Beating the Block

the-writer2

The other day, a friend asked for some help writing something for her job. She had been struggling, sitting at her desk for about an hour staring at the blinking cursor on the blank, white word document on her screen. She asked if I had a few minutes to help her at least get started.

When I sent her some ideas and a sample three paragraphs for her to use as a diving board, she responded back in awe. She asked how I manage to write things on demand and how I deal with writer’s block. I actually get asked this question a lot by family members or friends who simply cannot imagine how I find it fun to write all day. I hear stories about it taking them hours, days and weeks to write even the smallest document – even a rather simple detailed email.

Of course some love and feel more comfortable writing than others. But truthfully, I believe most writing hang-ups have more to do with fear than writer’s block or writing ability. A task that scares us can quickly morph into a gigantuan feat, especially if left to linger in our imaginations.

Years of training at a major metropolitan newspaper where we sometimes had less than ten minutes to whip up a story about breaking news on deadline simply taught me that I don’t have the luxury of writer’s block. When something needs to get done, it must get done. Writing included.

But that doesn’t mean that I don’t sometimes struggle. Over the years I have found ways to combat the block. I thought since my friend found some advice helpful, others might find it helpful, too.

1) You must start somewhere – but it doesn’t have to be at the beginning

A lot of people get so caught up on getting the perfect opening line or graph, and when they can’t get it just right, it prevents them from moving on.

If you are feeling stuck about not knowing exactly how to start, skip to the next paragraph. Or the next graph after that. Just start somewhere, with something. The more you flesh the rest of the piece out, the easier it will be to go back to the top and nail it.

2)  Write as if you are talking to your best friend

We are rarely at a loss when talking to our closest friends because we feel comfortable letting our guards down. We don’t worry about speaking grammatically correct or saying the right things, we just talk. We should do the same thing when we are writing first drafts.

Often when we try to write we focus so much on using the perfect sentences, big words and smart-sounding prose. When we are talking to our best friend, we just say it how it is. (Which, I believe, is really how we should write for the most part, minus the curse words.)

So the next time you are stuck writing, imagine you are sitting across from your friend. How would you explain the report, project or address an email to them on the topic? As you are imaging your conversation, slowly inch your fingers closer to your keyboard and type what you would say, word for word.

Now, I can feel you getting antsy. Don’t worry, you won’t be handing this in. No one has to see it. This will be your starting point, just a first draft. Once you have something down on paper or screen, you can go back and edit it to be more professional or appropriate. Or maybe not. Maybe it will turn out to be just what you need.

3) Do not strive for perfection

Your first draft does not have to be – and will not be – perfect. Once you make peace with this, you will feel immense relief.

When sitting down to write, just write. Don’t think too much about it. Just focus on getting as many thoughts or details down as you can. When you go back to read through your work, you can tweak word choices, move paragraphs around to help with flow, and rewrite entire sentences if you need to. Does this sound like extra work? Yes, sometimes it is. But you will never get to a polished piece without first getting the bare bones of your thoughts down on paper or on screen. Once you have something written, it will be easier to go back and switch out a few words and phrases than sitting there trying to craft the perfect sentence from the get-go.

4) Make yourself sit there and struggle

So many people will put off reports or writing projects because as soon as the going gets rough, they bail. They allow distractions (or sometimes even dull tasks) to pull them away. They will do anything just to avoid writing. While there are times when stepping away from the computer screen can be helpful, more often than not, you are simply procrastinating. Don’t let yourself off the hook that easily. When you get back, the same problem will still be staring at you in the face, so why not just take care of it now?

When I am really struggling to sit in the chair and write, I make a deal with myself: I can get up after I have worked on it for five minutes. Be tough though – you really have to work on it, no checking email, picking at your nails or staring out the window. You must focus for the full five minutes. Once you get started, you might not want to stop when your time is up. And if you do, then at least you should have something (hopefully a sentence or two or ten) to start with. Take a break and then make yourself come back and do another five or ten minutes.

5) If you have nothing to write, it means something is missing from your notebook

This is one of the invaluable pieces of advice I learned from one of my editors at The Miami Herald, and it has stuck with me to this day. If when you sit down to write you don’t know what to say, then it means you don’t know what your story is yet. You must have all the pieces of the puzzle before you can comfortable and assertively write about it. So if you are struggling because you don’t know what to say, take a look to see if you are missing a key piece of information. Then get it and get back to work.

 

See, wasn’t that easy? And painless? Writing can be hard, but there is no reason to make it harder than it has to be. I hope some of these tips help the next time you are staring at a blank screen.

Happy writing!

 

 

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