As a professional copywriter and aspiring novelist, one of the questions I’m most often asked by friends, relatives and acquaintances is how I get past writer’s block.
“Don’t you have trouble just writing every day?” they ask. “Do you ever get to a point where you just can’t think of what to say?”
Fortunately for me, but infuriatingly for everyone that asks, no, not really. It might sound smug, but writing has never been something I’ve struggled with. It’s not because I’m a genius. It’s not because I was born with talent. It’s because I know that the only way to get past writer’s block is to write. That also sounds smug I suppose, but it’s true, and it’s certainly not an original thought. Here’s a quote (from a famous author and everything) to prove it:
Now, I realise that a platitude from an august author about how simple writing is once you start probably doesn’t help a whole lot if you can’t even get that far. Perhaps it would be more useful to begin with why people feel afraid of writing and what can be done about that.
From my experience, the most prevalent fear people possess about writing is that theirs won’t be good enough. Insecurity is ever a writer’s bane, and it can be nigh on impossible to start getting anything down if you’re convinced it’s terrible before the words are even on the page. The important thing to remember here is that everyone, even the Twains of the world, all felt exactly the same thing. Creating something to be consumed, critiqued and queried by an audience, any audience, is an expressive and personal act and you shouldn’t feel foolish for worrying. I have never met a writer who was eternally convinced of their own unmitigated genius that wasn’t totally mad. What matters is that you realise that what you write, however bad it is, is the starting point for you to rethink, rewrite and improve. Let’s see which famous author I can get to agree with me this time.
See. You shouldn’t worry if your first sentence, paragraph or entire draft isn’t perfect. In fact, it won’t ever be. Just start writing.
Strategies to beat the block
Now I’ve disabused you of your fear of your own writing, it’s time to get into some strategies to help you cope when it all feels like too much. Try one, or all of these, next time you just can’t get anything on the page.
Fight its causes
Alongside the aforementioned “fear of failure” there are a number of other factors that can lead to developing what’s known as writer’s block. Stress and tiredness are both major contributors for instance. If you have a lot of writing to do, try to get a good night’s sleep the night before so you’re feeling fresh. Also, try to remove distractions and external stressors. Even if you have lots to do, thinking about it won’t help you write. In fact, it’s much more likely to send you into a downward spiral of despair. If stress is getting to you, consider taking a walk, making a cup of tea or just spend a few minutes sitting and relaxing. A few moments spent clearing your head can pay big dividends in long term productivity.
Treat writing like a job
Writing, much like painting, seems to be one of those tasks considered an art, rather than a job. This is rarely a helpful way to think of anything, particularly when writing is part of your daily work routine. If you imagine writing as something that will flow from within you, as if from a divine muse, you’ll often be disappointed when nothing magically bursts forth. Instead, think of writing as any other work. It might be hard, it might be challenging, it might make you want to tear your hair out, but the only way to get through it is to knuckle down and keep chipping away.
Setting yourself artificial deadlines can be a great way to motivate you to get words onto the page. Break your writing down into smaller tasks, say, “finish this paragraph” or “explain this concept” and give yourself a short, but not unreasonable, amount of time to complete them. While it won’t matter if you don’t always get things done on time, a false sense of urgency can inspire you to think and worry less and write more. In fact, I finished this blog entry today by telling myself I had to. Every time I looked at the clock I felt guilty for not being done yet which inspired me to get back to writing straight away.
Try some writing exercises
If you’re still stuck, consider doing some writing exercises to get you into the right headspace. Jot random ideas and concepts related to your writing task onto a piece of paper, start freewriting whatever comes into your head, try and write a small narrative about what you’re doing or start rewriting research material into your own words. Whatever you do, just try to get some sort of flow going. It sounds trite, but once you start writing something, anything really, it’s much easier to turn your attention to serious work and get typing.
Work on a different project
When you’ve exhausted all other options, it’s okay to just give up and do something else. While it might waste a little time to change headspaces, it also gives you a break to think while you crack on with something else. It’s also more productive than spending all day stuck on one thing. Even if you only have one massive project ahead of you, remember how you broke it down into sections so it was less intimidating and more manageable? When you get stuck on one section, swap to another. You might find that the change refreshes you and gives you a new perspective.
Whatever you do, don’t give up
The most important and helpful piece of advice I can give you is to just keep trying. Writing is something we all do, but writing well is an art, honed over years of practice (and occasional failures). Nothing I, you, or anyone else will ever write is perfect the first time, and producing good copy is a constant process of writing, editing and writing again. Like any other skill, each time you write, you’ll get better.
If you can manage to remember that, and treat each time you sit down at your desk as an opportunity to develop your abilities, to learn something about how you write and how you could write better, you’ll not just be working on your writing, but your confidence as well. And if you’re confident in your writing, who cares about some silly block?
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