As someone who writes several thousand words a week for a living, I can’t afford writer’s block. In my case, that horrible affliction is a lot more than a frustration (although it’s certainly that too) — it can place my whole career at risk. So when I find myself unable to start a writing project, or getting stuck mid-assignment, I have some strong reactions. Some are unproductive, others are really stupid, and a few actually work.
What not to do if you hit writer’s block.
First, the unproductive and the really stupid. I’ve punched my laptop. More than once. If I had any upper-body strength at all, I’d need a new laptop.
When I just can’t %$&* start a new writing task, I also whine. I occasionally throw things. Sometimes I scream profanity. Okay, more than sometimes.
As you might guess, none of those are effective strategies for overcoming writer’s block. But these are. I promise.
Three things to try if you hit writer’s block. And you’ll need only one. They all work. Every time.
1. Write something else.
For this one, I give credit to economist Thomas Sowell, a longtime syndicated columnist and author of a zillion books, including the must-read classic Basic Economics.
When asked how he’s been such a prolific writer for so long (Sowell is in his 80s and continues cranking out books, sometimes two in a year), Sowell says he always has multiple projects going at once. If he gets stuck on any one of them, he just switches to another. Eventually he finds his way back to the project he couldn’t move forward, and with fresh eyes (or some burst of inspiration), he’s able to pick up the writing again.
Here’s why this works. Say you’re drafting a presentation, and you get stuck. You’re not likely to find the answers or the ideas you need to push forward just by staring at what you’ve already got on the screen. (Hitting the screen won’t help either, I can tell you from experience.)
But stepping away from the task altogether is a gamble. Yes, inspiration might strike while you’re out on a walk or communing with nature or whatever else people tell you to do in situations like this to “clear your head.” But it also might not, because you’ve now completely shifted away from your creative process, part of which obviously features you in front of your computer, writing.
So your best bet is to continue writing, only on a different project. If you get stuck on that presentation, don’t leave the office. Just reply to a few business emails that need answering. You’ll be calling on those same creative muscles, keeping them loose and active, as your presentation fades — temporarily — into your subconscious.
In this state, writing, you’re far more likely to be visited by your muse, which will guide you back with an idea or two about your presentation. When that happens, and it will, pop open the presentation file again. It’s nature’s way of telling you you’re ready to make more progress on it.
Bottom line: Stuck writing this? Start writing that.
2. Just start talking.
This is a powerful strategy I stumbled onto myself, and I think it can be even more effective for non-writers than it has been for me.
Assuming you’re not a professional writer, part of the reason you might experience writer’s block is that putting your thoughts to paper or screen can be scary. Because we invest the written word with such tremendous weight, when we write anything — a memo, a report, a speech for a friend’s wedding — we approach the task as though every sentence, every insight needs to be perfect. So we stare at our monitors, afraid to type a single word.
Casually talking, on the other hand? Nobody’s afraid to do that.
When we’re speaking, especially in a comfortable setting with friends or colleagues we feel close to, the ideas and insights just flow naturally. Precisely because talking isn’t the permanent and highly judged form of communication that writing is, we’re far less likely to freeze when we’re chatting than we are when we’re writing. And you can exploit this fact.
If you’re not sure how to start on a new writing task — say, an important email you need to send a client — talk it out. Literally. Start speaking. And if you can find a trusted friend or colleague to listen as you work through your message verbally, so much the better.
Start talking as casually as you can. That’s the best way to start the ideas flowing, because it heightens the contrast between your verbal first draft and the final email you’ll eventually send. In other words, the more casually you can talk through the email at first, the less intimidating — the less like writing — it’ll seem. That’s the whole point.
And if you invite your colleague to your office to hear you talk through your email draft — and you still can’t get started, even verbally — have your colleague ask you prompting questions about the email. Better yet, have your colleague challenge you about it. “Do you really need to send this email?” “Why is it so important?” That’s when the creative centers of your brain will take over and the insights will start pouring out.
Bottom line: Can’t start writing? Start talking.
3. Write a letter
Credit here to author Joe Vitale, whose brilliant strategy for blasting through writer’s block is to pretend the document you’re having trouble starting is actually a letter you’re writing to a close friend.
You’ve probably noticed that you’re funnier, more articulate and more insightful when you’re around good friends. When you’re with people who make you feel comfortable, you’re able to relax — and tap your creative side.
The same goes for email, even work-related messages. If you’re comfortable with the person you’re writing to, you seem to come up with great points and insights almost without effort; they just flow through your fingers. Admit it: You’ve written an email to a colleague that was so damn good, you went into your Sent messages and reread it. Right? (Or did I just make a really embarrassing confession?)
That’s Vitale’s brilliant insight: Crafting an email or letter to a friend is when you’re likely to do your best writing.
So if you can’t start that report or your bio for the company website, pretend it’s a letter to a close friend. Think of a real person, address the top of the document — “Hey Michelle” — and start writing to Michelle. Then watch the insights flow.
Bottom line: Can’t write the document? Write to your friend instead.