Like death and taxes, perhaps, writer’s block is an all-too-common writer’s affliction that can be counted on to rear its ugly head in the worst of times.
But all is not hopeless. You can whip writer’s block by using a regular writing process – a series of steps, a procedure, a recipe, a plan — to achieve good results each and every time you write.
Without writer’s block.
Right about now many of you are wincing and groaning, gnashing teeth and wringing hands because you remember that stupid writing process you were forced to learn and use in various forms from third grade English class right up until your freshman ENG101 Comp class.
You know. The one you had to do for the teacher, the one that didn’t help YOU a damn bit.
But the writing process I’m talking about isn’t like that. For one thing, it’s not quite so rigid. One of the “rules” of my process is to make the process your own, to apply the steps and order and depth of the process that is best suited for you.
A creative writing process especially is not a “one size fits all” thing.
And let’s be honest: How many of us were as committed to the perfect ENG101 essay as we are to writing the next great American novel? Or story? Or poem? Or memoir?
Not many, I suspect.
Consider this: Without a writing process, you are forced to rely on inspiration alone for your creative tasks. But inspiration, as great as it is when it comes, is wrought with problems. Inspiration works on its own timetable. Like a bad pet, it doesn’t always come when called. And often it comes at the most inconvenienttimes. Worst of all, perhaps, inspiration seems to be driven further away from our grasp by an assignment date or deadline. The closer the assignment or deadline, or the more important the assignment or deadline, the scarcer inspiration is.
A regular, repeatable writing process, on the other hand, is dependable. It’s in your control from the start. It reduces the gut-wrenching stress many of us associate with writer’s block and/or assignments and deadlines. A process is something you get better and better at with practice, and something you can depend on for decent or good results the first time and every time you use it.
In short, a writing process adapted to your own style and personality can make writing easier – and easier writing means better writing.
And an end to writer’s block.
So which approach do you choose: Waiting for inspiration to strike (if it strikes)? Or applying a proven writing process to your creative efforts and eliminating writer’s block?
I hope you choose wisely.
Here are ten essential steps of a writing process that can eliminate writer’s block:
- Separate your creative work from your revision work. We all have at least two “people” in our heads at once: Creative Guy/Gal, and The Judge. You use a different part of your brain for creative work than you do for revision work. Don’t try to mix the two – you’ll shudder to a stop and get nothing done. Use one at a time. Get good at calling one or the other “up” when you need them. Get good at telling one or the other to wait for their turn and come back later, when you call on them for help. Separate your creative time and effort from your revision time and effort and see what happens.
- Use time to your advantage. Make time your friend instead of your enemy. Block out enough time to follow your process; that means start sooner if you have a deadline. Schedule a regular time to write (a day, morning or afternoon or night – you know when you are most creative and most judgmental). And put time between each writing process step you use – as much as you can. Try to do something else between the writing steps (dishes, chores, something physical like a walk) – your ideas will stay with you. indeed, your ideas are still at work in the background, and you’ll be fresher and more objective when you come back to what you’ve written. Say it with me: No more marathon writing sessions!
- Capture everything. Instead of worrying about losing your good ideas and stressing out, or making everything perfect, write or record everything. Almost all of us have phones now – use your phone for recording and/or jot your ideas down in the “notes” app wherever you are, whenever they hit you (pull over if driving). Or record your ideas digitally for later. Remember: It’s easier to improve any writing, no matter how rough or bad or stupid it feels initially, than it is to improve a blank page. Too often I’ve heard “I wait until it’s all in my head, then I write” from those with the most serious writer’s block. Capture first. Judge (and edit and revise) second.
- Start wherever you can. Don’t feel forced or obligated to write a story or essay from the beginning to the end – i.e., the way it will look when published or even the way it will unravel and reveal itself to the reader in the final draft. Let your piece develop from wherever you are. Now. Today. Start there, with that idea you have in your head. Trust the process to develop the idea and to fill in the parts that are blank right now later. Make the piece look pretty, put it in order later. But be sure to write the first sentence and/or intro last. Why? Because (a) you know the rest of the story by then, where it goes exactly, and (b) these first words are the first words that the reader reads.
