the late painter Jean-Michel Basquiat. Whenever I watch documentaries about artists – of the written word or the visual art variety – I’m always fascinated with the “How.” How they developed their style, how they get down to work every day, how they translate ideas into the solid three-dimensional world.

A number of people who knew Basquiat spoke about the confidence with which he wielded a brush, the speed, steadiness and directness of the brushstroke. Basquiat, who died at the very young age of  27, leaving behind more than 1,000 paintings and even more drawings, apparently had an expression for what was happening when he was creating.

“Boom for Real!” he called it.

What “Boom for Real” meant to Basquiat only he knew. But, the phrase resonates for me because those of us who write for a living are so frequently called upon to produce with speed, accuracy and brilliance each and every time content is needed.

It’s not so much about the rote repetition, the “Practice Makes Perfect” approach. It’s more about the confidence that all those practice sessions instills. It takes confidence to pound a keyboard under deadline pressure and make meaning of a story or messages in such a way that an audience feels the writing is real and relevant.

It’s why we practice so hard, so when the time comes, we’re ready to Boom for Real!