When the words won’t come easily
Writer’s block — the one convenient excuse writers all lean upon at one time. Writing and other forms of artistic talent are not magical gifts revealing themselves only when they want to take over our minds. This is not to say there are no great moments of inspiration. Emotions definitely compel us to be creative at times. But, writing is also a skill that takes practice. Lots of practice. Genuine writer’s block is rare, but conquerable.
Research suggests that what many call “genius” is actually “practice” and “dedication.” Hours and hours of practice are the surest way to become better at something. See Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell.
Defining the Block
Writer’s block is the inability to continue work on a specific project. There is not a complete loss of creativity or talent. Seldom, if ever, does a writer lose the ability to produce a coherent sentence. Being “stuck” on a project, unable to make progress, is frustrating. What should be a pause on a single project becomes an emotional, intellectual paralysis.
We believe there are three primary causes of writer’s block. Once you identify the cause of your writer’s block, you can work to overcome it. These causes are:
- Weak motivation.
- Lack of planning.
Weak motivation assumes several forms, ranging from waiting for “inspiration” to finding other tasks more interesting. If you have a general lack of motivation, it is not writer’s block. Struggling with a work-related assignment is also not unique.
If you’re bored with a work, it is likely readers will be bored, too.
As a creative writer, if a work does not inspire you, the work should wait. The truth is, that if you are losing interest in a creative work, the odds are that your readers would also lose interest. Switching projects allows you to find new focus. You can return to the problematic work later, with a fresh perspective.
A lack of planning causes block when the writer has no idea what must happen to advance the plot. While some writers “simply sit and write,” they tend to have a clear mental outline of either the story or the main characters. Often it is inexperienced writers who believe works flow, uninterrupted, as if writing themselves.
How you plan matters less than that you plan. There are a great many approaches, ranging from linear outlines to “inside-out” drafting that starts with the climactic events and works outward. Whether you brainstorm on blank paper or use note cards to organize scenes, you must do something to organize your thoughts. Writers often find that planning leads to unexpected insights.
We believe perfectionism is a serious problem among writers (and artists, in general). Too often, when we realize the perfect is not possible, we give up trying to create.
Perfectionism causes terrible forms of writer’s block, accompanied by anxiety. If there is a genuine form of writer’s block, it is perfectionism. The struggle for the perfect word or phrase is familiar to all writers. Good writers do measure each word, to make sure it has value. Unfortunately, contemplating each word can quickly change from necessary discipline to unhealthy obsession.
Remember that a work can be revised. Finish a draft before worrying about minor details. That advice is easy to offer, and hard to follow. We are never satisfied with any work, even after it is published. Learning when to move on, when to let a word or phrase be “good enough” comes with experience.
We suggest writers and artists stop thinking they are not professionals. Many artists posses “natural” talents, which are often called “gifts.” A gift not utilized is worthless — and art can have a pretty nice value.
Writing is a talent, as is the ability to analyze complex mathematics in one’s mind. We never hear about “physicist’s block,” unless you count Einstein’s quest for the Unified Force.
We know many “writers” are screaming, “How dare they compare me to a physicist!” You must want to be a writer; strive to be a professional.
Adopt a Business Mentality
Professional writers write. They go to work on a schedule and attempt to meet deadlines — self-imposed or external. If you are an aspiring writer, then you have to adopt this discipline, too.
Do you believe the Great Masters set forth to paint or sculpt only when inspiration struck? They worked to earn money or other means of support, such as noble patronage. Most of these men were not altruistic. Even Picasso realized that while his talents differed from those of others, he had to earn money. Every project, even if it is not your ideal, is an opportunity to practice some skills.
Shakespeare wrote a lot. (Not to mention the fact that he “borrowed” a great many ideas, but that’s a scholarly issue.) He did so because his audiences and patrons demanded new material. If he had not written steadily he might have found himself guiding a wooden plow behind an ox. At best, William would have been a merchant like his father. Shakespeare knew that success is doing, maybe not always with brilliance, but doing.
If you want to be a writer, write. You will make mistakes and create pages of junk. If you persist, you also will create a lot of good works and maybe a great one — or more.
The most prolific writers achieve the greatest successes, and not by accident. It is a cliché, but you must exercise creativity to improve it. Writing on a regular schedule, preferably daily, is the key to success. Think of this time as a gym appointment for your creativity. Some writers set a daily minimum of time in front of the keyboard or legal pad, while others prefer a minimum number of pages. Whatever workout rules you establish, stick to them. You create a lot of junk when following a schedule, but you also increase the odds of creating a masterpiece.
Professionals do not write a single great work and then sit around complaining about how they would find wealth.
“If only the right person would read it,” a typical faux-writer complains, “then it would set me free to really pursue writing.”
Having a masterpiece in hand, or on computer disk, might mean nothing. Remember that while your opinion of your work is important, it is just that — your opinion. Writing numerous works (in several genres) improves the chances of selling one of your works. Selling one work usually leads to the question, “What else do you have?” Are you prepared to stare blankly at the floor?