“Keep typing until it turns into writing.” – David Carr (RIP), New York Times
When I think of writer’s block, I mostly envision some great mid-20th century literary figure chain smoking Lucky Strikes, drinking shots of cheap bourbon and staring blankly at a Royal manual typewriter. But it’s an equal opportunity affliction that on occasion can strike anyone, from veteran communications professionals to engineers, to people writing a note on their Christmas cards. (Lawyers seem to be immune.)
Fortunately or not, I learned to write as a reporter working for a morning daily newspaper. There was no such thing as writer’s block. There were only good stories or bad ones. You might miss deadline by a few minutes – and get yelled at; but if they were holding an 8-inch hole on Page 1, there was a certainty that you would produce something to plug in it.
I remember heading back to the newsroom early in my career after covering a county commission meeting, and during the 20-minute drive I thought of a lot of things other than the story I was about to write. I plopped down at my desk and started sifting through my notes, looking up to see the city editor glaring at me with an incredulous look on his face. “What the hell are you doing? Start typing. You have 15 minutes.”
He later sternly gave me some advice: “As soon as you leave a meeting and get in your car, start composing the story in your head. When you walk into the newsroom, you should have the lead written and the story outlined.”
That’s a process that works for all writing assignments: Think it through before you start. A lot of writer’s block begins with having no clear idea of what you want to say and how you are going to say it. When you start with a garbled sense of direction, it’s hard to find the track.
Here are some tips:
- Make sure you have all the information you need before you start writing, and be clear on who your audience is and what you want them to do or think.
- If you need a jumpstart, try outlining in bullet points (use pencil and paper): This helps you think it through and visualize the flow before you start.
- A first draft is just that. Don’t get hung up on getting everything just right on the first shot. If you are struggling with your intro, start with the second paragraph. Start in the middle. But just start. You can fill in and fine-tune later.
- Write to a person. Put an individual (real or imagined) in your mind who represents your audience. This will help you focus on your message and approach. It’s easier to tell a story to someone than to just tell a story.
- Walk around: If you get stuck after a couple of paragraphs, get up and walk around, bouncing thoughts and ideas off yourself. Staring at your computer screen tends to make your mind go blanker.
- In some cases, writer’s block is caused by hating the assignment. Remind yourself that this is totally beside the point. Obsessing over it just sucks up whatever creative energy you may have. It’s a task, not a lifestyle choice.
- At some point, you just have to power through it, just as you do with the last mile of a strenuous hike. Just keep typing, and remind yourself how great it’s going to feel when you finish it.
Roger Shirley is a former editor of the Nashville Business Journal and longtime editorial director here at MP&F. He reads just about everything we write. And we write a lot. This is Roger’s column about writing.