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Fighting Writer's Block - Part 1:
Causes and Cures

by David Taylor

Return to The Writing Life · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

I don't believe in writer's block. It's like "dyslexia" and "backache" -- terms so general as to be almost useless when it comes to trying to help someone. A dyslexic can have problems with short-term memory or visual discrimination. A backache can be either muscle or nerve related -- or both. The first thing a doctor has to do is get past the wastebasket terms and find out what's really going on. Same with "writer's block." Here's what I do believe: The persistent inability to begin or finish writing projects has at least four origins, all of which are remediable.

Cause 1: Writers are sometimes not ready to write

Perhaps the hardest thing about writing is not knowing what to write. This condition accounts for most instances of writer's block as I've come to understand it. The key to knowing what to write is knowing the format of the thing you're writing.

Imagine trying to make a chair without any concept of what one looks like or what its purpose is. Yet everyday I work with writers attempting to do just that: to create a how-to article, novel, short story, essay, business letter, or even screenplay without knowing it has a seat, legs and back designed to support the weight placed on it.

I'm not talking about formula writing. A formula is used to produce identical items in quantity, whether that's rubber duckies or romance novels. I'm talking about form: the underlying structure that gives shape to writing in the same way that a glass gives shape to the water it holds.

Many experts tell you to "research and plan thoroughly." Good advice. But often the real problem occurs prior to researching or planning/outlining. That problem is: Not knowing the underlying pattern for the kind of thing you're about to write. Without that pattern (also called a "template"), the writing problem may present itself as a lack of research or planning, but those are merely symptoms of something else.

For students, not being ready to write can mean: not knowing how to decode the writing assignment and identify an appropriate template that will supply what the teacher wants; or not knowing how to write a controlling statement that predicts the chosen pattern. During my 15 years of teaching college writing, almost without exception, once I helped a student to understand the underlying pattern of what the teacher wanted and we came up with a solid controlling idea that fit the pattern, the student was miraculously "cured."

Applying this same analysis to freelance writers, "not being ready to write" can mean: not knowing the project's format well enough, whether a roundup article, profile piece, advertising slim jim, or infomercial TV script; or not knowing how that format is being adapted to the target magazine or outlet.

Now, before you start lifting nostrils into air upon reading the word "form" or "template" in connection with your writing, recall Shakespeare's sonnets: 14 lines of rhymed iambic pentameter. Bill wrote some pretty good stuff within that rigid form. All writing has patterns, even post-modern "plotless stories." It's what you put in the pattern that counts.

Cause 2: Writers are sometimes afraid to write

The fear of writing can come from as many places as there are individual neuroses. Here's a general list that applies to most of us low-grade neurotics:

  • Favorite writers sitting on the shoulder saying you'll never write like them. And they're right. By definition, you'll never write like Faulkner, Woolf, Bellow, or Beattie. They are them, you are you. And you should never try to write like them, unless it's an exercise. You have to write your own stories in your own voice. They did their thing, now it's time to do yours.

  • Confusing the fear of failure with the likelihood of failure. When we sit down in front of the blank page, we often have an irrational fear of not being able to duplicate our successful writing efforts of the past. And that's silly, because our prior success was gained through skill and work, not magic or luck. Your skills haven't gone anywhere. All you need to do is put in your normal time and effort.

  • Being confused and humiliated by poor teachers who are themselves poor writers. This used to drive me nuts when I was teaching. My most important work was salvaging egos and undoing the harm these teachers had done and myths they had promulgated. Not intentionally. But when nonwriters try to teach writing, it can get pretty ugly.

Cause 3: Writers often try to compose in their heads

Headwriters fail to distinguish between editing and composing. They try to come up with the right thought and its correct expression at the same time in their heads. Ouch. There is a time to create and a time to evaluate. Both are legitimate parts of writing, but they are best done at separate times. Otherwise, the normal writing process becomes an exercise in task overload and frustration.

What is the normal writing process? Individuals differ, thank goodness, but generally writers go through the following stages, sometimes looping back to them as the work moves toward its final form.

  1. Prewriting: This is everything you do before you sit down to write: read, surf the web, take notes, talk it over with others, do interviews, daydream about it, scribble on napkins, whatever. The subject, slant and materials are being stuffed into your mind and tumbled together.

