A few weeks ago I wrote about my bout with writer’s block, and how I needed a good “slap” to get over it. That got me thinking: how do other writers get over those moments (or hours) when the blank screen is so imposing?
So I asked for advice from some very good writers whose work appears in print, broadcast and online.
You’ll see that in addition to sharing a gift, they also share an understanding that writing well is the product of discipline and hard work.
I hope their advice helps you the next time the words won’t come. Most of all, I hope they inspire you to write.
Steve Hartman, Correspondent, CBS News
Butch sent me an email asking me to share my thoughts about writer’s block. His email sat in my inbox for a while. I didn’t know what to say. That is how common writer’s block is for me. In fact, I don’t even call it writer’s block. I just call it writing. There isn’t a time when words come easy for me. There isn’t a time when I don’t feel like an impostor at my keyboard. There isn’t a time when I don’t wonder, “How am I going to fool ‘em this time?”
My key for getting past this daily hurdle is to just sit down at my keyboard and type. I just throw down words like Scrabble tiles from a shaker. If I do it enough, eventually something will appear. Once I get a few lines down I start re-writing. I’m a horrible writer, but sometimes I can come across as a good one after the 13th draft.
Of course, there are times when I can’t even get the first few words out. I have two secrets for getting through those days. When possible, I go to bed and start over in the morning. Or if I’m on a deadline, I just get it done and don’t worry about it. And ironically, that’s often when I get the best results.
(That’s kind of how I got through this assignment:)
Carrie Budoff Brown, White House Reporter, Politico
As hard as it can be sometimes, I try to step away from the computer and put aside the story for a short while. When I’m ready, I’ll start typing notes and thoughts and even full paragraphs and potentials ledes on my iPhone. For some reason, I feel less pressure working on my iPhone than the computer. The act of typing my thoughts into the phone often helps to break the writer’s block, so by the time I return to my computer, I have an outline of where I’m headed.
Another trick: Find a new place to write. When I’m working on a longer-term piece, I’ll often take up residence in a favorite coffee shop, rather than my desk at work. The change of perspective, along with some good music, is usually enough to get my thoughts going again.
When these tricks fail, it’s usually because I need to do more reporting. So I make more calls and sit down with more people.
Paula Bock, Writer, Editor at Pacific Science Center
1. Lower your standards. Doesn’t have to be perfect. It’s a ROUGH draft.
2. Turn off the screen and just type so you don’t self-edit. (But make sure your fingers are on the home keys!)
3. Give yourself mini deadlines.
4. Write in 15 minute spurts. Set a timer and keep your fingers moving.
Anna Holmes, Founder of Jezebel.com, Columnist for NYT Sunday Book Review, Editor for Fusion
Long walks help. So does pretending that I’m writing an email to a friend. But I must say, the older I get, the more I struggle with writer’s block.
I don’t want to sound too crunchy, but taking up yoga a few years ago has also helped me deal with my writer’s block. Although, in that case, it’s more that the practice of stretching and then being still for long periods of time has helped me figure out how to solve problems in pieces I am already in the midst of writing — not necessarily help me start a piece of writing. That’s what, for me and many others, we think of when we talk about “writer’s block.”
I also suspect that some of what we consider to be writer’s block nowadays is actually “complete and utter distraction.” And for that, I blame the internet. Digital media and technology has made my life immeasurably better – both personally and professionally – but it’s also made it very difficult for me to concentrate on the actual act of writing. One might argue that the many hours I spend on Twitter every day is a type of writing and I might agree with that person, except that I’m not convinced that what I have to say on Twitter has any lasting value. (Nor do I get paid for it.) It’s good for blowing off steam and coming up with ideas, but mostly, it’s very, very good for procrastination. To be sure, procrastination has a place in the writing process, but I wish it had a little less of a hold on me right now. The only solution, of course, is to simply GET OFF THE INTERNET, but I can’t imagine a world right now in which I could actually afford – psychically or professionally – to do that.
Chris Taylor, Deputy Editor, Mashable
I’m not entirely convinced there is such a thing as writer’s block, or if there is, it’s been misnamed. What does exist, and in my experience is so prevalent among writers that awareness needs to be raised, is ledephobia, or the fear of the first sentence. There have been times where I’ve been up till 5 a.m., trapped in the cycle of violence that is coming up with the right lede. The story tends to flow after that.
Steve Lopez, Los Angeles Times Columnist
Writer’s block is often a symptom of homework deficiency. At least in my case. It happens when I try to write with authority but I haven’t earned the right, so the cure is to do a little more reporting or to give more thought to the essence of the material I’ve gathered.
When I do have the goods, but still can’t figure out the architecture, I think like a painter applying a primer coat. Laying down some words helps me smooth out the rough spots on the second and third pass. It’s never an exercise in writing, after all. It’s about rewriting.
Connie Schultz, Columnist at Creators Syndicate, Parade Magazine
We all have those times when the piece we have to write seems reluctant to find its way to our keyboards. When that happens to me, I stay in the chair and spend a few minutes writing something, anything, to get moving. Maybe it’s a post for my public Facebook page, or a few paragraphs for something else I’m working on that isn’t due that day. Anything that triggers the muscle memory of flow. This seldom fails me, as it helps me make the mental shift necessary to tackle the work on deadline.
