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January 19, 2018

My solution for writer’s block: stop writing

Ouch…you´re sitting in front of your computer and staring hopelessly at an empty screen. Your thoughts are running in every direction (except the right one) and suddenly you realise: this is writer’s block. In this blog I´ll give you a few handy tips on how to avoid this.

Before we begin. In this blog I´ll share my own methods for avoiding writer’s block. A number of the tips you will probably recognise, a couple you may have been using for a long time and some may seem too obvious for words. So, try and see this blog as a kind of first aid kit when you get stuck in the middle of your writing process.

In addition I’m taking the writing of commercial texts as my starting point. Internet copy, voice over scripts, mail-outs, blogs…that sort of work. I´m not going to be talking about writing that one brilliant novel you have been mulling over for years (and where you are literally starting from scratch). But rather, about the kind of texts where you already know in advance the subject and messaging that you want to bring over.

What is it then that sometimes makes writing so difficult, if you already know everything up front? How is it that you sometimes just can’t ´put pen to paper´, when the brief is lying in front of you and it seems to all be there, word for word? Why are the words not hitting paper like machine gun bullets?

Why, why, why…whatever. You could just, you know, start. Or better yet, put the whole thing off a while.

I for one tend to go for the latter.

All too often I find myself sitting in front of a blank screen, only to realise later that I just didn’t really know at that point what it was that I wanted to write; and I could have been busy with other (much nicer) things in the meantime.

With writing then, there´s nothing wrong with a fair amount of procrastination.

I assume that during that downtime you make space at the back of your mind for ruminating on the subject matter.

While all the information is brewing in your head, fragments of the final story will be taking shape. Perhaps you will encounter, here and there, questions that you or your client still need to find answers for. Sometimes you run into a great line, that you can quickly scribble down.

I watch out that I don´t take on too much information about the subject though. Like that slightly too enthusiastic account manager, with a product description consisting of four pages in part 11 alone. Nice, but it is possible that knowing too much about your subject can be counterproductive.

What is nice about this phase is that it makes no difference whatsoever what you come up with, or what great (or bad jokes) you make. Anything goes at this point – it’s not down in black and white, yet.

OK, maybe the text that you´re going to write doesn’t lend itself to jokes and gags at all. But in letting your mind wander like this, you give yourself the freedom to write a good story. Or at least to have fun while you´re trying to write.

And fun…yep, even a story about outboard motor engine brackets can be fun! Or put another way, fun to read or listen to. Really serious stories can sometimes be written in such a way that they invite you not to engage with them. If you let your mind run free, then you can find interesting ways into even the trickiest topics.

I once applied for a job with a well-known copywriter. He read my texts and then fixed me with a penetrating stare and said: “¨Why is it that the pieces you wrote for radio are great, and the texts that you wrote to brief seem to have been a torture to write?”

Fun, that’s what it’s all about.

Do you get hyper-focused? Or perfectionist? Then writer’s block will be looming over your shoulder all too quickly. And your listener or reader will also feel that something isn’t quite right.

OK. So, putting it off a bit is the first thing, getting down to work is the second. After the procrastination phase, you should have all your thoughts in a tidy row. Possible blanks or obstacles within your story are resolved. Here and there you´ve already thought up a nifty little witticism. Now the real writing can begin.

Still, there is no guarantee that you won’t find yourself once more staring at an empty screen. Personally I often fall into the trap of wanting it to be perfect; and the spark just never hits the paper.

But, ´I can’t do it´, is not an option.

Therefore it’s handy to first just write down everything that comes to the front of your mind. Without worrying about peripheral things like tone of voice, woolliness, target audience or even grammatical errors. If you start fretting about those kind of things straight off then in no time at all you will find yourself completely stuck.

At this stage you can write down everything that comes into your head, or simply just get the broad brushstrokes down (i.e. write down point for point what it is you want to say).

Do you notice that you´re playing around with pretty words and sentences? Stop that. Copy-legend Ron Meijer said to me, during one of his lessons: “What is it that you actually want to say..? Well, write that down then.”

Is your deadline approaching? Can you feel it breathing down your neck already? Good. You need to produce something quickly now. There’s a big chance that you start thinking more simply as a result. No more time to lose worrying about peripheral stuff.

Don´t fuss too much about the word count either. To start with you will always have more words than necessary. If you don’t write them down there’s a good chance they will keep rampaging around your head screaming for attention. Only when you have them down can you put a big, fat line through them.

While you´re writing, don´t look back at what you’ve written either. That will only make you liable to get distracted by the lines that don’t quite work yet. You´ll come to those in the next phase.

Have you got it all down? Then, if it’s generally OK, you have yourself a nice little story.

Now is the time to structure it.

