General Writing

Slaying the Dragon of Writer’s Block

To inexperienced writers, writer’s block is like a dragon – implacable, unexpected, and leaving behind a desolation of ruined hopes and desires. Probably, no other writing topic occurs so often on Quora, or in Facebook writing groups. Yet, strangely, for more seasoned writers, writer’s block is hardly worth discussing, and for good reason: like any dragon, it doesn’t exist.

Or, to be more precise, it doesn’t exist the way inexperienced writers seem to believe. True, upset or grief can sometimes interfere with writing (although writing is just as likely to help to with either), but, for the most part, writer’s block is not a mysterious, inevitable force so much as a misunderstanding of how writing works.

Sometimes, of course, writer’s block is more than that. In the vast sub-culture of wannabes, having writer’s block can be a rite of passage, a sign that you are part of the tribe. For some, it seems a convenient excuse for not for writing. If that sounds harsh, consider how many veterans say that the likeliest cure for writer’s block is a deadline. If you have responsibility, or when money’s on the line, you don’t have time to posture. You have to produce, so generally you do.

That is not to say that veteran writers never have problems. It means instead that they define problems as problems, not mysterious afflictions. By describing moments when the words won’t come as problem, practicing writers define those moments as situations that have solutions rather than some obtrusive force. Moreover, those solutions are based on a working knowledge of the writing process that newer writers usually lack.

When I taught first year composition at university, I did my best to teach that working knowledge to students, and for many of them, writer’s block disappeared in a matter of weeks. Basically, I taught that there were three distinct approaches to handling writer’s block:

Mixing Writing and Editing

One of the most common reasons for writer’s block is that you are trying to mix writing and editing at the same time. You can tell if you are doing this if you are continually writing a few words, then going back and correcting them, writing a few more, and then making more corrections, growing increasingly frustrated.

This effort is usually a mistake for the simple reason that most of us are hopeless multi-taskers. Moreover, writing and editing are two very distinctive tasks. Broadly speaking, writing draws heavily on the intuitive, unconscious part of the brain, while editing depends on the analytical consciousness. The two do not naturally mix, and constantly switching back and forth between the two only makes both harder.

The solution is simple: don’t mix writing and editing. When writing, relax your critical side and write. Get something down. Then, when you are editing, relax your creative side, and start thinking how you can improve the whole piece that you are writing. Ignore your attachment to a phrase or a paragraph, and decide whether to improve it or delete it based on whether it helps a piece or drag it down. Probably, you can’t completely separate writing and editing, but the more that you can, the easier and more efficient everything is likely to become.

The Road Not Traveled

Other times, a block is a hint from your unconscious that you are doing something wrong. Unlike your conscious self, your unconscious does not express itself in words. If it did, the need for art would not exist. Instead, the unconscious works with symbols, emotions and reactions.

If you find yourself at a lost of words or uncertain what comes next, consider whether your unconscious is signaling that you are not doing something right. If that is what is happening, then trying to push on will rarely work. To keep moving, take a look at your outline, no matter whether it is detailed or just a few scrawled notes, and look for an alternative. Often , the simpler alternative will be the better one.

If you are writing an essay, consider whether the point you are making should be mentioned at all. Or perhaps it is in the wrong place? Similarly, if you writing fiction, maybe something else should be happening? In either case, backing up and finding an alternate route can often get you writing again.

The Curse of Linear Writing

The new writers I have taught often have a very straightforward approach to writing anything. They start at the beginning, and continue step by step to the end.

That can work, particularly if you have a detailed outline. However, when any sort of outline does not develop and change as you work, something is very wrong. Stick too closely to whatever form of outline you made before writing, and you can end up blocking that creative development. At some point, that denial can transform into writer’s block. The discrepancy between what you want to write and what you are writing may simply become too great. Give in to the changes that happen along the way, and you can often start writing again.

However, if you are still blocked, take advantage of the fact that you have an outline. You know where you going, and that means you do not have get there in linear order. You can jump around. Start with the parts you know you can write – usually the parts that give uncontroversial information, such as the historical background to an essay, or the scene where your characters meet. By the time you have finished that passage, you will frequently find that you now know how to write another passage somewhere else in the essay.

Keeping jumping around, saving the start and finish for last. Both will be easier to write once you know what you are introducing and drawing conclusions from. The same goes for the title.

You and the Dragon

What these three tactics have in common is that they treat so-called writer’s block practically. They view writer’s block as something you can work with, as a friendly warning from the deeper parts of your mind.

If all of them fail, look for another perspective. Sleep on the problem, or ask someone for another perspective. Read what you have written out loud, or read it from a print out rather than a screen.

Whatever you do, do not surrender to helplessness. If writer’s block can sometimes seems like a dragon from a myth, remember what those myths tell us about dragons: namely that with courage and planning, dragons can be slain.

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