I don’t believe in writer’s block. That’s right, I said it, the words of an ex-journalist that had this term banished straight from his soul through the involuntary administering of deadlines.
Editor just gave you a one-hour assignment? You better have the finished product by then, even if it includes quotes and facts from people you haven’t called.
Know nothing about property but tasked to cover a real-estate association’s meeting? You’ll never get to leave till you email your story in.
Before my time as a journalist, I used to leave my writing to the hands of the creative gods. Art wasn’t something to be rushed, and thus my words only flowed with the presence of my muse.
I even made the mistake of bringing that attitude to the newsroom. Boy did I learn quick that there was no space for romanticism in journalism.
But you know the good thing that came out of that? It’s that I stopped believing in ‘good’ writing. More specifically, my definition of good. Too many times I’ve had an editor praise the one-hour articles that I had seemingly pulled out my ass. And too many times did they also shit on the pieces I’d poured my heart and soul into.
And I believe that writer’s block stems exactly from that belief of good or bad.
We need to sow, not reap
Oftentimes, we wait till we put out our version of presentable work before giving ourselves credit. But why not judge yourself on how much work you’ve put in instead of how well you did?
But that’s not my best work, you might say. And you could be right. But what use is putting out only your best work if that means publishing a blog post just once a year?
And here’s a good one: What if people love what you consider to be shabby work? What then? Would that give you the confidence to write more? Or would you feel like you’re shortchanging people?
So the next time we talk about writer’s block, we need to be honest with ourselves. Are we blocked because we truly can’t find the words? Or is it just a matter of fake perfectionism?
If it’s the latter, then we need to stop judging ourselves by the type of trees that we plant, and start acknowledging the fact that we’re actually planting trees, at least in the metaphorical sense.
Fine, you have writer’s block
Anyway, I know you didn’t come here just to hear me rant about how writer’s block doesn’t exist and how everything can be solved with a little change in perspective.
So maybe you’re blocked. I totally get it. Just last week I posted about not being able to get into the proper headspace when life gets busy, so I do acknowledge the plights of a writer.
That’s why you’ll find a list of methods to get over your block, as advised by famous writers and tested by yours truly.
Now, it’s important to note getting over your block doesn’t necessarily require you to write. Given the choice, however, I’d definitely pick writing-based tasks because, just like how exposure therapy helps people deal with their phobias, so too will writing tasks help you with your problems.
But what better way to start off than with a non-writing task that anybody can do?
Yes, this is a hackneyed piece of advice, but if you’re going to do anything for yourself, you might as well kill two birds with one stone. So why not deal with life’s dissatisfactions and writer’s block at the same time?
Granted, your writer’s block may not vanish just because you’ve done a hundred burpees, but it sure as hell makes the blank page seem tame in comparison.
Murakami runs. Hemingway boxed. Dickens walked. Dickinson did her calisthenics. Maybe you’ll be the next big writer to also have a regular workout routine.
At the very least, you’ll have life’s volume knob turned down after each session. So if words elude you, and you have no idea what to do, maybe go out for a quick run and see how you feel. I know I get my best ideas while I shower after my workouts.
2. Use throwaway tools
If you can only write on a specific laptop or in a specific room, let me tell you that I’ll be the first to sympathise with you.
I’ve always been a picky writer—only mechanical keyboards with an actuation force of less than 45g ever made the cut on my desk. Then I discovered pens, and naturally, only the smoothest nibs were worthy enough to write with.
But then I decided to throw away the crutches, and drafted with a pencil and legal pad, just because. You know what happened? I started finding my voice.
That’s because writing on trashy paper—or the back of receipts—felt like play instead of real work. I’m not bound to publish a post I’ve typed up in WordPress, nor do I need to find the most suitable words for my best notebooks.
It’s all trash that I could throw away if I wanted to. You know what ends up happening, though? I’d write as I normally would on my laptop, but more liberally, and because of that, I end up with so much more usable material for my stories.
So go low-tech for a while. See what that does. Or try a voice recorder. Anything that lets you create without the formality of writing.
3. Assemble instead of write
For some of us, tackling an entire story in one go—especially when we haven’t even formulated the idea alone—seems less realistic than running a hundred-miler.
And that’s when the excuses start rolling in. I’m blocked quickly comes to the fore. I have no idea what to write. I don’t even know where to start.
