In my experience, there are two kinds of writer’s block: There’s existential writer’s block, where you question everything — “Who am I to ever think I could write?” “What’s the point in trying to write because discourse is dead?” “What’s the point of existence at all?” — that kind of thing. And then there’s more common, everyday writer’s block: fear of a blank page, procrastination, inability to write a first sentence, etc.
Even professional writers are subject to that deep, overwhelming dread thing, and I don’t have any “quick tips” for banishing it (although that would be nice). But I do have a few weapons that can help get rid the writing jitters — that blank page anxiety that keeps us from even getting started.
Despite the name, it’s not just writers who get writer’s block — plenty of people get it when they have to write a speech or a blog or even something short like a website bio. It’s why a lot of people hate writing in the first place. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Here are a few of the strategies I have for getting through the fear of the blank page, and they work for writers and non-writers alike:
Write a Fake First Paragraph
Almost any writer will tell you that it’s easy to get psyched out by the blank page. I think a blank computer screen is even worse, because there’s that evil cursor blinking at you, pushing you to get started. “Shut up, cursor! Quit mocking me!” I know it sounds silly (although probably no sillier than yelling at a cursor), but having just a few sentences of text on the page already can help me get past this problem — even if it’s not real text. Just write something silly about how you’re procrastinating and you don’t feel like writing. You can even write a hate note to the dumb cursor if you want. Then start a new paragraph and get to work writing the real stuff; it’ll probably come a little more easily when you’re not looking at a totally blank page.
Write a Shitty First Draft
This is not original advice (I think I’m stealing the wording from Bird by Bird), but it’s important. No matter what you’re writing, it’s a good idea to edit. (You’ll edit out that fake first paragraph, for example.) Almost any great writer you admire probably edits like crazy, so don’t feel like you’re less of a writer if you have to go back over what you write — you’re more of a writer if you edit, not less. The good news is, I find rewrites way easier than writing the first draft — and if you’re the kind of person who struggles with writer’s block, you probably will, too. There’s no blank page to contend with, for one thing. And once your raw ideas are out on the page, it’s a lot easier to shape them into well-constructed sentences than trying to do both at the same time.
Sometimes writing a shitty first draft works because it takes the pressure off — after all, “write something bad” isn’t that tough of an assignment. Sometimes it’s just a matter of silencing your inner editor — you know, that voice that’s constantly criticizing you and telling you the last sentence needs to be better before you write the next one (I believe I stole that wording from No Plot No Problem, by the way). The shitty first draft allows you to silence that little bastard and get on with your writing.
The weird thing is, once I give myself the freedom to write badly, the writing actually gets a lot better. And when I’m in the editing stage, the problems that seemed so impossible in my first draft generally have really obvious solutions.
Write in Your Email Platform
Most of us don’t use word processing platforms (like Microsoft Word or Google Docs) that much anymore unless we’re writing something fairly important. So when we open one of these platforms, it’s easy to get psyched out. But almost all of us write emails on a regular basis, so having the email client open doesn’t fill us with dread (hopefully). Try writing your first draft as an email first; when you’re done, copy and paste it into Microsoft Word (or whatever) to do your editing.
Write by Hand
I don’t use this technique that often because it’s so time consuming, but when I’m really stuck, hand writing a draft can work like magic. The tactile experience of writing with paper and pen is so different than typing on a computer that it can trick your brain out of its procrastination loop. The fact that hand writing takes so much time can also be a benefit — it’s easier to think through your sentences as you’re writing them, and slowing down the thought process can sometimes help the writing.
Of course, if you hand write your draft, you’ll have to transcribe it later, but even that can be helpful, because it’s yet another chance to review your work. One caveat: If you write by hand and you’re prone to losing stuff, you might want to snap a picture of your work with your phone so you’ll have a copy even if you lose the actual piece of paper.
Set a Time Limit
I don’t mean set a time limit for finishing — that will probably only freak you out more. I mean, set a time limit for how long you’ll bang your head against a wall before you give up and try again later. For me, 15 minutes is perfect. If I force myself to try to write for 15 minutes, I’m usually into the work enough at the end of that time that I can just keep going. And if I’m not there in 15 minutes, I know it’s just not the right time, and I give myself permission to go do something else and try again later.
Write Using a Voice Memo
If you can talk through an idea more easily than you can write it, give yourself permission to do that! Don’t worry about having a fancy voice recorder; your smartphone has a voice memo function, so you can just use that. Voice recording also means you can write in the car, which, besides being a nice way to multi-task, can also be a way of getting your brain thinking differently than you would sitting at a desk. (Being a safe driver takes priority, obviously, so learn to use the recording function before you start driving.)
If you use voice memo, you’ll have to transcribe what you’ve recorded, so try not to ramble. I’m sure there are apps that transcribe stuff for you, but I don’t write using voice recording enough to be able to recommend one; if you dictate your writing often, a little Google research will help you find an app to help expedite the process.
Outline before You Write
Sometimes the biggest cause of writer’s block is not knowing where you’re going. It’s the writing version of getting in the car and heading to an unknown place before opening Google Maps — you’ll probably end up wasting time. Your outline doesn’t have to be detailed; you can probably fit everything you need on a post-it note or a napkin. But taking a few minutes to sketch out what you want to communicate can help the ideas flow a lot more smoothly once you’re actually writing.
Stay away from the Internet
You’ll never check Facebook as often as you will when you’re trying to write — even if you don’t like Facebook. Even online researching that’s specifically related to what you’re writing can be problematic because it draws you away from the writing process. As much as possible, focus your writing time and don’t escape to the internet. If you need to research something, just write yourself a note to come back to it, and look it up later — after you’re written your shitty first draft.
Carrie Rollwagen is author of The Localist, a book about buying from locally owned stores. She’s Communications Director at Infomedia, a web development company in Birmingham, Alabama. Find her as @crollwagen on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and most other social media channels.