I’m writing this piece because I have writer’s block.
Well… I’m also teaching my kids how to write, so this has been crowding up my brain lately.
“My paper is due tomorrow!”
“I have a sermon to preach!”
“I don’t know how to give this presentation!”
“I haven’t posted for a week! What should I write about?!?!”
“My editor needs this draft tomorrow!”
At some point in life, whether you are a writer or not, you’re going to face that blinking cursor drumming, “Dead-line! Dead-line! Dead-line!”
IT’S… WRITER’S BLOCK. [Cue Beethoven’s 5th]
Lack of confidence, depression, distraction—they’ve all made writing an intensely difficult exercise for me this year. Here we are, halfway through March, and I’m still faithfully (and agonizingly) cranking out an article a week. It has been a challenging two and a half months. My spouse thinks it’s slightly humorous to watch me hammering away at the keyboard while saying aloud, “I just can’t figure out what to write.”
I’ll never forget that short essay on diction I wrote at the ripe young age of 15 for Mr. Ferguson’s AP English Language class. I remember thinking it was the worst essay I’d ever written. He asked us to write about all the various words used in this excerpt he’d given us and how it influenced the tone of the piece. I had no clue what to say, but I had to write something, so that’s exactly what I did. I made stuff up. My arguments felt like a rubber band, stretching to the point of absurdity. Either the band would snap in my face or crumble in my teachers hand. I gave it my best effort, employing my best vocabulary and grammar techniques, but I still felt like I had written a load of waffle.
I was rather dismayed the next day to find copies of my essay on every desk in the classroom with my name blacked out.
There they were, 35 black and white sheets of paper, in my easily recognizable handwriting, lying shamelessly on the desks of my peers. My stomach knotted painfully. I collapsed heavily in my seat and caught a glimpse of my original paper peeking out from under the copy. I cautiously lifted the copy to look at my little essay. A yellow sticky affixed to the page read, “this is one of the most erudite essays I’ve ever read by a student!!!”
I thought, as the English say, “He must be barking.”
I sat in a state of disbelief, as my friends stole covert glances my direction. They, of course, recognized my handwriting. My friend Dennis tapped me on the shoulder and said, “this is yours, isn’t it?” I nodded, still numb with shock. Once the bell rang, Mr. Ferguson asked everyone to read the paper in front of them, noting that this was exactly what we’d be required to do on an AP test and this example would merit high marks.
At that moment, I had an epiphany: A good writer can make even the dumbest subject sound good, no matter how far-fetched it seems. (This also means that we have to be good analysts of writing lest we be deceived by crafty wordsmiths!)
Lest you think I was some star student, He did this with other student’s essays when we analyzed the various aspects of English language… mine just happened to be the first in the series.
Even if you are NOT a writer, there will be times (especially as Christians) when we must be able to articulate our thoughts effectively. So let’s build some good habits and FIGHT THE BLOCK.
How do we become better writers/teachers/presenters?
Write something every day.
Use a physical book, type notes in a laptop, or tap it into your smart phone.
Just write already!
At present, I have 52 post drafts saved on WordPress, plenty of scribbles in my notebook, and still more “stuff” I need to cull from my old iPad. Thoughts come to me at the most random moments so I will frequently drop snippets into the “notes” app on my phone (beware of autocorrect… it’s funny). You don’t have to sit down and write an essay each day. Just write something. Copy quotes from famous people, write a bible verse that struck you in your daily reading, describe the expression on your child’s face when they caught you talking to yourself (wait, did I just type that?)…
There is always something to write about.
#2: Do something stimulating
If you’re staring at a blinking cursor and banging your head on the computer screen, it’s going to strain your eyes and give you a headache. Stop for 10-20 minutes and do one (or more) of the following:
- go for a walk
- do some yoga, stretching, or other physical activity
- color in one of those coloring books for grown ups.