What we need to do is just start hacking at a random part of the story. Do it word by word, paragraph by paragraph, and as each section takes shape, we’ll notice our confidence growing along with it. Get a few chunks of words together, and what was once scary quickly turns into a doable assignment.
Just like assembling an IKEA shelf, you first have to source your material before you can start bolting the pieces together. That’s how you’ll approach assembly-based writing. You only write enough for one part of the story, then you set it aside as you work on another. What you’ll end up with is one chunk.
So google for supporting facts, or read what others have to say about a particular section (yes, this entire subheading is a separate section in my eyes, and I watched model-building tutorials just for this bit).
Taking on your story bit by bit beats writing an entire one from start to finish.
Once you have enough chunks, start piecing them together like a jigsaw puzzle. But until then, don’t try seeing the big picture, especially if you’re blocked.
Sometimes, you’ll end up with pieces that don’t fit the puzzle. Don’t worry. At least you’d have written, and can take pleasure in having done your job.
However, there are also the miraculous moments when the words catch on and you’ll run with it. And that’s how entire stories are born.
4. Just suck it up
I bet you know we’re all different, and that there’s no one way to go about things. Which is why I’ve also included a little dose of tough love for those who are into this sort of thing.
You know the question that gets asked a lot? The one that goes ‘When can I call myself a writer’?
Well do I have the answer for you. You get to call yourself a writer after you stop whining about your writer’s block.
It’s not after you’ve set up your blog, after you’ve earned your first dollar from writing, or even after you’ve published your book.
Being a writer is not something you do once and you’re set for life. It’s not a bachelor’s degree, nor is it turning twenty-one. It’s a title you have to claim daily, and that only comes from acting like a professional.
Amateurs let their mood decide when they should write. They write ten different first chapters but never see a book to the end.
But if you truly want to be a professional, you won’t let something like writer’s block or a lack of motivation stop you from working.
In Steven Pressfield’s words: “Turning pro is like kicking a drug habit or stopping drinking. It’s a decision, a decision to which we must re-commit every day.”
Whoa there, let’s not celebrate too early. Yes, you read that right. No, it doesn’t involve Netflix. What I want you to instead is to procrastinate with writing. And thanks to this amazing video from Film Courage, you can learn exactly how.
For those of you who don’t want to spend seventeen minutes watching that video, the main point is to list down things you’d really enjoy writing.
This could be stand-up jokes, angry letters to people you hate, or movie scripts. Surely, you have something you’d have fun writing? You are a writer after all.
Once you’ve determined what you like, you can start going to town. Spend an hour on it if you have to. You’ll find that once you get into the groove of writing, it becomes much easier to return to your original project.
And that’s the goal here—to move the needle forward in your project. In the end, it wouldn’t do you any good to purposely write things that don’t bring you closer to your goals.
Like Marcus Aurelius mentioned in his journal: “People who labour all their lives but have no purpose to direct every thought and impulse toward are wasting their time—even when hard at work.”
So have fun with this, but don’t forget that you actually want to finish your project. Don’t have one? Then you best get to thinking right now.
6. Publish the worst thing you can think of
Write stilted dialogue. Make clunky sentences. Imagine handing over your final product to your worst critic, and making sure that it’s one that’s worthy of giving them a heart attack.
This has been my most effective method of overcoming writer’s block, one that I’ve saved for last. There’s nothing much else to say, really. Just publish what you think is utter crap, and either one of two things will happen.
You could leave things the way they are, especially if you’re in a particularly dry spell, or you could want to edit that piece out of embarrassment. Either way, something’s going to be published, whether you like it or not.
You think I liked ‘make clunky sentences’? I’m leaving it there because this article is drawing close to 2,000 words and I’m running out of editing juice. So yeah. Ship bad work. Then maybe you’ll realise that your words aren’t as bad as you think.
Now go forth and write
I know you can write, because I can too. And I fall right in the centre of the bell curve (which I’m assuming you do too). So just keep at it. Every word you put down is money in the bank. Sure, it may not feel like it at the time, but one day you’ll look back and see just how many words you’ve accumulated, words that you’ve grown through, words that you could actually use.
What’s important to remember is that the time is going to pass anyway. And you can look back years from now and enjoy the achievement of having written, or you can let ‘writer’s block’ stop you from at least trying for your writing goals. You decide.
Me? You can bet I’ll be starting my next article after this, even though sometimes it feels like I’m putting out nothing but drivel.