When the Words Won’t Come: Writer’s Block and How to Deal With it
By John Stuart
Excellent communication skills are a requirement in virtually every professional position. So we asked a veteran writer/editor to share his ideas about how to meet today’s need to communicate effectively in writing. This month he offers his ideas about how to meet a condition as feared as stage fright — the dreaded … writer’s block.
It can happen to anyone, at any time. It doesn’t matter what kind of writing you’re doing. You could be a job seeker trying to write a cover letter or resume, or create your perfect elevator speech. Or you could be a staff member tasked with writing an important memo, report, or presentation.
And then there it is — the Wall. Writer’s block. Call it what you want. It might seem like an impervious 20-foot-high, iron-reinforced concrete wall. It might appear as a ferocious grizzly bear standing upright in front of your computer.
When writer’s block rears its ugly head it can be devastating. It can cause you to procrastinate, and the longer it goes on, the worse it gets. You might pace the floors, lose sleep, and even get down on your knees to pray for Divine Intervention.
Writer’s block is an occupational hazard for professionals who need to communicate — and that includes virtually everyone. It can make you question how you could have claimed to be able to write well when you applied for your job, and wonder if you’ll ever be able to write anything again.
Moreover, it happens to me sometimes, and I’m a professional writer and editor. I’ve written countless articles covering practically every subject you can think of. But no one is immune from writer’s block. And when it hits it can come at the worst time, when a deadline is approaching.
If I — and most other professional writers — occasionally face writers block, this should comfort people whose job title doesn’t say “writer.”
So take solace. Every time I’ve gotten stuck, I’ve managed to break the block. And you can, too. Here are some ways to jump-start your writing:
Just do it. There’s a lot to be said for setting a specific time when you’re going to sit down and start working. You don’t have to wait for inspiration to strike before you turn on your computer and start putting words down. Most often inspiration comes when you are there in the process, working on it, struggling with ideas and the words you want to use to express them. Sitting at your desk working on your computer enables you to grab onto inspiration when it strikes and milk it for all it’s worth.
Where to begin? For some people, once they get the introduction clearly in mind, the main idea they want to convey, the article writes itself. If you can’t think of a good introduction, try writing another part of the document — the middle or the end. Often when you start putting together the body of the work, you’ll get good ideas for the beginning. And if you can figure out first what the ending will be, that can be as good or better than starting with the lead, because you’ll know exactly where you want to go with the story and how to get there.
Let your mind run wild. Put your negative emotions aside. Tell your internal censor to take a walk. Start putting the words down, whatever comes into your head. Let the ideas and how you want to say them pour out of you. At this stage your censor is your worst enemy. The idea is to get something, anything, down, and there on the screen, where you can look at it later, examine it, evaluate it. Any nugget you discover might provide inspiration that strikes a vein of gold.
Magical breaks. When you’re stuck, when the well runs dry and you’re getting nowhere — stop. Don’t fight it. Often the harder you try to undo a Gordian knot, the tighter it gets. When our minds are focusing on a topic for too long they can get stuck in a rigid pattern and keep going down the same path trying to find a solution. Often the best thing we can do then is get away. Go out, get some fresh air. Go for a walk or a jog. Clear your mind by employing relaxation techniques or meditation. To do your best work, your mind needs to be relaxed. That’s when the ideas flow and the words come naturally and you don’t have to stretch to find them. It’s truly magical to come back after taking a break and start working again with a fresh mind and experience how solutions you didn’t see before are there, and how your subconscious mind has worked out the knot while you weren’t even thinking about it.
Heap on the rewards. One method many professional writers find useful is to give themselves “sandwich” rewards. Before starting a writing project they’ll do something pleasurable. Then they’ll work on the project for a while and reward themselves afterward for the work they’ve done, even if they didn’t get very far. They sat down and worked, and that in itself should be acknowledged and praised. The idea is to provide yourself with incentives and rewards.
Putting the puzzle together. Once you have bits and pieces from your writing in front of you, you can start looking at what pieces might go together, see what patterns might emerge, and get ideas on how to structure and organize your writing project.
The sculptor takes over. On the other hand, if you have a more complete body of free, unfettered thoughts down on paper, you can let the analytical part of your brain take over. Here you can step back and look at your writing from a distance. During this editing phase, it’s crucial you don’t let negative, judgmental thinking seep in. You want to be in a positive, supportive frame of mind, using the goodies you’ve come up with and putting aside the rest of your morsels for possible use at another time. At this stage you’re like a sculptor who keeps chiseling here and there, stepping back to review what he’s done, then going back to take a little off here and there, and repeating the process until he gets it just the way he wants it.
Let it go! OK, you made it. You encountered the wall and you found a way to push through it to the other side. This may have required a Herculean effort, but you did it. It’s time to let it go. Send it to whomever needs to edit your work. Every writer needs an editor. Now you can pat yourself on the back and experience the joy of having completed the project and be proud of what you produced.
John Stuart is head of Stuart Communications, a Boston-area company providing content creation and other editorial services, including major project management. He can be contacted at: JS@JohnStuart.net.