Writing: Crossing the Finish Line

Writer's blockSo far, I’ve attempted to debunk the concept of writer’s block to help you get started and examined what happens when you get stuck in the middle of a piece. In part 3, let’s wrap it up, so you have in your hands a writing project that you’re happy about sharing with the world.

If you’re content writing stories, essays, poems, or in a journal and plan never to show your creative efforts to anyone, then it really doesn’t matter whether you finish or not. But, if you’re already a working writer – or want a long career as a writer – then finishing is what makes you a Writer (as in formal title and job description) or Author (with published works to your name).

So, let’s address some of the reasons why writers struggle to finish and get you on with your work:

You can’t think how the piece should end – This sounds like a bigger problem than it is. Before you think I’m being flippant, I’ll go on record and admit that while I don’t suffer from this in my professional writing life, I struggle immensely with endings in my creative writing. So, what’s the answer? In many ways, it’s the same for both kinds of writing: Learn from the masters.

In corporate communications, PR, marketing, advertising, and journalism, there are tons of examples of completed pieces that went before yours. Whether you’re writing a press release, website content or an ad campaign, go back and look at: 1) great examples that cover a subject similar to yours, and 2) the work that inspires you and exemplifies best-in-the-practice. Before you get too absorbed in all that admiring, jump to the ending. How did these previous pros close the deal? Did they reiterate overall goals or messages? Let a distinguished figure do the talking with a closing quote? Tug on your heartstrings? Make you laugh? Or did they focus on something meaningful to the intended audience? Figure out why that particular ending worked for that piece of writing for that audience, and you’ll be halfway home; now, look at your own goals, messages and audience, and choose the approach that’s most meaningful for your readers.

If you’re writing PR or journalism, reading coverage of topics similar to yours is invaluable. For PR people, you’ll learn what angles work in a pitch – or are perhaps already overused. Similarly, journalists can see how the story was covered previously and decide whether they want to utilize an effective format or try a new direction or style.

This process of analyzing stories similar to your own is just as helpful for creative writers. So, you’ve got a story with characters, plot, themes. Examine the works of other writers and how they got to a conclusion. Does each character in your story have a complete arc or did you leave the heroine’s old boyfriend in Idaho somewhere, putting on his shoes one morning? Is there a gaping donut hole in your plot? Are all the strings of your themes playing together in harmony by the time you reach The End?

writer's blockBe wary, as I mentioned in Part 1, of setting aside your work while waiting for inspiration to strike. In a way, writing is not all that different from sport – you’re just exercising a different set of muscles. No good comes from letting your brain go slack. Be disciplined about regular practice: this is where skills are built.

If analyzing other works doesn’t inspire your own imaginative ending, then try brain puzzles. This is apparently what Joel and Ethan Coen did when writing their first film, “Blood Simple.” The Coen brothers deliberately wrote themselves into corners, where characters were seemingly trapped – frequently at gunpoint. They didn’t let themselves or their characters off the hook; they created the challenge of writing believable sequences that took characters and plot to the next inescapable corner. And the next. And the one after that.

Here’s what critic Roger Ebert said about the writing of this plot:

“The genius of ‘Blood Simple’ is that everything that happens seems necessary. The movie’s a blood-soaked nightmare in which greed and lust trap the characters in escalating horror. The plot twists in upon itself. Characters are found in situations of diabolical complexity. And yet it doesn’t feel like the film is just piling it on. Step by inexorable step, logically, one damned thing leads to another.”

The successful writers I’ve met in Hollywood have one common trait: They set challenges for themselves – whether around characters or plots – and they write themselves out of them. And they work at these challenges every day, whether at their computers or while waiting in line at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf.

You’re not willing to put in the time – Some of the advice I’ve offered in this three-part series involves extracurricular activities, whether mapping out a writing schedule or doing certain exercises. Like writing, it’s the doing that gets you to the end result. For example, in Part 1, I suggested an exercise that involved rating your expectations of writing assignments from 1 (“could’ve done it in my sleep”) to 10 (“unbearably awful”) and then rating the assignment again, after it was done. You can dismiss the suggestion out of hand or assume it won’t work for you or even figure you “get it,” so you don’t need to actually try it. But, in this particular case, as with suggestions that involve practice writing, it’s your own accumulated experience that creates in you a solid foundation of confidence and skill, and that’s what will enable you to ward off this thing that’s keeping your hand from the keyboard or pen – call it writer’s block, ennui, depression, procrastination, stress, obligations, discouragement, lack of faith, whatever, but when you’re haunted by these specters, trust me, you’ll want some inner ghostbusters you can call upon to make them go away, so you can get back to your real work.