Print the whole thing out, get a pen and start numbering. Number every line or paragraph, and in this way decide what is the best order for them to go in.

David Bowie went a step further. He used to take a pair of scissors, cut out all the individual sentences, and then put them in the best order. In the video below he shows how he goes about his work, and how he used this method to write Moonage Daydream (ignore the coke next to him on the table ;-).

There will also be sentences, and paragraphs, that don’t have a number. You can scrap these and keep them in reserve. Myself, I move them down to another page, so that I don’t ever have to ask myself what it was that I had there.

What you now have in front of you is a rough draft.

(Congratulations! This is the point at which you can safely say you have left your writer’s block behind, and the chance of falling back into hopelessly romanticising the writing process is virtually impossible).

You have written down what you wanted to say, the structure is pretty much there, and if you have followed this method all you need to do now is add the finishing touches.

In other words, only now does the refined writing start. Scrap superfluous words, rethink your best metaphors, make sure that it works well stylistically and that the reader or listener feels personally engaged. Are you working on a voice over script? Then check out my previous blog spot to see what other tricks you can use for those.

These tips help me when I’m writing internet copy, mail-outs, scripts, blogs and radio commercials. So, you can see: saving yourself from writer’s block ain’t rocket science. It’s more about going through the process one step at a time, and being alert so that you don’t skip any of them. And, as long as you keep it fun for yourself, you´ll see that reflected in the final result.

That’s the essence of classic writer’s block: wanting to go too fast, making your thinking too complicated, and being perfectionist. Do these and you´re walking straight into the writer’s block trap. So, stop writing, step away from your keyboard and only come back when the time is ripe.

What do you find helps when you get stuck? Let me know in the comments!

Comments

  1. Thanks for you thoughts, Jente! I agree with you in greater parts – but there are two things that you haven’t considered: 1. There’s two types of writers: the one who’s able to write everything down and then structure the damn thing, then there’s the other (like me) who has the complete article finished in her head and is just too bored by the thought of having to write it all down on the computer screen to be able to actually do it. In my eyes the only thing that might work against this kind of blockage is to start to write the piece much much earlier and not to leave it sitting on the desk for weeks until the deadline approaches. The only problem is that most of the time immediate and important stuff comes between you and the text, like meetings, new jobs, things where you have to react quickly or that have earlier deadlines. It’s really a walk on thin ice…

    2. There’s the kind of writer’s block I experienced as a symptom of a severe burn-out / light depression. The only thing that really helps, I believe, because it helped me, was to actually stop writing. I did that and consequently for more than a year. I cancelled all my editing and writing jobs and took on the position of a secretary in order to be able to find fun in writing my own texts again… I was even blocked (was afraid of doing it) whenever I had to sit in front of my own computer or check emails.

  2. Thanks for you thoughts, Jente! I agree with you in greater parts – but there are two things that you haven’t considered: 1. There’s two types of writers: the one who’s able to write everything down and then structure the damn thing, then there’s the other (like me) who has the complete article finished in her head and is just too bored by the thought of having to write it all down on the computer screen to be able to actually do it. In my eyes the only thing that might work against this kind of blockage is to start to write the piece much much earlier and not to leave it sitting on the desk for weeks until the deadline approaches. The only problem is that most of the time immediate and important stuff comes between you and the text, like meetings, new jobs, things where you have to react quickly or that have earlier deadlines. It’s really a walk on thin ice…

    2. There’s the kind of writer’s block I experienced as a symptom of a severe burn-out / light depression. The only thing that really helps, I believe, because it helped me, was to actually stop writing. I did that and consequently for more than a year. I cancelled all my editing and writing jobs and took on the position of a secretary in order to be able to find fun in writing my own texts again… I was even blocked (was afraid of doing it) whenever I had to sit in front of my own computer or check emails.

  3. hi Elke, 1. oh yeah, I would love to write the way you do! (however I can’t) 2. Being blocked because of reall stress, that’s hard. Hope you don’t have to face that one again in your life.

  4. hi Elke, 1. oh yeah, I would love to write the way you do! (however I can’t) 2. Being blocked because of reall stress, that’s hard. Hope you don’t have to face that one again in your life.

  5. Jente Kater My mother had died and it was a very stressful situation. I hope I won’t have to face it again as well. It’s been 12 years ago now. It also helped me to understand that I’d like to shift my focus more to working as a Voice Over and writing audiovisual content instead of journalistic. 😀

  6. Jente Kater My mother had died and it was a very stressful situation. I hope I won’t have to face it again as well. It’s been 12 years ago now. It also helped me to understand that I’d like to shift my focus more to working as a Voice Over and writing audiovisual content instead of journalistic. 😀

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