  2. Planning: Sitting down and making a list, drawing a schematic, writing a summary or treatment, maybe even the dreaded outline. "Speed zero drafts" fit in this stage when used to explore possible structures.

  3. Composing: Your attempt to match thought with words as you explore the soft underbelly of thought, and try to use writing to discover what you really think and feel. Initial drafts should be seen as experimental works, written quickly and considered disposable -- in whole or part.

  4. Editing: This is where the shaping begins. You shape the work's overall structure, its paragraphs and its sentences so that they form a unified whole and march toward the effect you want them to have. You delete stuff, add stuff, move stuff around. You fret over sentences and the nuances of individual words. You make it sing.

  5. Proofing: OK, time for the grammar police. Pull out the dictionary and style book. Apply polish to your punctuation. Make it shine.
I hope you took time to read about each of those steps. If you did, you couldn't help but notice how very different and even conflicting they are. How on earth can you "explore the soft underbelly of thought" and worry about the grammar police at the same time? If you're trying to do so, review your ingrained writing process with an eye to separating writing tasks that should be kept discrete.

Make no mistake about it: Changing your writing habits will be hard and will require discipline. Things might even get worse before they get better. But, man, is the change worth it.

Cause 4: Writers often start in the wrong place

We know how important the first paragraph is when someone evaluates our work. Yet it's often difficult to write a final version of this crucial paragraph until the rest of the piece is done or close to it. That's because the first paragraph must set the stage with just enough suggestion without giving it all away. It must set the tone for the entire piece and compel the reader to continue on.

Sure, it's imperative to get the first paragraph just right. And, I promise, you'll have plenty of time to do so. But instead of sitting with pencil or fingernail stuck in your mouth, trying to write the first paragraph before anything else is written, maybe you could just start somewhere else. Anywhere will do. If you're stuck on the first paragraph, bag it. Write down, "First paragraph goes here," leave a space, then write "Second Paragraph" and start there. Be prepared to skip over anything that tries to keep you stuck. Save that part until later. The answer will likely become obvious later on when you've done more writing and know more about the thing you're creating. Or, at the very least, write a first paragraph and be prepared to throw it away or substantially revise it. Again, approach writing in stages, not under the gun to produce a polished first draft.

Confession: There are times when I spend more time writing the first paragraph than any other part of the piece. Writers who do this are, I think, actually using the first paragraph as a time to think through the piece they are about to write. The inordinate amount of time spent there isn't wasted if you're productively working out a slant, tone, and organizational structure. Just be conscious that this is your method and don't get so frustrated that you end up "blocked."

Seven Solutions

The key is not to panic and, most of all, not to let the negative tapes start playing in your head ("Oh, I knew this would happen. I'm just not a good writer. Never have been. Even my kids think so."). That's usually when "stuck" turns into "block." When stickiness comes your way -- and it will -- here are some tricks to get the motor running and the words flowing. Some are hokey, and some are based on writing habits we should foster for the long term.


Popularized by one of my heroes, Peter Elbow, freewriting forces you to set an arbitrary amount of time, start the timer, then begin writing as quickly as you can without stopping for anything until the time period is over. The writing can focus on a specific problem or remain unfocused, its purpose being merely to generate thought. Regardless, once you set pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, you cannot stop for ANY reason: not spelling, not grammar, not embarrassment, not lack of words. If the words aren't there, you type/write, "OK, words aren't here, I'm trying to get them back, here they come..." and keep up the flow for the entire period of time you've set for yourself.

When teaching, I make all students (even graduate students) keep freewriting journals and turn them in once a week. More than anything else, the daily exercise helps students over their fear of writing and puts them in touch with the inner voice that gives writing its authenticity. Freewriting also helps to clean out the synaptic junctions that lie between brain and fingers, junctions that tend to rust over when writing isn't a habit.

Use freewriting to get started on a first draft, to talk through problems, to record daily observations for use in your work, or just as a way to let off steam. The key is to write fast, because then you will write without fear.

Copy and Write

Sometimes I take out a favorite author's work, read a paragraph or sentence, then try to recreate it on the page. You can get inside that writer's language and its rhythms when you do. My juices are sure to start flowing when typing, "I refuse to accept the end of man. I believe that man will not only endure, he will prevail, that when that last ding-dong of doom sounds from the red and resounding shore, there will still be one tiny, inexhaustible voice crying out in the wilderness ..." (William Faulkner, Nobel Prize acceptance speech). But be careful that old drunk isn't perched on your shoulder when you start your own ding-donging.