You’re having issues at work/home and failing to complete writing assignments – When you’re having problems, they can interfere with meeting writing deadlines. Ultimately, though, failing to meet deadlines will compound your problems. Whatever’s going on at work, you need to formulate a way to address it and even proactively discuss your plan of attack with your boss. It’s likely your manager is already concerned about missed deadlines. Demonstrating an awareness of the situation, concern for meeting goals, willingness to redress the problem and seek advice will give you some traction, as long as you follow through. Likewise, once the air is cleared, stay late if you need to, but finish those writing assignments and turn them in. (If your home life is bleeding into your work life, this will become a much bigger problem a lot faster than you ever imagine. Get the two separated immediately and start practicing compartmentalization. Leave the emotional issues of home at home and don’t give yourself time to think about them once you cross the threshold of your office.)

Finding time to writeIf the problem at work or home is that you don’t have enough time to write, then you’ll need to print out your weekly schedule and share it with your manager, spouse, roommates – whoever’s impeding your ability to get your writing done. Whether you need to assure your roommates that the new Gotye song sounds even more profound when appreciated through headphones instead of blasting out of their stereo speakers from 2 – 3 p.m. on Wednesdays or you suggest to your manager that your weekly one-on-ones could be bi-weekly or literal “standing meetings,” where you don’t sit down and do a quick 5 minute run-down of anything that’s pressing, what you’re looking for is a positive negotiation that will result in realistic and manageable blocks of time where you can write and the people around you are comfortable.

You don’t see how your missed milestone impacts everyone else down the line – Whether writing in the corporate world or hoping to see your short story in Glimmer Train, if you want to be a working writer, money is on the line and people are depending on you.

There was a very specific moment in my professional writing life when I stopped procrastinating. It’s as distinctive a memory for me as the decision to quit smoking. I was communications lead on a $300 million initiative that, for the first time in the company’s history, was going to use project management tools to map the work and deliver against plan. There’s nothing like seeing your communications work itemized on MS Project as a dependency linked to other pieces of work performed by dozens of colleagues downstream with multiple business functions dedicated to the effort and millions upon millions of dollars on the line.

Most, or at least many, corporate assignments aren’t this intense or costly. But the point remains: Your work is part of a longer chain that starts with a business leader or client needing to message, sources pulling together information and donating their time to you, reviewers who make time to approve the piece, and your manager and the newsletter team who’re looking to you to complete the assignment. Each of these colleagues has their own work and limited amounts of time to dedicate to supporting your work. The same goes for the people at publications to whom you make promises about delivering completed assignments, rewrites or creative work.

Honoring other people’s time is a matter of respect, and when you demonstrate that kind of respect, people naturally want to work with you (and publish you) again and help you achieve your own goals. (And that is always a good place to find yourself no matter what kind of writing you do.)

They keep changing the goal line – This happens frequently in corporate communications, and it can throw your entire piece into question or a major part of its messaging. This is why sitting down with your clients or manager with an outline, key messages and recommended sources is so valuable at the beginning of any project. Getting agreement and sign-off on the goals of a piece doesn’t mean the assignment won’t change along the way, but it can buy you additional time to deliver if you need to conduct a whole new batch of interviews to support the new direction. If you work in an organization where goal lines move a lot, then you may also need to adopt a different approach: news briefs on the intranet, for example, instead of feature stories for the e-newsletter or addressing with your manager the ROI of constantly abandoning writing assignments (in terms of what it costs to pay a writing contractor) and get a sense if she or he has any control over the situation.

You’re afraid of succeeding – I watch a lot of professional tennis and, over the years, you learn to spot the players – even ones at the very top – who struggle to win a match. The place you often see this play out is in the serve. It’s the one and only stroke that a player has complete control over; it’s also the moment when a player feels most alone and exposed. Players have practiced for this moment since they were shorter than the racquets they use – a million practice swings to get it just right when the game is on the line. Andy Roddick always delivers. So does Serena Williams and Roger Federer. If it was all about skill – or talent – then Andy Murray and Amelie Mauresmo and even Maria Sharapova would have a lot more trophies on their shelves. It’s about finding a level of belief that exceeds skill.

