6 steps to demolish writer's block


As someone who makes her living as a writer, it's very tempting to trot out the excuse of "writer's block" whenever I don't feel like working. 

Today I started thinking: no other profession has a built-in escape clause. Nothing called "neurosurgeon's block." Or "accountant's block." Or "electrician's block."

But surely those people have days where they'd rather scour the internet for hours for the perfect shade of white to paint their kitchen cabinets (hint: it's Benjamin Moore China White) than go into work and mess around with someone's frontal lobe or their knob-and-tube wiring. Is it that they don't have a title for their malaise? Or is the work of a writer so special, so very hard, that it demands a form of sanctioned relief.


But that doesn't stop us writers from whining. From going down rabbit holes on Google. From filling up our Amazon cart. From wandering into the kitchen to wash the morning's oatmeal bowl. 

Seth Godin: the only man alive today who's never had writer's block.

Seth Godin: the only man alive today who's never had writer's block.

So let's call a spade a spade: writer's block is just a fancy term for garden-variety procrastination. I am guilty. Oh so guilty. At some point, though, I'm staring at a dangerously close deadline and I have no other option than to GET IT DONE.

Sometimes this is a good thing. Miraculous things can happen when you've got your back to the wall and minutes to spare. Musicians talk a lot about how the best songs get written in minutes or come about while they were doing something other than staring at the keys of the piano. Paul McCartney woke up hearing the entire melody of "Yesterday." The Beastie Boys wrote "(You gotta) Fight for your Right (to party)" in 5 minutes on a napkin. David Bowie heard the tune of "Life on Mars" in his head while buying shoes one day and then came back home and wrote the whole song that afternoon.

But usually, the best writing isn't the first writing. At least not in my case. It's taking what comes out at first and revising and honing (and getting input from others) until it goes from serviceable to sparkling. 

So what to do when you feel tempted to give into writer's block and take a nap? Here are a few ideas.

1. It's okay! Go ahead, take a nap.

Research shows that short naps do enhance creativity. Even Arianna Huffington is on board. Just keep it in the 15-20 minute range.

2. Get the first sentence or paragraph written

I find that often a lot of my block comes from the fact that I was trained as a journalist, which means I still think of beginnings as ledes. That is: the first thing that gets read has to contain at least the basics of everything that happens after, so that someone can read just the first paragraph of a story and move on if need be. Even though I don't do journalism anymore, I am still telling stories. And if you're telling the story of a product or a company or whatever, you still need to make sure you're setting the story in motion correctly. So if I can get that first sentence or paragraph down, the one that has the big picture nailed—what's the problem and what's the fabulous solution I'm getting ready to unveil for the reader—I find that writer's block disintegrates, and it's actually hard to stop the train of writing that comes after that (which feels magical every time it happens; it's these moments I live for).

Note: this is a hard step. To nail that first sentence or paragraph you really do need to have given some serious thinking/research time to the project at hand. But the benefits are so worth the effort. 

3. If the beginning isn't happening for you, pick something in the middle

If you're too paralyzed to get that first sentence down, take the pressure off and start in the middle of what you're working on. The middle must be strong, sure, but it's not carrying the weight of those first words that need to grab hold of the reader by the lapels. Just take a section (a product detail, for example) and get it down and move on to the next and the next. This will give you both momentum and hope.

4. Do not go looking for similar work samples just to "get you started"

Inevitably, looking at work that's about the same thing you need to write about ends up influencing your own writing way more than you think it will, without you even knowing it. I know that all great artists steal, but when you're trying to nail a headline about, say, how good an artisanal potato chip tastes, you don't go trolling around the Frito-Lay site. If you do need something to jumpstart you, try snooping in other territories to see if something peripherally related to potato chips might spark an idea: urban farming, kid's favorite songs, etc.

5. Don't beat yourself up.

The worst thing you can do when procrastination/writer's block hits is beat yourself up about it. Seriously, you're just digging that big hole of shame deeper. Accept that procrastination happens to all of us (except, as noted above, Mr. Godin), give yourself a pat on the back, and move on.

6. Just write something. Any little thing.

One of my favorite sayings is "Action absorbs anxiety." (I've had it on a Stickie on my computer for about 14 years). If you can get even one little part of your writing task done and checked off, it will help you stop obsessing and get back in the groove.

If any of these tips helps you demolish writer's block, I'd love to hear about it!