Recently I was helping one of my daughters with an English essay she was writing. She's a terrific creative writer, but can get stuck from time to time – as we all do. As it turned out, I was a fairly stuck myself on one of my own pieces of ghostwriting work. And, as so often happens, helping someone else was just what I needed to help me realise the error of my own ways.
Between the two of us, my daughter and I had become bogged down in two of the most common quagmires a writer can find themselves in.
Superficially, these two forms of writer's block are contradictory. She was overthinking her work and not letting it flow; I had pressed on well past the point where I should have stopped and re-thought. In practice, these two creative swamps sit on either side of the path to a completed piece of writing. They can slow the progress of any form of writing: fiction, non-fiction, advertising copy, a speech or even an important letter or email.
Experienced writers get better at navigating between these swamps, but even they can find themselves sliding into one or the other from time to time. The tough part is that you usually don't know you're in there until you're waste-deep in metaphorical mud.
The biggest barrier to escape is a failure to acknowledge that you are stuck.
I'll deal with one of these forms of block this week, and the other next time
The blank page
Perhaps the most common form of writer's block is that numb feeling of staring at a page or screen and having no idea what to add to it. It happens to fiction writers who can't decide where next to take their characters. And it happens to non-fiction writers who don't know where or how to start. It can happen when trying to shape what should be the simplest email.
Sometimes the writer knows what they want to say but not how to say it. Sometimes they are reticent to start because they can't see the path ahead – they're unable to come up with a plan. At other times – this was my daughter's problem – they feel overwhelmed by having collected too much supporting information and being unable to piece together a coherent argument.
There are myriad reasons for this form of writer's block, but the main symptoms tend to be the same: an hollow feeling right in the centre of your being, and the sense that your brain is spinning fast but going nowhere.
Let it flow
My go-to tactic in these situations is to just write. Forget about trying to get it right first time. In fact, acknowledge that what you are about to write is probably going to be dross. Simply start writing and see where your mind takes you.
Remove as many barriers as possible:
- If you're a slow typist, try writing on paper.
- If you can only think of bullet points, write bullet points. Use a whiteboard if that feels right.
- If you can only think of words or phrases, write those down. Try sticky notes.
- Forget spelling or grammatical concerns – they can be fixed later.
- Turn off the phone and the internet to minimise the chance of being interrupted.
If you think it will work, try setting yourself a word target for the session: 500 words, 1000 words – even just 200 words if you only have a short amount of time.
The idea here is to free your mind and allow it to do its thing, unfettered.
Don't edit. Don't judge. Don't even think. Just write.
You will often be surprised by what your mind comes up with all on its own. A character in a story will go and do something you never expected of them. The central argument in a debate will surface – and seem oh-so-obvious – without warning. The main message from your collected evidence will suddenly become apparent.
Sometimes this technique might yield no more than the kernel of an idea, but at other times the skies will open and your path forward will be as clear as a spring morning. Occasionally it may give you nothing, in which case it's best to stand back, leave the work for a short time then try again.
Don't believe me? Give it a try. Have faith. An essential characteristic of a good writer – whether you just write emails or you write books for a living – is a willingness to draft without expectation, knowing that eventually clarity will come. Let it flow.