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Every writer, at times, has trouble thinking of what to say next. Or what to say at all. The cause may be fear, pressure, perfectionism, but often lack of inspiration. No doubt even Mesopotamian scribes of five thousand years ago hesitated before putting stylus to tablet. We’ve written about writer’s block several times over the years, and here are seven practical suggestions to ease the symptoms of writer’s block.
1. Give yourself something to edit
Seeing all my mistakes motivates me to change them. So why not leave your rough drafts rough? Don’t proofread as you write. Leave out words (I, you, he, she, they, a and the) – that may help you write faster. Abbreviate freely. Later, fixing these little things gets me into an mood for work, and I end up fixing the big things too. Correct spelling, neat handwriting or accurate spellchecking is only necessary to make sure you can later recognize what you wrote. Getting close may be okay. I’ve typed usable prose in the dark. When I’ve seen rough drafts of famous literature, I marvel at how rough they were.
2. Get a running start
As you work on your book, to make it easier to get started again, reread or even retype what you wrote last time. With my first novel, I allowed myself some light editing of what I had already written, before charging into the new day’s writing. That may not work for everyone. Many writers prime the pump by doing free writing – putting down anything that comes into their heads. You could start by copying out a paragraph from an author you admire. Or type a common proverb over and over, such as “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” On second thought, don’t do that.
3. Choose your stopping points
Stop when you know what you will say next, not when you don’t. That is, don’t finish your scene before stopping for the night; leave it ready to finish the next day. Yes, this seems counter-intuitive, stopping the flow of words to keep the words from stopping. But this way you can choose your own stopping point instead of letting circumstances (or bedtime) choose one for you. You’re stopping at a point from which it’s easy to start again. For example, if you’re Jane Austen writing Pride and Prejudice, as soon as your heroine finds out who broke her sister’s heart (because the man tells her it was him), that’s a good place to call it a night. In tomorrow’s writing session, Miss Bennet will tell Mr. Darcy exactly what she thinks of him, and writing the rest of that scene will be a breeze.
4. Write super-slow
Writing slowly is the normal way to write, so if you get used to it, you won’t stress about it. Everybody thinks faster than they can verbalize. A professional speaker might give a memorized speech at 9,000 words an hour, but a professional writer can’t memorize anything because they haven’t written it yet. They might write 1,000 words an hour, less than one word in three seconds. Even dictating one word a second sounds embarrassingly slow to someone who isn’t used to it. Great writers get used to it. Imagine Charles Dickens as he begins writing A Tale of Two Cities sometime between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. one day:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.. (long pause) it was the age of (pause) something (pause) wisdom, it was the age of (pause) something something (long pause) foolishness…
It sounds a lot better without the pauses, but I don’t think Dickens could have written without any. Dickens was sharp, but not superhuman. He was a phenomenally successful public speaker, but he spoke smoothly only because he carefully prepared his speeches. With a pen. He couldn’t write his first draft as smoothly. Even a skilled public speaker doesn’t speak without pauses, so why should a writer feel ashamed of pauses?
5. Write super-fast
On the other hand, you might try to write at the speed of your thought. Writing fast lets unexpected thoughts slip in. You will lose fewer of those good thoughts that flee away before you can write them down. When the thoughts come more slowly, that is less of a problem. When the thoughts come more quickly, you may find your fingers can’t keep up with them.
Above all, if you find your train of thought derailed by your internal editor, don’t let it win. Simply refuse to edit until you’ve finished writing. One helpful technique: never hit the backspace key more than once. Tell your internal editor that at this point, if you want editing or proofreading, one backspace is all you get. Another helpful technique: never hit the backspace key at all.
6. Mix it up
Changing around the elements of your story, making them fresh, will often spark inspiration. We wrote about one way to do that – the SCAMPER method, which stand for Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Magnify, Put to Other Uses, Eliminate, and Reverse – but there are many others. Changing up your approach to your writing will benefit more than yourself. Readability experts such as Rudolph Flesch have discovered that readability goes up any time a writer uses an unexpected word, such as “chicken” in an astronomy article, or “cucumber” in a web design article, or any time a writer uses quotation marks anywhere.
7. Recharge your batteries
One way to break your writer’s block is to change your routine. Research shows that you can increase your creativity simply by using your less-dominant hand occasionally. So spend some time away from writing. Spend time reading. Read something outside your field. Work outside your field (or work in a field, if you never have). Pray or meditate. Visit another part of the world. Chop wood. Talk to a a child. You’re a writer, yes, but you’re not only a writer. Becoming a fuller human being will make you a fuller writer, and writers block may become less of a problem.
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