Friday, March 02, 2012

Beating Writer's Block

© 2012 by Tom King

Three basic factors cause writers to bog down in the writing process when trying to complete writing assignments - psychological, mechanical and process factors. Writers have different speeds and slow is not necessarily bad writing in the same way that fast writing is not necessarily good. Novelist Margaret Mitchell took ten years to write “Gone With the Wind”. Science, historical and science fiction author, Isaac Asimov, used to turn out a big thick book every month. If, however, you're a writer on a deadline, your speed can be a critical factor in whether or not you work and enjoy regular meals.

All three factors that impede writing can be overcome with a little practice and self-discipline.

Psychological Factors

One of the biggest factors that slows down the writing process lives inside your own head. Writers write, so the writing teacher's maxim goes. If you hate writing, you shouldn't be a writer. That said, even folk who love writing sometimes encounter the dreaded writer's block. Everyone who writes for a living or for fun has probably sat down at a page and puzzled over that first sentence. Writing projects can be like bobsleds. It takes a push to get them going, but after that it's pretty much downhill.

Except when it's not.

Psychological blocks often spring, ironically, from our desire to write well. While an excellent goal for a writer, sometimes good writing just doesn't naturally spring from the topic at hand. At times like these, it's best to forget about quality and go for quantity. That's why they call them “first drafts”. You can always come back and clean it up. Often you'll find yourself coming back and pitching out the first paragraphs of a piece. Sometimes you just have to take a run at it and several paragraphs in, you find your angle or capture the voice of the piece. You can always edit later. It's having nothing to edit later that's the real problem.

An excellent way to train yourself to write whether you feel like it or not is to keep a journal or write a weblog. Give yourself a minimum number of words to write. Started out with a goal of 400 words per day. Force yourself to write those 400 words no matter how pathetic the writing. The point of the exercise is to teach you to get into the “flow” of writing.

Renowned psychologist, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi demonstrated the power of the single-minded immersion experience he called “flow”. Flow often happens as we take a run at an absorbing task like writing and gradually become immersed in doing the task. All sorts of endorphins light up the brain, ennabling it to better access information and utilize skills the person already possesses. It's why, even though you don't feel like writing, you should just go ahead and write anyway. The physical process of writing can actually help you achieve the flow experience with your writing.

Mechanical Factors:

  1. The Keyboard: Bad typing skills impair more journalists than one can imagine. If your typing skills stink, buy yourself a Mavis Beacon Typing Tutor program and hone your touch typing skills. Forcing yourself to type correctly will speed up your typing speed in spite of yourself. If you are really bad at typing or don't know how and are learning, you might try the Dvorak keyboard. The original QWERTY keyboard was designed to slow down typists and prevent key jams on the mechanical typewriters of the day. John Dvorak developed a new key arrangement that places the most used letters under the typist's dominant fingers. If you're just starting out, the Dvorak keyboard can give you a higher top speed than the old QWERTY and a good deal more comfort as you type. Dvorak computer keyboards are inexpensive to buy and standard keyboards can be converted to the Dvorak system. It takes about a month of practice for a QWERTY typist to regain his/her speed on the Dvorak, so plan on learning during a vacation. Otherwise, just work on your QWERTYskills.
  2. The Computer: As computer operating systems become more bulky and new software adds to the burden placed on your computer's RAM memory, you can find yourself getting ahead of your word-processor. Consider a memory or motherboard upgrade to speed up your computer so it can handle the ever-increasing demands todays software places on your rapidly aging hardware.
  3. Paper and Pen: Some writers, believe it or not, still write first drafts in long hand with pen and paper. Prolific writers like J.K. Rowling and Stephen King write their first drafts in longhand. If you're stuck, try writing your first draft with a pen on paper. The mental exercise is different from typing. A study cited by Newsweek claims that handwriting engages more sections of the brain than mere typing. Whichever way works best for you, it's often helpful, if you're stuck, to switch writing methods for a bit to stimulate those creative juices. Always keep a yellow writing pad and a comfortable pen handy for times when you get bogged down.
Process Factors

What to write? Even if you're assigned a topic, the research part of the process can bog you down. Here's are some writers tricks to speed up the process.

  1. Find a good quiet place to write with few distractions. Everybody wants to write by a second story window with a view of the woods, the lake and the gardens, but few are able to cope with the distractions going on just outside. Don't make yourself so comfortable you have to fight sleep in order to write. When you reach a good stopping place – STOP. Get up, stretch, take a break. You will go back to writing with renewed vigor.
  2. Narrow the topic of your writing. Keep the subject matter within the scope of your assignment. Don't take on a broader topic than you can fit into the space or you'll bog down trying to edit.
  3. Copy down your references as you go. Mark and clip information you plan to use for your article in a word-processor document or on yellow legal pad.
  4. Outline your article and plug in the bits of research information. Write by sections, Let the first draft sit overnight if you can. This lets you come at the material with fresh eyes the next day. Edit the draft. Even with fiction, create a story guide that summarizes the five essential elements of story-telling – characters, the setting, the plot, the conflict, and the resolution. Even novelists who say they don't work from an outline.
  5. Run the second draft past someone whose proofreading skills you trust. Then, do a final once-over before sending it off.

If you do a lot of writing, take notes on how you write, when you are writing well and quickly. Try to reproduce the conditions in your workspace when you are working best. Everyone is different. Pay attention to what works for you. Create cheat-sheets and outlines of the types of writing you do so that all you have to do is write the sections of the template. Even with fiction writing, you may want to create a story outline to work from that covers the basic elements of the story at minimum – characters, setting, plot, conflict and resolution. The trick when you're bogged down or stuck is to jump start your writing, even if what you write is only an outline, a journal entry or blog or a really bad version of what you wanted to write.

Get your soap box rolling with a nice firm push.


Mark Foster: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

M.W. Brooks: Introducing the Dvorak Keyboard

The Bane of Your Resistance: Hands-On Solutions for Writer's Block

Working Writers: Nine Ways to Speed Up Your Writing

Five Essential Elements of a Short Story

Creative Writing Now: Easy Novel Outline

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