Everyone writes. In this digital age, we’re creating more words than ever. Whether it’s an email to a client, a persuasive blog post or the Great American E-Book, the ability to explain yourself in writing is the critical skill of the Internet era.
Despite this profusion of words, people often encounter writer’s block when attempting large or significant projects. They can fire off tweets and snarky Facebook comments all day long but their fingers stall when it comes to crafting something that really matters.
After I wrote my novel Murder in Ocean Hall, the question I got most was, “How?”
How did I muster up the patience to devote so much time to a single idea? How did I keep at it? How did I overcome the inertia of writer’s block to get started?
Writer’s block happens to everyone. But it can be overcome.
Perfect is the Enemy of the Good
I’ve met a lot of creative folks with ideas for books or blogs or screenplays. Yet, many of them fail to ever put pen to paper. Why? Because the idea is perfect in their head; the reality of the thing is never going to match their vision. They do nothing, preferring to keep their fantasies pristine rather than sullying them with reality. But isn’t it better to have something that actually exists, no matter how flawed, to an ephemeral vision? To write means to express your ideas, imperfectly.
Steven Pressfield calls this reluctance to get started, “Resistance” in his book on creativity and courage, Do the Work.
Would you go out into the wilderness without a map? Yet, many people will just dive into a project without a clue where they’re going. Once the rush of enthusiasm ends, they get stuck. It’s better to take some time and create an outline. An outline can be really simple – a list of chapter titles, points you want to make, things you want to mention. It’s something that you can turn to when you run out of steam.
Don’t edit as you go. That can be done later. The purpose of the first draft is merely to get your ideas down on paper. It’s about collecting all the disparate thoughts you have and recording them, without judgement. You can clean them up and make them coherent when you edit. The first draft is more about collection than craft.
You can’t boss your mind around. It’s really adept at avoiding commands. In fact, telling yourself that you “must” do this or that virtually guarantees procrastination.
A better strategy is to reward yourself when accomplishing important milestones. When writing Murder in Ocean Hall, I gave myself a small present (a bottle of gin, a Wii game) for every 10,000 words I wrote. We all respond better to carrots instead of sticks.
Find a Quiet Place
One of the worst developments of the 20th century is the open office. Noisy and filled with distractions, these low-walled spaces are terrible for any type of work that requires concentration. Find some place quiet to write, like your favorite coffee shop, the neighborhood library or an empty conference room. And turn off the Internet.
Simple Tools Work Best
I like Pages by Apple. It’s a simple word processor that gets out of the way. If you must use Microsoft Word, turn off all of its autosaving, autocorrecting gimmickry – “features” that are designed to interrupt your concentration.
First Things First
I am not a morning person. Despite this, I do most of my writing first thing in the AM. Why? Zenhabits had the excellent advice to do your most important work at the beginning of the day, lest it get lost in the press of other demands.
writer’s block vs Writer’s Block
I was on a panel on with Claudia Myers, a professor who teaches screenwriting at American University. She made a distinction between writer’s block and Writer’s Block. The lower-case variety can be cured by the methods listed above; it’s largely a matter of getting started and keeping the momentum going.
However, Writer’s Block (upper-case variety) indicates a structural problem – perhaps there’s something wrong with the way that your communicating your idea. For her screenwriting students, she recommends explaining their script out loud to a friend. Sometimes by talking things out, you can identify what’s wrong with your story. If your audience seems puzzled or confused, then you’ve gone astray.
So, what do you do with an idea that’s not working out? You have three choices:
- Press on, because it’s your idea, dammit.
- Figure out what’s not working and fix it.
- Quit and start something new.
Not sure which option to take? See the excellent The Dip by Seth Godin, a book about knowing when to quit.
When writing, nothing is ever really wasted. At the very least, working on a failed project is good practice. And that effort may come in handy later on. For example, I tried writing a novel about gentrification in DC. I got about fifty pages into it and got hopelessly stuck. A few years later, the characters and the story I worked on were the basis for my award-winning screenplay, Mount Pleasant.
It’s the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting.
Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist
Writing is making a dream come true. It’s about taking your idea and communicating it successfully. Writer’s block is an inevitable part of the process, a difficulty you encounter along the way. But it can be overcome.