Beating Writer’s Block (In My Humble Opinion)

Writer’s block. Is there anything more frightening to the would-be writer, the one struggling to get the proverbial “big break”, than writer’s block? Well, I mean other than getting your hands chopped off and losing your ability to write, getting ALS, or getting Alzheimer’s.

You know, that just totally killed this post. Or maybe I just made it better, by making you grateful you still have your hands, don’t have ALS or Alzheimer’s. So I’ll go on anyway. Here’s what you should do when faced with “writer’s block”.

First of all, remember one thing: there’s no such thing as writer’s block, got it? No such thing. Keep telling yourself that. Writer’s block is the magical bogey monster writer’s use when they either need an excuse not to write (because they don’t feel like it) or when they’re afraid that all they have to write about is absolute crap.

So, how do you beat the imaginary bogey monster?

First, start writing. Seriously, just start writing. A friend of mine once told me, “Turn off your computer monitor, and just start typing. Do it for an hour. Then turn the monitor on. You might surprise yourself with what’s there.” While I’m not a big fan of turning your monitor off, the point is well made.

See, the biggest reason people claim they have writer’s block — that feeling of wanting to write, but not being able to put together a coherent sentence — is because they’re afraid to write something bad. They try to recreate the works of Mark Twain with the same effort it takes to mix a bowl of cereal. And when what they write sounds like it was written by a twelve year old on LSD, they sink back and blame the bogey monster. They go out, do their lawn, sleep, play with the dog… anything to avoid writing, since the muse, it seems, is currently giving them the cold shoulder.

During these times, the thing to do is to — drum roll, please — WRITE! Yes, that’s right. Start writing about anything. Make up a crappy, horrible, nonsensical story about how the people in the TV came out and tortured your dog, or about that time in seventh grade when some random kid decided to start picking on you for no apparent reason, or about a pretty day when. Write about anything. Write about everything! Why? Because writing is the oil that’ll keep your engine working. And sometimes you just need an oil change. Remember: It’s OK tor write crap. Seriously, it’s OK. If you find what you’ve written horrible then just throw it away, or file it away fro later editing/improvement. Just because what you wrote was crap doesn’t mean the idea behind it was.

Now, as soon as I tell someone that, the first reaction I get is “but what if it’s a lot?” So what if it is? I don’t know how many times I’ve written four-, ten-, and even twenty-thousand word stories and simply cast them aside because I didn’t like them. (Mind you, I keep the longer ones in case I want to either develop them when I’m in a better frame of mind, or mine them for ideas later.) Honestly, it’s not a waste of time. Why? Because if your goal is to write, then the more you do of it, the easier it’ll be to get in the mood to write, and the easier it’ll be to get back into the groove once you find yourself in a funk. It’s sort of like driving. If you’re 16 and just learning how to drive, taking off a year will likely result in you having to learn again. If you’re 36 and have been an experienced driver for years, taking a year off will make you a bit rusty, but you’ll very soon be back to driving competently.

OK, so you feel like writing, you feel like you have something good to say, but you don’t know how to really start it. What you do at this point depends heavily on what you want to write about. I’ll hit the four most common points here:

  • If you’re writing a school paper on a particular subject: Here’s my quick and dirty guide to writing a paper. Grab a sheet of paper. In the center draw a circle. Put your main topic there. Draw five circles attached to that circle so it looks like a really bad spaceship, or a business plan. In the first circle write “Intro”. In the last, write “Conclusion”. In the middle three write three subjects you’d like to address. (This can be more than three, but three’s a good starting number.) Now, for the first subject, make a bulleted list of the topics you want to touch on, the points you’d like to make. Do that for the second and the third. Congratulations, you have your paper. For the intro paragraph, write what you’ll cover, and the three points you plan to show. The next three paragraphs, write about what you’ve outlined. The last paragraph, rewrite the first paragraph, but in ending form. In short, tell ’em what you’re gonna tell ’em, then tell ’em, then tell ’em what you just told ’em.

    By the way you don’t have to start at the beginning. If the easiest circle for you to write about is circle three, start with that one. You can always clean up any weird transitions later.

    (You know I really should do a whole post on just this. I probably will. Notice, if you will, the format of this particular piece. Look familiar?)

