Writers Talk About Writing
Beat Writer's Block Now!
You know the feeling. You really, really, really don't want to write. You're blocked. You've hit the wall. The words just won't come. You're bereft of inspiration. But your writing project needs to be finished (or started!) So what can you do? Well, I have an idea. Twenty of 'em, actually?
- Write something else. Most of us who write professionally have a hierarchy of horribleness. That is, we know which projects are going to be a little bit awful and which ones will be tremendously awful. My advice? Start with a less awful one. Procrastination, yes, but it's productive procrastination. (You'll be happier to face the Project of Doom once you have a bit of good writing under your belt.)
- Ask a series of questions. Stuck? Instead of writing your article or report in the "normal" way, brainstorm a list of questions your readers are most likely to wonder about. Then answer them. This may take only minor editing to turn into the "real" report or article.
- Write an email. This is a variant on the old trick of pretending to write to a friend. But verisimilitude is important. To maintain the "this isn't really work" illusion, you must write your piece in the body of an email. (Just use "move block" to copy it into a word processing document when you're done.)
- Change your setting. We all get bored and stuck in ruts. You may be dreading writing because you're dreading your office. So move to another room. Try the kitchen table or the cafeteria. Or decamp to a coffee shop. It worked for J.K. Rowling.
- Go for a walk or run. There's lots of evidence that we think better when we're moving, so take your writing on the road. Just be sure you have a way of capturing your thoughts. A small digital recorder does the trick very nicely.
- Do a brain dump. Sometimes you just need to get all the information out of your head and onto paper. Mindmapping, which I've written about many times before, can be very useful for this. Take a blank piece of paper, turn it sideways and write your topic in the middle. Draw a circle around it. now draw some lines radiating out of the circle (like spokes on a wheel) and write down all the other words that come into your head. Draw circles around them, too, and join them to the spokes. Keep going until your head is empty or until you feel, "aha! Now I know what I want to say."
- Write the headline or title. A headline or title is a bit like a poem. It must distill your big idea into a very few words. It must also be catchy. When you write the headline first, the entire direction of your piece is likely to become more clear. This will make writing substantially easier.
- Find your best time for writing. We all have our own biorhythms. I used to be a night owl. It was my best, most productive time for writing. In recent years, I've turned into a morning lark. Now I do my best writing at 6 am or earlier. But I'm a disaster by 11:30 am because my blood sugar is crashing and I'm starving. As Socrates said: Know thyself. Identify your predictably "good" times and use them. Don't try to write during your bad ones.
- Tell yourself you have to write for only five minutes. This is the trick they teach to runners. Okay, so you don't feel like exercising today. Well, pull on your sneakers and tell yourself you have to run for only five minutes and then you can quit. Many times you'll discover that the simple act of starting will give you enough momentum to continue. It works for writing, too.
- Stretch. Even if you're not blocked, you should do this. Stand up. Reach your hands to the ceiling. Now, clasp your hands behind your back. Straighten your shoulders pushing back against your shoulder blades almost as if you were trying to get them to touch each other. Those of us who work at computers all day tend to spend a lot of time hunched forward. This kind of stretch is not only good for your back, it's also invigorating. Breathe deeply a few times, too. Oxygen stimulates the brain.
- Give yourself permission to write badly -- really badly. Many times we're blocked as writers because we've raised the stakes too high. "This report will make or break my career," we tell ourselves. "My income depends on this sales letter," we fret. Those thoughts may be true, but set them aside while you're writing. If you simply must beat yourself up, do it when you're editing.
- Ask yourself, "have I done enough research?" People often worry about over-researching as a form of procrastination. This does happen, but, interestingly, I find the problem is more typically the reverse. People often try to write before they have the raw materials to do the job properly. This inevitably leads to much staring at a blank computer screen. Before you begin to write ask yourself: "If a friend, partner or colleague grilled me on this topic, could I answer most of their questions easily and in plain English?" If not, continue your research without feeling guilty. (Hint: Make sure your research includes more than facts and figures. You need stories, anecdotes and color. These are what will make your writing come alive.)
- "Speak" your writing. Most of us have no difficulty talking. So go with the flow and dictate your words into a tape or digital recorder or even your voicemail. If all else fails, ask a friend to interview you.
- Prevent interruptions. Okay, I don't need to tell you this, but turn off your email and shut down your browser. No pings. No "control + m." No peeking. Email, blogs, checking online forums and surfing the web will keep you busy -- and unproductive. Instead, use these interruptions to "reward" yourself when you've finished your writing. To avoid non-digital disturbances, I also like popping on a pair of noise-canceling headphones (these are also excellent for keeping children at bay if you work from home.)
- Break your writing job into a number of smaller tasks. This is the oldest time-management trick in the book -- use it because it works. Do many small jobs rather than one big job and the work will feel less onerous. Here's how you can divvy up your writing work: print out research from Google; go through your research with a highlighter or sticky notes; interview people; make a mind-map; write a rough draft; rewrite an early draft; copy edit.
- Reward yourself. If you've worked hard on a piece of writing, give yourself a prize. I don't recommend double fudge brownies for obvious reasons, but there are lots of other options. Allow yourself 15 minutes reading blogs. Call a friend. Play some music. Buy a Moleskin notebook. Get a cappuccino.
- Turn off your screen so you can't see what you've just written. This tip does depend on your ability to touch type, but if you have that skill, it's the single best way to stop yourself from endlessly editing your work when you ought to be writing.
- Limit your writing time. Work expands to fill available time (Parkinson's Law). Writing thrives under constraint (Daphne's Law). I know this sounds counterintuitive but we often give ourselves too much time to write. Don't set aside a day for that report. Tell yourself you have to do it in two hours. Remember how productive you can be just before going on holiday? Create the feeling artificially by limiting your writing time.
- Pretend you've phoned a friend and said, "Guess what?" Then continue the conversation by explaining the key elements of the topic you're writing about. What makes this technique so effective is that it follows a natural progression. Because you're telling a story, you'll start with the most interesting material, give detail where it belongs and end by reinforcing the point you want to make.
- Read a short but good piece of writing that's similar to the kind of piece you need to complete. Get yourself a folder for essays and brief magazine pieces you can dip into for inspiration. If you write sales letters, you probably already have a "swipe file." That works too. For extra reinforcement, you can even re-read some of your own writing. This is often a welcome reminder that while writing can be awful, having written is the most wonderful feeling in the world.