Don’t get stopped by writer’s block

August 18, 2009 at 1:21 pm Leave a comment

“Writer’s block is inevitable. It may arrive like an uninvited visitor at the start of a project, or just when the writing was proceeding smoothly.”*

How true. For me, this state of mental paralysis typically sets in just as I’m starting out: I can’t decide how to begin. I’ve sat sometimes for hours with nothing to show for it but a few crippled sentences, all the while sweating over my deadline and fretting the assignment will never get done.

If this sounds familiar, you might analyze your thoughts the next time writer’s block strikes you. Something straightforward could be nagging you: You realize you need to write at home rather than in the lab, or that you should do another experiment before writing anything more. What’s often happening with me, however, is that I’m putting undue pressure on myself to create something beautiful or clever or in some other way perfect, while simultaneously telling myself that it’s never going to happen, that everything I write is clunky or dumb or boring. This is what I call my “self-conscious state.” Instead of just getting down to business – just doing it, as Nike says – I write for, say, one minute, and then spend the next 10 or 20 second-guessing what I’ve composed.

It’s a painful place to be in, of course. That’s why over the years I’ve developed strategies for breaking out of it as quickly as possible and into what I call my “unconscious state.” In this blissful place, the entire universe shrinks down to my computer screen, I develop a laser-focus on what I want to say, and – best of all – I forget all about myself as the writer. I’ve learned to do this primarily through writing on tight deadlines (you really can’t waste two hours getting started when you need to submit 700 polished words by 5 pm). Still, even when deadlines are longer and more fluid, the writing must get done. Here are some tactics for getting on with it.

Start anywhere. If I’m stuck (and even often when I’m not), I let myself start absolutely anywhere in a story. In the middle, at the end – whichever spot happens to capture my imagination at the moment. In the feature stories I write, for instance, the most compelling, enjoyable task is usually writing anecdotes, or mini-stories, about the people involved. So I often start with these bits as a way of entering the piece as a whole.

So, the next time you’re not getting anywhere, ask yourself: What could I get myself to write about today? Maybe you feel like describing the significance of a certain result, because you think it’s just so cool. Or maybe the methods appeal because they’re straightforward. Or perhaps you want to compose the background paragraphs for your introduction, because synthesizing information is one of your favorite writing tasks. Don’t get hung up on writing in a logical sequence – you can put all the pieces together later, trust me. Plus, the progress you make on these parts will make finishing the whole much less daunting.

Brainstorm. When I was uncertain how to start an article in the past, I used to compose one opener, and then anxiously tinker with it for a very long time, before finally throwing it out, writing another and starting the whole process over again. Talk about inefficient! Luckily, I’ve now learned to avoid all the drama and delay by purposely not deciding anything at first. That is, I quickly write three or four (or even five or six) different opening paragraphs, without passing judgment – that’s key. Through this process, one almost always emerges as the winner. But if not, I put them aside to read over later with fresh eyes.

So, not sure what a piece of data means or how to describe a certain figure you’ve created? Write down anything at all that comes to mind (remember: quickly and without passing judgment). Just dump out all the possibilities, even if they contradict one another. Then, let your words sit for a day or two, take another look and see what sticks. Who knows, you may even discover an important insight that would never have surfaced through a more controlled writing process. At the very least, you’ll have something written, which is the first step toward curing writer’s block.

Next, more ideas for putting the chop to writer’s block…

*Writing for scientific publication: Tips for getting started. A. Lin (2006) Clinical Pediatrics.


Entry filed under: Getting started.

To build good titles, break down a few More tips for breaking up writer’s block

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