  • If you’re writing fiction: Whenever you get writer’s block and are writing fiction, that usually tells me one thing: you don’t know your characters well enough. Think about it, do people just stop with their lives because they don’t know what to do? No, they keep going. They may do a whole lot of nothing for a while, but they keep going. Likewise, your characters should keep going. (You can edit out the boring parts later.) If you don’t know what your character will do, then interview them. Ask them all kinds of questions. In fact, if you do this enough, you’ll find you’re never lonely, because you can talk to all these people in your head. And I probably shouldn’t have written that, but whatever, there it is. (In another post, I’ll put up the 160 or so questions I tend to ask my characters. Halfway through I already know enough about them to let them drive a story.) once you know your character(s) well enough, have them talk to each other. Eventually a scene will come out. Don’t worry if you have to throw out 1,000 words. Think about it, do you prefer books and stories that linger on for 10 pages with a point they could have easily and more effectively made in one, or worse yet, with something that doesn’t matter at all?

    The moral of this story is that you should know your characters.

  • In cases of writing a cover letter for a resume: Now, this is one of the easiest, yet hardest things to do. Why? Because people have been told constantly that they shouldn’t brag, that they should be humble. Thing is, in this type of letter all that goes out the window. The way you get through here is to write a small biography about yourself. Write about all the good things you’ve done. (Well, good and great. Don’t limit yourself.) Remember that award you got from the YMCA for cleaning the floors? Write it down! What about your 3.78 GPA? Write it down! What about when at your last job you created over 10,000 pages of documentation? Write it down! Don’t worry about how much space you use. Be specific with people, examples, and numbers. Remember: you offer experience, knowledge, and an attitude that is impossible to duplicate, so let it show. Remember that a cover letter is a time for you to shine, so shine, darn it! Shine! Sure, the brightest flame burns quickest, but it’s also the one that people remember most. And that’s exactly what you want when someone reads your cover letter.

    After you’re done with all that wonderful biography, grab the best parts, and put them down. Be flamboyant! Be a little cocky! The worst possible thing that can happen is that they’ll say “no”. So?! There are a million other jobs out there that want not just someone LIKE you, THEY WANT YOU! And these people should to. It’s your job to tell them. Even if it means you write 60 pages of info just to get a couple of autobiographical paragraphs in. Besides, you’ll be able to use the stuff you wrote down for other cover letters, so don’t throw it away!

  • You want to write a blog post: This one’s easy: Just. Start. Writing. On whatever topic you want. You know your blog better than anyone, and no one is more qualified than you to take a completely random subject — say, watermelons and Japanese robots — and somehow tie them into your blog, whether it be about Apple computers, theology, science, or western musicals about watermelons in Japanese robot culture. Will you have posts you don’t put up? Absolutely. Hell, I have 68 in the back-end right now, most of which will likely never see the light of day. So? And it doesn’t matter how long or short a blog post is. Readers will appreciate a good post whether it’s 8,000 words or 8. And yes, you’ll have some flops. Everyone does. Just don’t make it a habit. If you find yourself making it one, then you need to get out and talk to people. Go hang out with people familiar with your blog topics (though not necessarily your blog), or go do something totally different. Believe it or not, I got the idea for this post (and a couple others) at an acupuncture session yesterday. How weird is that, to think about writing when you’re getting poked by needles? And this wasn’t even my primary thought. My primary thought had to do with healing and medical issues. Again, how weird is that? Embrace the weird.

    Oh, and don’t be afraid to edit after you’ve posted. That’s the wonderful thing about blogs, you can edit later when you see that what you wrote sounded a lot better in your head than it reads on the site.

Finally — and this is imperative — read. A lot. On varied topics. The more you read the better writer you’re likely to be. Can’t think of anything to read? Hit up Wikipedia and start thumbing through subjects. Who knows, maybe that’ll spark your imagination. (It did mine. The result? I’m working on my first comic. The script’s finished and now I’m working with an artist to make the concept art for the series. That’s right, we’re planning a 12-issue run!)

OK, so there we are: a few of the ways to battle the imaginary bogey monster known as writer’s block. There are as many ways as there are writers, so if the solutions here don’t appeal to you, come up with your own, and tell us about them in the comments.

I just cured a bit of writer’s block I was having, and came up with a few more blog post ideas. Neat, eh?

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