Reread and Notate

Put your research materials beside your keyboard. Read through them with your fingers on the keys. As you read, react to the materials -- explain, speculate, relate, add to, explicate, argue with, rant. In other words, use writing to explore the materials. At the end, you'll have a huge mess on screen or on paper. But some good stuff will have been made concrete, and you'll be raring to get started.

Write to Someone

Thank goodness for caring, understanding friends, students and family. There have been times when the best way for me to get started on something was as a letter to someone. The someone represented in some fundamental way the actual audience I needed to address in the piece.

This works because we're so familiar and comfortable with letter writing, and especially because we have internalized the trick of matching our materials to the person we're writing to. As a result, letter writing provides an easy way to get our voice into our materials with a slant that is right for the audience. The trick is to know whether to mail it or not.

Write Dialogue

Set up a conversation on your screen between yourself and some person who's asking you about your topic. Make it someone you have a strong reaction to. As you answer his or her questions, you'll discover the reasons you're sitting there and also the words you need to get started.

Write Invisibly

This will be disorienting at first, but is definitely worth it. You can't edit and correct what you can't see. Ha, ha. So, make your computer screen go black by turning down the brightness control or some other trick. Not using a computer? No problem. Stick a sheet of carbon paper between two blank pages and write on the top with an empty ballpoint pen. It's amazing what cutting yourself off from visual reinforcement will tell you about how much you have been relying on headwriting and hypercorrectivity.

Write About Writing

When you're totally stuck, you still have this outlet: describe your feelings about writing. Use writing to vent about your blockage. Rail against Mrs. Grumpy in the fifth grade who always criticized your handwriting and made you feel hopeless and hapless. Write about what you think is blocking you. Write about how the writing went yesterday. Write about what you hope to write tomorrow. Pretty soon, you're putting enough words on the page that the dialogue between it and your head is back on track. Writing about writing will teach you something about yourself as a writer, too, and you may want to keep a writing log about these concerns on a daily basis. Such a "Writing Progress Log," when kept over a period of time, can help you pinpoint what factors cause the writing to go well, poorly, or not at all.

But don't do this:

1. Don't reread stuff you've already published. Doing so encourages the fearful reaction: "But ... but can I do it again?" It also allows you to procrastinate and allows you to rely on previous writing tricks instead of challenging yourself to grow beyond them.

2. Don't spend time editing what you wrote the day before. Rereading it to get back into the flow is fine. But remember, there's a time to write and a time to edit. If it's not time for the latter (when the draft is done), get your butt in gear and stop procrastinating.

3. Don't talk to others about what you're writing. Yes, I know a lot of advice-givers disagree with this one. But here's my experience, especially with fiction and screenplays: You can talk the life right out of your story. You can also get opinions and ideas that will get in the way of your own. And you can also end up putting more pressure on yourself because now others have specific expectations of you. There are times to seek input: but I don't think it's during the gestation stage when you're in the middle of those first few critical drafts.

Find Out More...

Facing Down Life Block - Donnell King

Fighting Writer's Block, Part 2: Block Writing and Speed Writing - David Taylor

How to Beat Writer's Block - and Hone Your Skills! - Dawn Copeman

How to Break Writer's Block - Jacob Myers

Nine Anti-Muses and How to Placate Them - Victoria Grossack

When the Writing's Going Well: Ten Remedies to Demolish an Unexpected Block - Noelle Sterne

Writer's Block: Is It All In Your Head? - Leslie What

Copyright © 2003 David Taylor.
Excerpted from The Freelance Success Book.

This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

David Taylor served as an executive editor for nine years at Rodale Press, where he worked on magazines such as Prevention, Men's Health, Runner's World and Scuba Diving. Prior to Rodale, he was a professor of English and journalism. His horror and dark suspense fiction has appeared in anthologies such as Masques, Pulphouse and Scare Care; and in magazines like Cemetery Dance, Sci-Fi Channel Magazine and Gorezone. He is the author and coauthor of five horror novels, as well as The Freelance Success Book.


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