I also have visual cues to nudge me. My father’s lunch pail and my mother’s work ID sit on my desk as reminders that they wore their bodies out in hourly wage jobs so that I could get to do this for a living. On many days, that’s enough to get me going. This is my job, after all, and my heaviest piece of equipment is a laptop. No whining on this yacht.
Don Wycliff, Retired journalist and journalism educator
Jacqui Banaszynski, Poynter Editing Fellow, Knight Chair University of Missouri
What’s the old saw? Long-haul truckers don’t get drivers’ block, and daily newspaper reporters can’t afford writers’ block. But on less deadline-driven projects, I can suffer from serious keyboard avoidance.
What helps me most is to talk through a piece with someone. I need to get it out of my head and out in the world. I need to start hearing key points and sparkling moments, and boring myself with the unessential minutiae. Then I jot down a quick laundry list of those key points – a very informal outline that works as a simplified roadmap.
Finally, I start futzing on the keyboard, but mostly pace or clean or do laundry – something mindless but productive – until not writing becomes more stressful than writing. Once I’m back at the keyboard, I’ll play with passages – anything to keep my fingers moving – until I’m immersed in the story and deep in the zone.
Coffee and background noise (radio, a coffee shop, a newsroom) are musts. TV and email are death, as is total silence.
Boyd Huppert, Reporter, KARE 11, Minneapolis
My prescription for writer’s block is to write. For me it’s all about getting my gears turning. Even if I’m writing garbage, I might stumble on a nugget that can lead me down a more productive path. Sitting and thinking about it has never worked well for me. I have to see the words.
I do a lot of my writing at night when things quiet down. I’ll never go to bed when I’m on a roll, but never stay up when I’m not. When nothing is clicking, I find the time is better spent sleeping with an early alarm clock set the next morning. A few hours of sleep seem to always clear the fog.
Doreen Carvajal, Reporter, International New York Times
When I confront “the blocks” it usually involves a project that overwhelms me such as a long, complicated news story or a book project and proposal. One tool that helps is the golden rule of 500. Write the minimum 500 words. Then take a walk. This act of movement clears my head and when I return I can take the jumble and put it into better order. Finally for a really daunting project, I move at more than 200 miles an hour. I take a 5-hour speed train from Paris to Nice to shake it out of me. No wifi. Intermittent phone signals. No distractions. Just words to roll with the landscapes.
John Aloysius Farrell, Biographer of ‘Tip’ O’Neill and Clarence Darrow
I have two rules. Whatever you do, just do something. Work on your footnotes. Go to the library. Do some filing. Write an outline. Just don’t panic: La donna e’ mobile. The fickle muse will eventually stagger in, tardy and frowsy but heart-rendingly lovely, from her dalliance elsewhere. And here’s a tip from Ernest Hemingway on writing: Don’t write all you know each day. Stop a paragraph or a page or a thought short, to keep the creative spring primed as it refills overnight.
Roy Peter Clark, Vice President and Senior Scholar, Poynter
I’ve come to believe that Writers Block is caused by something very good in the values of the writer: high standards. The writer begins the work with an idealized vision of the finished product in his or her head. Then the drafting begins, and the first words are so far from the ideal, that doubt creeps in. Doubt has a persuasive voice: “You don’t need to be working on this now; go watch the game and have a beer.” It was the prolific poet William Stafford who offered the controversial solution: “lower your standards.” But that advice needs a prepositional attachment: “at the beginning of the process.” Use any strategy that builds momentum: write on a yellow pad, don’t stop to check the spelling, write as fast as you can. Part of lowering your standards involves thinking of writing as routine work rather than high art. “Why should I get writer’s block?” asked columnist Roger Simon. “My father never got truck driver’s block.”
Lane DeGregory, Staff Writer, Tampa Bay Times
Diet Coke. Laundry. Dog walk. Dylan. Looong shower.
I never let myself have writer’s block at my computer. Before I start writing, and as soon as I get stuck, I make myself get up and walk around and try to do something useful — or at least something to put my body in gear and jump start my brain away from pen and paper or the keyboard.
Generally, I write without my notes. I tell the story to my dog out loud first, to hear where I might want to start and where I think the narrative is going. Then I try to force myself to write as long as it takes me to finish a can of Diet Coke. When the can is empty, I get up and give myself a break and rifle through my notes and wonder where I’m going next.
It helps do to laundry or dishes while I think. (If I were a cyclist or runner that might help more). And my dog loves it when I’m really stuck and take her for a walk to clear my head and try leads or transitional sentences out loud. People think I’m talking to her while I’m talking through my story
When that doesn’t work, I break out my dog-eared anthology of Flannery O’Connor stories or put on Bob Dylan’s “Desire” album and try to glean inspiration from the masters. I’ve thought of lots of leads and endings that way, and never tire of those stories or songs. I actually have a whole shelf of short story anthologies, and another of story song CDs, and I dip into those some time during the writing of almost every important story I’ve done.
My last resort is a long, hot shower (with a notepad on the back of the toilet). That’s the best way to clear my head and get into my writer’s bubble/cave/coffin … whatever you want to call it. All of my best leads have been conceived while I wash my hair. (I read that Michael Franti wrote his biggest hit song with his finger, in the steam on his shower stall, then snapped a photo of the lyrics with his cell.)
I hope that helps. Talking with friends and hubby and kids sometimes shakes things loose too. But I’d usually rather work through that block alone, or at least try.
Poynter’s News University has a Webinar on “Conquering Writer’s Block: Help! for Writers.”