Just Talking: Ten Things Pros Do About Writer’s Block

Every writer gets stuck. It’s a crisis – or is it? How many times did you get stuck this week? Once? Twice? 58 times?

A crisis that comes again and again is not  a crisis. It is a normal part of your work (you don’t see emergency room doctors declaring, “What? Another broken leg? How many is that this week? What will we do??!!!).

So what do you do? Likely, you’ve read loads of articles on the topic, and those are all great, but the problem is that writer’s block is not the same as coming down with a cold, where the remedies are uniform.

Every writer’s block is unique and the only one who can discover it’s source – and cure – is the blocked writer.

Right now, there are thousands of professional writers meeting their deadlines. A lot of them have writer’s block. How are they getting past it? What’s their unique take on their block?

Denial, that’s how. Who cares if they have writer’s block or what it’s source is. There’s no time for mucking about with psychology. No one will live long enough to actually unravel the thing anyway.

But there’s more than denial fuelling their fire.

They have some things you lack: A paycheck for their pains; an editor urging/egging/cheering/torturing them on; daily practice; an audience; loads of triggers in the form of interviews and research; and brains trained to distil it all.

As a reporter, I sometimes didn’t get back into the newsroom until 4 p.m., giving me one hour to pull together a day of research and interviews. The quality of that hour was determined not by what happened when I opened the file at four, but what occurred in the seven hours preceding it.

It was the same for all of us. I was lucky to get out one solid story in a day. I sat next to a writer who could pump out three – but she had Fleet Street experience, so she couldn’t help it.

I could branch off and write 10 thoughtful posts on overcoming writer’s block, but instead, here’s a list of things reporters did in the minutes before writing. Maybe some of it will help you. Maybe it won’t, but at least there will be chocolate.

First, their mindset:

  1. A sense of absolute urgency.
  2. A knowledge that despite their devotion to detail, what they were about to do was going to be flawed in some measure (it had to be – after all, sources sometimes lie, reporters sometimes fatigue, research is never rigorous enough).
  3. Being okay with that, knowing that there is no shame in being listed in the Corrections box in the day-after edition.
  4. That everyone around them was in the same boat.
  5. That what they were doing mattered.

Second, their actions:

  1. Eat chocolate.
  2. Confer with a colleague over coffee.
  3. Confer with a colleague at the desk.
  4. Confer with a colleague who keeps chocolate or a coffeepot at their desk.
  5. Do a lap around the building.
  6. Drink more coffee.
  7. Drown out background noise with headphones – some listen to music, some prefer silence.
  8. Write the middle of the story first.
  9. Use a formula for their first sentence, something a kid could do, such as “With (object) in hand, (name) arrived at the (place), expecting (what), but instead was met with (what). There are simpler versions, such as a list of three: Ten dollars, a garage-sale jacket and one phone call would change everything for Robert James. 
  10. Review their notes.

Grania Litwin, heroine of panicked writers everywhere, used to say, “What will you tell your husband/wife/friends about your day?” Her point: The writing is in however you answer that question, because there is nothing more natural than telling a story to someone who cares – about your story, or just about you, their personal storyteller. Both elements work.

Relax into the story, rely on your natural storytelling skills, relay the information.

Tomorrow: Reasons why you’re not writing (feel free to send some into me if you like, I’ll talk about those).




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