- Share your work with others. Feedback in writing is the breakfast of champions. Find a good first reader that gives you honest, constructive criticism, and get good at “reviewing” everything you read. (NOTE: None of us is as good a writer as our moms think we are. Don’t count on family or even friends for a good honest review of your writing). If nothing else, the time your work is off with someone else for review is time between steps in the process (that we talked about earlier). When you look for a first reader, barter. Work out “trades” with other writers: my stuff for your stuff. Doing reviews yourself for others (a) helps other developing writers and (b) gives you more ideas on how to write better.
- Organize for the most impact and effect. The way and order you present things to the reader matters. A lot. Present things in the pace and manner you need to have your intended effect on the reader. Two great tools for effect on the reader that many good writers use are (a) a variety of sentence lengths (short, medium, long) and (b) many more paragraphs which, like poetry, create much more white space and cause more “time” between ideas for the reader. Jerome Stern has a number of classic structural forms for prose (with easy-to-grasp examples) in his little book, Making Shapely Fiction, available from Amazon or the bookstore. Think too like a teacher thinks – bring your readers along with you on the journey. Teach them. Reveal things to them. Rarely just tell them. You’ve all heard the comment, “show don’t tell”? Add an addendum to that: “Reveal what you show.”
- Have lots of stuff going at once. Chances are that if you have several projects going at once, they will all be in different stages of development. Some will be in the rough idea stage, some at rough draft, some in review, and some maybe in need of final polishing. Some you may even consider “finished.” If either Creative Guy/Gal or The Judge is too persistent, shift what you planned to work on to whichever of them shows up. If nothing else, you can create and capture more story ideas versus a full-fledged editing and revising session if you’re stuck. This helps you do #1, keep creation and revision separate, and keeps writer’s block at bay at a vulnerable time.
- Revise, revise, revise! Wallace Stegner said, “The difference between a good writer and a great writer is their ability to revise their own work (and make it better).” You can moderate this a little by having others read your stuff to help, but a peer review is not the super “silver bullet” many writers hope it is. After all, YOU still must pick and choose which comments will make your writing better and which won’t. The best way to recognize good and helpful comments from those that aren’t good and helpful is to read. Read a lot. Read a lot of good stuff to develop your writing craft and technique more. Review a lot. Write more.
- Assess everything you write. Add this step at the end of the process, after you have submitted a piece, after you think it is finished, or after some length of time away from it. Develop an action plan for continuous improvement. Try only one focused improvement in the next thing you write. Otherwise you won’t know what caused that piece to be better or easer or worse or harder. Make assessing and improving your writing a never-ending cycle of “plan, do, check, act.” Make your next piece an experiment in doing better, trying something different.
- Make your writing process your own. Use the steps noted here as your base, but also make the order and how you apply each step your own. Some of you, for instance, will be free-writers – those writers able to sit down and write lots of free-association stuff in one sitting or microburst. Great! Pick up the process steps for revision after free-writing – apply The Judge to what you have. Find your unique, individual voice by using a writing process that works for you and the way you write best. But write. Write lots of stuff. No matter how much is “good.” Practice. Read some good stuff. Pick up a new technique or two. Practice one – copy that style or technique. Practice some more.
I urge you to try this writing process yourself. Or at least try a piece of it to see if it works for you. See if your creative writing gets better and/or easier – either is a good thing, and both are the icing on the proverbial cake.
That next great American novel (or story or poem or memoir) is just waiting to be written and discovered.
Gary Lawrence has a BA in English from Rockford College and an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He has published several short stories in college and community literary magazines (including Four Chambers and ASU-West’s Canyon Voices), has published a collection of short stories (Baffled), and has also published stories in Short Story America anthologies. Gary has 30+ years of college teaching experience; he currently teaches Creative Writing for Glendale (AZ) Community College online.