Archive for March 12th, 2008

Does writer’s block really exist? For all the dramatic agony it causes among would-be writers, I’m not sure it does. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, being at a loss for words is the result of sloppy writing habits, and can be overcome if you make the right effort.

The easiest way to avoid writer’s block is to write every day. What you write doesn’t matter, so much as the fact that you keep in practice. You wouldn’t expect to play the violin well or run efficiently if you didn’t practice every day, and writing is no different. Keep a journal where you write loosely and without any pressure (not a blog: you might start worrying about how readers will react), and after a couple of weeks you’ll be warmed up as soon as you pick up a pen or sit down in front of the keyboard. Instead of being an unusual act for you, it will become something you do as naturally and unthinkingly as you touch-type (assuming, of course, that you do).

Another important tactic is to divide the writing and editing processes as you write. Writing is an intuitive process, uncritical process and editing a rational and analytical one, so the two don’t go well together. If you constantly finding yourself writing a few words, only to scratch them out or change them, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Most of the time, you make slower and slower progress that way, until you stop with a scowl on your face and writer’s block firmly lodged in your brain. But if you can force yourself not to be too critical in your first draft and to start correcting it only after it’s complete, then the words should come more easily – and probably more quickly as well. When I used to teach first year composition at university, realizing the need to divide these functions was often all that students needed to start becoming fluent writers.

However, if writer’s block occurs despite these first two tactics, the best thing you do is persevere. Words that come slowly are usually no better or worse on average than words that come easily, and you’re in no position to judge them while you write them. They only seem worse than usual because of the effort you’re making.

However, if you are still having trouble, try to get a different perspective on what you are writing. Skip to another paragraph or chapter – after all, nothing says you have to write in order. Read whatever you have out loud. Try writing the passage in which you’re bogged down without looking at the original. Play a game, such as imagining what the passage would sound like if a famous writer was composing it. Anything to get a new perspective, If all these ploys fail, try writing something else, so you still make some progress in the day.

Only after you have tried all the tactics of this sort that you can imagine should you take the last step of taking a break. A writer, don’t forget, is one who writes; if you nap instead, you’re a napper, not a writer. Often, cleaning or another form of creativity such as cooking will help. Heavy exercise is even better, either because of all the chemical stimulants with which it floods your brain or because when you’re straining your legs and arms, your unconscious can set to work on what’s bothering you. Try any of these tricks and the chances are high that you will start to write again.

However, the best cure for writer’s block is a deadline. If you have to submit a piece by a certain time or day, you don’t have time to worry about writer’s block. You simply have to produce. In fact, it’s exactly the motivating factor of deadlines that makes me doubt that writer’s block. Instead, I believe that writer’s block is mostly ineffective work habits or a love of the drama of being a tormented writer. If you don’t have time to work inefficiently or to dramatize yourself, then you’ll likely do neither. Most of the time, overcoming writer’s block is as simple as that.

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