The blank page is notorious for intimidation. It’s almost as if that flat white screen has white eyes and white lashes on a bright white face staring right at you daring you to break its invisible but definite glare with the slash of a black letter. Writer’s block is infamous.
But it’s essential for writers to overcome this obstacle if we’re to achieve any level of writing success. Because I’m a full-time freelance business writer, breaking writer’s block has become a matter of life and death for me. No writing, no groceries. So, I’ve figured a few things out.
I think of it as a dance. Step forward, then step back. Then do it again several times until your brain catches on and writer’s block (who hates dancing) runs away.
Step 1 – Stop thinking.
Writer’s block gets in my way when I think too much before I begin writing. For some dumb reason, I have a tendency to start jobs by analyzing the likelihood I’ll be able to pull it off – or not – even after years of completing jobs just fine. All I can tell you is that it’s human to do this. But you have to figure out how to NOT do it.
I could write a whole article on this step alone. Suffice it to say that you have to talk to yourself and get stubborn about the right things. Think only about the piece you’re working on and stubbornly insist that you will, indeed, get this done and do it magnificently. If something negative – or ANYTHING else, for that matter – sneaks into your thoughts, consciously banish it.
In a way, this is a meditation. Forgive yourself for allowing thoughts of dirty laundry, past mistakes and tasty snacks to slip through the cracks in your brain. Just breathe deeply, relax the muscles in your body, push those insidious thoughts out and refuse to think of anything but your work. Just do it!
Step 2 – Review your shiny ultimate goal.
In my life, the ultimate goal is and always has been freedom. I want to be master of my own time, money, environment and office equipment. Even when I was an employee, it was important to me to set up my work so I had some semblance of freedom, even if it was just rebelliously kicking off my shoes under my desk. Later, my ultimate goal was to create a good life for my two children. That’s about the best motivation you can have because it activates primitive instincts. (I dare you to defy a momma bear.)
Your goal simply might be to earn the right to say you are making a living as a writer. If that touches on your own primitive instincts, then it’s a good ultimate goal. If your goal doesn’t touch those instincts in some way, it won’t make a good dance partner. Spin that goal away from you and find one that awakens your passion.
Instead of staring at the blank page in fear and trepidation, pull out this ultimate goal and examine it as if it was a shiny, opulent bauble worth millions of dollars. Admire it and thank your lucky stars that it’s yours. Tuck it into your figurative pocket, perch it on your desk or hang it around your neck and only then continue the dance.
Step 3 – Step away.
More often than not, writers block digs it heels in deeper the longer you stare at that terrifying page. So, refuse to indulge it. Allow yourself intentional breaks to do something you love. I use the pomodoro method: work for 25 minutes and then take a 5-minute break during which the only rule is not to think of work.
Stepping away breaks the energy and hold of writer’s block and lures your brain into a more instinctual, spontaneous space, which is a good place from which to write. That’s why it’s important to do something you love during the break: read a book or favorite magazine, play music, walk outdoors, do crafts, etc. It helps doubly if it’s something physical, because it pries your brain out of the mental trenches and allows you to focus in a completely different mode. Tony Robbins would tell you to take this time to get into “physical state,” because from a high-powered physical state comes a high-powered mental state. Jump on a mini tramp, run around the block as fast as you can or dance a joyful samba to some high-energy music.
When you go back to your work, don’t think of it as work. Try to drag a little of the joy you experienced during the break with you as you begin taking the next step …
Step 4 – Write a thesis.
I hear you groaning, but hear me out. This skill you learned just well enough to get you by in English class is one of the most important skills you’ll wield as a writer because it provides the magic of focus.
These days we tend to want to sit down and start spitting out words on a ticker tape. Then, our brains realize we’re just posing – pretending we know where we’re heading with this writing – when we really don’t know. Or we just vaguely know. It’s a recipe for disaster if you want to have any real effect on your reader. Writing without a clear thesis can tie up your piece in disjointed or illogical knots and take away its power. And it can take an agonizing amount of your time to untie it, if you are even able to.
Instead, allow yourself to begin by indulging in the small amount of time it takes to articulate the goal of your piece. Write it down to make it real and force your brain to stop posing. It’s important to do it right, so if you need a refresher on writing theses, consult a primer. Here’s one I like: http://www.cws.illinois.edu/workshop/writers/tips/thesis/.
Step 5 – Begin by writing anything.
It’s the daunting expectation of the white of the page that intimidates us. We envision not living up to it. So, get that part out of the way. Dismiss it from your mind just as you dismiss the laundry. Latch on to whatever fact or thought about your topic happens to stick in your brain – and then begin typing or writing anything about that small tidbit. Sometimes writing in longhand on a lined pad is enough to get you jumpstarted.
Allow yourself to mentally examine all the bits and pieces as they apply to your thesis in any order (you can line it all up later). In fact, imagine yourself sitting down to a cup of coffee with a friend, explaining what it is you are writing about. Share with them the points you’ll make about the topic. If it helps, call up a real friend and get some steaming coffee to prime your brain.
As you do this stream-of-consciousness writing, allow yourself to have fun. I also allow myself to show off. I proudly trot out my knowledge about the topic or boldly make proclamations I believe will make the world a better place. I can always dial back the arrogance later, but right now I’m using it to birth my baby (the piece I’m working on).
Rinse and Repeat to Break the Toughest Writer’s Block
Especially if a topic is so complex or subtle that you must educate your reader before making proclamations, you’ll find you may need to go back to step 1 (Stop thinking.) and start the process again. There is nothing wrong with that. Every dance has repeats. If you can, give yourself enough time to do the repeats. In other words, don’t put off the work until the last minute.
On the other hand, in the world of full-time business freelance writers, we don’t always have time to indulge in long leisurely processes. And some of us thrive on doing things at the last minute. When that’s the case, adapt each of the steps above into a flash pop. Give each one five minutes or so and press your brain to deeply feel the reality of it.
With any luck (except you can’t believe in luck if you want to get the writing right every time), once you reach step 5 and begin streaming ideas from your brain onto that pristine white page and messing it all up, you’ll suddenly find you’ve turned the tables on writer’s block and it has run away from you in terror to go bug some other poor writer.