Overcoming Writer’s Block

Help! I’m totally blocked.

Roy Peter Clark, Writing for
4-minute read
Episode #292


Advice from Roy Peter Clark:

Every writer faces writer’s block at one time or another, but none so dramatically as the character played by Jack Nicholson in The Shining.  What a shock to see that every page of this homicidal writer’s thick manuscript contains the same sentence:  “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”  Solution?  Take ax. Attack family.

Be assured that there are better solutions to writer’s block.  If you are stuck, consider these time-tested strategies to help you build momentum.  The key is to turn procrastination into something productive – rehearsal.

1. Lower your standards at the beginning of the process.  Raise them later.

This advice, which some people apply to dating, was issued most famously by poet William Stafford.  He argued that high standards create a threshold that inhibits writers from getting started.  The key is to lower your standards at the beginning of the process.  Get that fantasy of winning prizes or of capturing hearts out of your head. 

2. Imagine the story before writing a draft.

Writing begins long before your hands get moving.  The more head work you do before drafting,  the easier the hand work will be.  Such mental preparation is a form of rehearsal, the kind we do to prepare for asking someone on a date or a boss for a raise.

3. Rehearse the beginning by speaking it to another person.

You can draft a story with your voice before you write it down with your hands.  All you need is a friend willing to listen and maybe ask a few questions.  Even an attentive dog will do, preferably a Jack Russell terrier named Rex.  Let the story emerge from your mouth, to your ears, then to your hands.

4. Don’t write the story yet. Write a memo to yourself about the story.

When you write to yourself, you lower your standards in a simple and productive way.  Once your hands get moving on an informal draft, words begin to flow.  The trick is to fool yourself into thinking that your story is something else:  a memo, a journal entry, a letter, a note to a friend, a grocery list, anything that blows up the logjam.

5.  Write as fast as you can for ten minutes – without stopping.

Writers wait too long to start writing.  They find a dozen substitutes for writing, including eating, drinking, walking, shopping, checking e-mail messages, and wasting time on Facebook.  Even research can become an excuse.  Try writing early – and fast.  Your early writing – call it a “zero draft” – will teach you what you know and what you still need to learn.

6.  Tell the critical voice in your head to “shut up!”

You need a strong critical voice during revision when you standards will be at their highest.  Listen to that negative nag too early in the process and it becomes what psychologists call “the watcher at the gate,” the negative force that wards off all creative impulses.  Keep the voice in the green room until you call it on stage for revision.

7. If you are blocked in your usual writing place, try a new place.

Every writer needs about a half-dozen reliable places to work.  Here are mine, in order of comfort and productivity:  desk at work, desk at home, recliner in “man cave,” in airport waiting areas, on planes, and at my mother-in-law’s kitchen table.  Habitual behavior usually helps writers, but when you’re stuck, don’t just sit there, change your location.

8. Write on a legal pad.

Even preliminary drafts can have that finished look on a computer screen, which is always dangerous.  That clean look may artificially exalt your standards too early in the process.  Enter the yellow legal pad.  Nothing hand-written on yellow paper looks finished.  You will be amazed at how much less anxious you become by occasionally going old school and using old tools:  paper and pencil.

9. Get someone to ask you questions about your story.

When I try to help writers get unstuck, I often rely on simple, open-ended questions:

  • How’s it going?  How can I help you?

  • What are you thinking?

  • What’s your story about?

  • What happened?  Who did what?

  • What do you want your readers to learn?

  • What most surprised you about this?

  • What was the most interesting you learned?  The most significant?

10.  Forget the beginning for now.  Write the ending first. 

When you approach a roadblock, don’t be afraid to take a detour.  If you are stuck writing your lead sentences, try drafting a passage that might end up in the middle.  Or imagine where the work might end.  The novelist Katherine Anne Porter once said that she couldn’t begin a story unless she knew the ending.  “I know what my goal is,” she said. “And how I get there is God’s grace.”

This excerpt was written by Roy Peter Clark and comes from his latest book Help! For Writers:  210 Solutions to the Problems Every Writer FacesHelp! is the third in a writing trilogy published by Little, Brown.  The first two, Writing Tools and The Glamour of Grammar, are available in paperback editions.  Roy teaches writing at the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Writers Block image, Tyler-Adams at Flickr. CC BY 2.0.


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