Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Who's Afraid of Writer's Block?

Imagine walking out your front door, getting in your car, and just sitting there, not knowing why you're there, where you're going, or what you hope to accomplish when you get there. Well, that's how many writers feel once they find themselves paralyzed by the age-old malady known as "writer's block." Why? Because they don't have a plan, any plan, something that gives them a place to start.

You can start anywhere, you know. You don't have to begin at the beginning. Write the ending first, or start with something that interests you. As long as you have a path to follow, it doesn't matter where you begin.

Don't struggle for the perfect word or sentence.

A first draft represents your first attempt to turn thoughts into sentences. As you search for words and how to arrange them, you are trying to make your thoughts visible. When you see them in front of you, you often discover flaws -- not only in the way you have chosen to express your thoughts, but also in the thoughts themselves. At this point, you have experienced the real value of a first drart: it has helped you learn. It has helped you discover.

Trying to put this early discovery into polished sentences is frustrating and almost always self defeating. Instead, try the "module" or capsule sentence approach. Take the subject (the who or what), the verb (the primary action), plus a brief qualification or condition, then put them down quickly, one after the other. Here's how this paragraph looked in the first draft, as a series of rough modules:

Don't try for perfection on ideas that may change. Frustrating, self defeating. Take subject, verb, condition, and put down one after another.

Other topics might begin like this:

New bank statements confusing customers. Complaints in two categories. Type size and column headings. Type too small and too light. Column headings have too much bank jargon.


Too many circuits failing. Ran tests on incoming samples. All good. Problem could be power source.

The advantage of this technique is that you can concentrate on discovery and forget about the quality of your composition. Once you have "gone to school" on your draft of modules, once you have make your major changes, then you can polish. The method may sound time consuming, but often takes less time overall.

Throw in some blank lines now and then.

You can also lessen the struggle by inserting blank lines when you can't think of the right word or phrase. Come back later and fill them in. Don't just sit there, trying to force your brain to come up with something. The more you do, the more your brain will fight you.

Finally, take a break.

If you get hopelessly stuck, take your mind out of gear and take a break. Chat with someone or go for a stroll. Do anything to relieve the pressure. When you return, your mind will be refreshed and will often have an answer waiting for you. We don't know why or how this works, but it does.

The best remedy for writer's block is a good plan, a place to start.


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