- make a cup of tea/water/coffee
- wash your face
- listen to some jazz or classical
- Inhale some peppermint or rosemary essential oils. Peppermint is purported to both stimulate and focus the mind. Rosemary is supposed to aid in memory recall.
Now that you’re all freshened up, sit back down at your desk and just write already!
If you have a topic and don’t know where to begin, get a white board or unlined sheet of paper scribble out some of your ideas. Don’t worry about spelling or grammar, just spit it out. Put your topic in a circle in the middle and start making branches with points and related ideas.
‘Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.’
~ Louis L’Amour (author)
Turn on the faucet!
#4: Let it flow (Just write already!)
Most papers/articles/presentations have certain formatting rules. If you are paralyzed by those, don’t be. If you’re stuck with writer’s block and you’re on a deadline, just write without rules for the moment. Let the thoughts hit the paper the way they sound in your head until you’ve got a full page or more. Now, go back and edit it according the formatting rules. The concepts are on paper, they just need to be reworked for the constrains of your format.
Write first. Edit Second.
#5: Talk to somebody.
My spouse kindly puts up with my yammering about sundry ideas and articles… I’ve never gotten the impression of disinterest, but still, I’m sure there are other things we could be discussing…
Anyway, when I’m stuck on a subject, I find somebody to talk to. My mom and dad are great listeners and allow me to blather on about whatever I’m stuck on. Often, they have good insights or ask me to explain further. Sometimes, I’ll even bounce ideas off of my children. They are awesome helpers because I have to craft my explanation at their level. As Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.” Preach!
This is stimulus. It’s excellent for the stopped up brain.
What if there isn’t anyone available at the moment?
Maybe your roommate is asleep in your dorm room. Maybe your spouse is out cold. Maybe it’s the wee small hours of the morning and everyone you know in the world is sound asleep. Don’t wake them up or make phone calls—you like having friends, don’t you?
Find a place you can talk out loud and pretend you’re explaining that subject to an interested party over coffee. Talk about it, imagine their replies.
Yup, you probably think I’m nuts. I just told you to have imaginary dialogue.
Lucy Maud Montgomery—author of the beloved Anne of Green Gables—purportedly talked to herself quite often. She wasn’t crazy—she was playing out dialogues and hearing how they would sound if spoken.
Plenty of great authors talk to themselves. Presenters practice in front of a mirror. It’s ok to speak your ideas aloud alone to nobody in particular; it’s a good kind of crazy.
#6: Be a Reader
Most great writers are great readers.
You want stimulus? Read good books.
You want to ask the right questions? Be a reader asking questions.
Reading is not a passive activity. In reading you are asking yourself what the author’s next point will be, what new surprise lies around the page, or what a description looks like in your head.
If you want to be a good writer, be a good reader.
#7: Stop worrying so much about creativity
Have you ever read a book where the sentences feel contrived?
What I mean is, do you ever feel like an author’s whole purpose isn’t so much in telling a good story or conveying important ideas, but just to be famously quoted?
I won’t mention names…
To tell the truth, every author contrives their sentences, but there are some that seem to write only for quotability. They want to be twitterized and meme-o-rized and I don’t know what.
Don’t forget why you’re writing in the first place. If you are writing for your own glory you will likely be forgotten.
One of my favorite authors, C.S. Lewis, wrote this:
Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.
I have kept this in my mind while writing. I do engage in sentence crafting and I do go for the quote (on occasion), but that is NOT where I begin. I begin with the why. When I edit, I try to make music with the words. If they are quotable, great. If they are not quotable, but the message impacted someone (even if it’s just myself), then it was a good piece.
Remember your why.
I started blogging about the Bible and Christian issues for several reasons, one of which was to help me meditate on the Word. I work harder and explain with more clarity when I have to make the effort to help someone understand. It’s been awesome.
So, now that I’ve inspired you to change the world with your keyboard and pen, get out there and JUST WRITE ALREADY!