The late John Wooden, the revered UCLA basketball coach, put together something he called the “Pyramid of Success,” and it’s worth studying – for writing and life (or tennis). You’ll note that ambition is balanced with qualities like industriousness, friendship and loyalty. Enthusiasm measured against poise and self-control.

writer's block“Success,” said Wooden, “is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.” Wooden doesn’t confuse self-satisfaction with ego; he sees it as a direct correlation of working your hardest at being your best. The real competition is inside you to better your skills and your self. There are very few good writing books that will tell you any different.

Ultimately, writing is something you do alone, like standing at the service line. Writing comes from inside you, which is why it can feel so exposed on the page and why we encounter difficulties with it along the way to expressing ourselves or getting writing assignments done. If you’re struggling with issues around success, then print out Wooden’s pyramid and consider where you might be out of balance and which attributes or practices might bring you greater balance in your writing life, and really practice them, and you’ll find you’re getting your writing across the finish line, however you’ve defined that success for yourself.

Writing that inspired me this week:

“He gave me a little pearl-handled .38 for our first anniversary…Figured I’d better leave before I used it on him.”
~ Abby, “Blood Simple” by Joel and Ethan Coen

Stuck in the Middle with Your Writing

As I mentioned in Part 1 of this series on writer’s block, the idea that something can prevent you from writing is pure fiction.

Only you can keep you from writing. But what if you’ve started something and get stuck? How do you move past the doldrums of the middle section and catch sight of home port?

Here are some of the problems we encounter when we get stuck in the middle and their solutions:

You’re editing while writing – This is a major concern for most of us, whether the work we do is creative, personal or professional. Several excellent authors discuss the editor’s role in creating distractions from and disaffection for our work.

Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird says it’s like listening to a radio station with the call letters KFKD: “Out of the left speaker will be the rap songs of self-loathing, the lists of all the things one doesn’t do well, of all the mistakes one has made today and over an entire lifetime, the doubt…”

Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones notes that it’s imperative “to separate the creator and the editor or internal censor” and, if you have trouble doing so, let the editor take over for just a moment and sit there and take dictation: “Write what the editor is saying; give it full voice – ‘You are a jerk, who ever said you could write, I hate your work, you suck, I’m embarrassed, you have nothing valuable to say, and besides you can’t spell…’”

Goldberg’s advice is to get to know the editor by giving it voice, so you can spot the key words that are trapping you. Perhaps it’s the word “boring” or the bit about having nothing valuable to share. Figure out what’s slowing you down, face it, and over time the editor will pipe down until, “like the jabbering of an old drunk fool, it becomes just prattle in the background.”

On a practical level, many writers are the first (and sometimes only) editors of their work. It’s something we have to engage in to ensure that our writing is ready to go out the door to a publication, to be published on a blog, or before it’s sent out as a press release or posted on a corporate website.

You need to choose the times you edit your work wisely, especially when you’re working on a longer project and have to put away your writing for a day or two and return to it. When you re-read your writing to get back into the flow, it’s tempting to start to edit.

Here’s the deal you need to make with yourself: You must set aside time to write and a time to edit. The editing time must always be scheduled after the writing time. For example, you write for an hour in the morning and agree to edit the piece for an hour in the afternoon. When you pick up a piece after a few days away, you should re-read a paragraph or two at the beginning and then move directly to the place where you left off and review the last few grafs there. Then, begin writing and leave the red pencil for later.

You don’t really understand your subject – This borders on scary territory for a lot of writers, especially if you’ve already completed the interviews and research for the project. If you’re a corporate communicator or work in an agency and have a good rapport with the client, you’re in luck. You need to be honest with your corporate colleague or client about the need for an overview, but there’s no reason you can’t couch that request by saying that you’re absolutely determined to do the best job possible on this project and you’re asking because you want to be sure to get it right and also understand the client’s perspective and expertise on the subject in more depth.

If this isn’t an option, then it’s time to hit the Internet or the library. Use reference sites like Wikipedia to take a deep dive and news publications to see how other people have written about this subject. Then, go back to your own notes and start to pull out the best pieces of information that support the project you’re working on, its goals and key messages. This will help you create an outline that will make it easier to write from.

Defeat writer's block: Keep your hands on the keyboard and write.

Another helpful little trick I’ve found is writing sidebars. I once had to write a long piece on bone research. The research program was called “sclerostin.” Sclerostin happens to be the molecule in your body that inhibits bone growth. The company’s sclerostin program was all about helping patients increase bone. I wrote and wrote and wrote and got more confused as I went. Finally, I went back over my notes and put together a sidebar that noted that the program was really about developing a sclerostin antibody that inhibited sclerostin (inhibiting the inhibitor enables bone growth), and we kept the sidebar in the piece because it was especially helpful to laypeople with little scientific background. Several years later, the leaders of R&D renamed the program “sclerostin antibody” for clarity’s sake, so presumably I wasn’t the only one unclear on the concept.

Whether you use them in the final piece or simply rely on them as cheat sheets to keep the subject straight in your head, sidebars can be a practical solution to confusion.

You didn’t really flesh out themes or messages – And you’ve probably been driving yourself crazy, editing and re-editing (see Item #1), when what you really need is to sit down and write out each theme or message. Determine which are most important to figure out where they belong in your piece – in the lede, in the first chapter, as a convincing summation – and write from there.

You need a middle 8 – This is frequently a structure or style problem. You picked a structure or writing style that suited your subject, but somewhere in the middle you got stuck. The structure or style isn’t serving you anymore.

Don’t panic. Instead give yourself permission to break the structure or style for a few paragraphs and see if you don’t pick it back up on the other side of whatever you were writing that needed a little more room to breathe or a different tone or style.

The middle 8 is part of classic forms of songwriting, especially in popular music. For instance, in the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” the middle 8 is Paul McCartney’s brief interlude of grounded daily life between John Lennon’s more cryptic, ethereal lyrics:

“Woke up, fell out of bed,
Dragged a comb across my head.
Found my way downstairs and drank a cup,
And looking up I noticed I was late.
Found my coat and grabbed my hat,
Made the bus in seconds flat.
Found my way upstairs and had a smoke,
And somebody spoke and I went into a dream.”

The middle 8 breaks up the repetition of verse-chorus-verse-chorus and, as Wikipedia notes, is often called the “bridge” or “release.” These are two excellent terms to think of in relation to your own writing, especially if you’ve adhered closely to a strong (or even rigid) structure or to a style. Your reader might need a break, and the middle 8 can serve that function. And get you back in time for the chorus (or to resume your structure or style).

Your piece feels too long – This article started life as a single post about writer’s block, but somewhere in the middle, I realized it was going on and on, and I had lots of tips to share and needed to break it up. I hadn’t thought of the Having Trouble Starting/Stuck in the Middle/Trouble Finishing structure at that point, but when I looked over what I’d written, I saw that I had enough items for each segment to split the piece into a three-parter.

Series are especially helpful if you write a blog (and Problogger authors Darren Rowse and Chris Garrett actually recommend multi-part posts as a helpful blogging promotion tool) or for a newsletter or website. Not so good if you’re writing a press release or a novel (unless you’re writing a genre novel and those I think are required by law to be series).

If you haven’t written an outline, now is the time. Or you need to review your original outline. What are the salient points you need to make? What are your goals? Most important, what does your audience need or want to know? Check to make sure your client’s goals aren’t conflicting with what the audience really needs. Do you have the key points to back up your messages? Perhaps you’re overwriting because you don’t feel you’ve backed up something successfully and so you keep adding more supporting material. Is there a better and more succinct way to make your points?

After you’ve worked on your outline and key messages, try reading the piece aloud. Where are you stumbling? Where are you glossing over parts of sentences just to get through them? Where is the piece dragging? Are you repeating words or phrases? Note all of these and start adjusting.

Finally, ask someone whose opinion you trust to read the piece and mark where they found it slow going, repetitive, unclear, or simply long or uninteresting. What did they want to get out of the piece in return for their investment of time?

What about you? Where do you get stuck – beginning, middle or end?

NEXT TIME: Why you can’t finish.

Writing that inspired me this week:

“Trying to make some sense of it all,
But I can see it makes no sense at all,
Is it cool to go to sleep on the floor?
‘Cause I don’t think that I can take anymore
Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right,
Here I am, stuck in the middle with you.”
~ Stealers Wheel

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.