Many have seen careers vanish for it, others missed deadlines, while still more simply gave up on their works for not being able to slay the beast. Yet, is it truly a beast? A mysterious monster that lurks in the recesses of the mind of every writer, waiting to spring upon them at their most unprepared?
Let’s start with the definition of writer’s block first, then see where that leads. According to Merriam-Webster it is a medical condition defined as “a psychological inhibition preventing a writer from proceeding with a piece of writing” and as the noun ” the problem of not being able to think of something to write about or not being able to finish writing a story, poem, etc.”
Being a psychological condition, that in itself removes the potential of catching it from other writers. Looks like no bad writer’s block season around the corner, unlike the flu. Yet, there have been cases of entire classes struck down with it. How is that possible?
Professional novelists find themselves half-way through their latest masterpiece, only to find they haven’t got the words to finish it. Hobby writers, poets and other artistic writers have been struck down by the malady as well. The odd thing is, journalists have the fewest known cases of this nightmare of a condition. If’ it’s not contagious then why are certain types of writers affected most often, while others rarely suffer?
Now, let’s look at the actual condition that writer’s block creates. The “preventing of a writer from proceeding with a piece of writing”, which appears to be pretty clear. Yet, if we actually look at the complaints by those that have dealt with it the actual symptoms are rather plentiful and diverse. These can range from not being able to come up with the right word, all the way through to not being able to start or finish a story, and everything in between.
Now, I am going to happily burst your bubble. No one has ever had writer’s block. There is no such beast. You’re more likely to find that the Yeti, married to Martha Stewart, have moved in next door, while their pet Loch Ness Monster in the lounges in their pool out back. Since there is no such beast, there is no need to slay it!
Now, before you start writing hate mail, telling me how you have suffered with it, read the facts. Writer’s Block is not a condition. It is a catchall for all writer’s conditions and situations. Just like people saying they have a cold, when they might actually have the flu, sinus infection, allergies, or something else. It has become the fallback for every reason a writer isn’t, or believes they can’t write.
With that stated, how do you overcome something like that now doesn’t even have a name attached to it? Well, that’s more than likely the reason your reading this article and that is what I’m going to do my best to help you with.
What makes me an expert? Let’s start with the fact that I’ve never had writer’s block. I have however overcome a lot of challenges as a professional ghostwriter, a journalist, a screenwriter, a copywriter, and pretty much every other type of writing you’re ever heard of. Why, because I’m simply a writer. Things need to be written and I get paid well to write them. Which means I’m not allowed to come up with excuses, or miss deadlines. Yet, I’ve still had situations where I found myself in a bind and not able to write what was needed, but prevailed for the fact that I was able to work through the situation and properly identify the actual condition in each case. And that is the first step… Proper identification of the condition.
Just like how a good doctor approaches a disease, since writer’s block is the catchall for every condition every non-writing writer suffers from, the first step to overcoming your particular and unique situation is the identification of the actual symptoms.
I never said you weren’t dealing with something that wasn’t letting you get the words out. I simply stated that writer’s block didn’t exist. Sounds like a contradiction, huh? Keep reading.
As I mentor writers of all levels, from Best Selling authors, to award winners, and even those starting out, I don’t teach them how to write with a certain style. I teach them how to work through the process, create marketable work, and in turn make a living in this industry. As I always say, I’m a writer, not an editor. I leave the editing up to those that love editing. My job is to get the words down and to teach others how to do it as well.
Part of working through the process, often the biggest step, is also where most people find themselves “blocked”. That is right at the beginning of the process. Outlining! And the number one reason that I see time and time again writers getting stimied is caused by poor outlining, or more often than not, none at all!
Too many writers, especially those that have “winged it” with their first book, find this to be the case. That would be when they sit down and hammer out their first book and then when it comes to their second they’re creative juices come to a screeching halt.
You’re probably saying to yourself, maybe they only had one book in them. I highly doubt it. If you’re a writer. You are a writer! It doesn’t simply run out. It’s pretty much the same as riding the H-train. Get a taste and you want more. More is then never enough.
Let’s get back to that writer that “winged” book, which could just as easily have been a short story, screenplay, poem, etc. How did they sit down and write the first, yet not be able to tap into that same source and hammer out another just as easily? This is actually an easy one to answer. They didn’t simply sit down and hammer out that book. Yes, they might have written it straight through, but they sure didn’t do the process that quick.
Yes, the process and it almost always comes back to the process. What they might have forgotten to mention, though many throw it out there when you talk to them, is that they’ve had that story in them for a long time. In them for a long time? Translation: They’ve been outlining the story for weeks, months, years, since they were a wee toddler playing on the Hill of Tara. The point is that they didn’t formally outline the story, but they more than likely worked out the entire story in their head and then finally vomited it onto the page. Often times these works are either their best, or worst. Few are in the middle. This is due to the time they spent thinking on it. Some think out every detail. Others simply have some good scenes, or passages, and throw down a volume of words with the hopes that people won’t see the lack of proper outlining and story structure.
When I talk structure, I’m not referring to this on this page and that on that page. It is a case of, are the characters developed, do they follow their natural arc, or is it forced. Would Jane really pull that gun out and shoot Jim if she wasn’t threatened by him, or would she just hold him at bay with it? Often writers force the storyline, sometimes it’s simply because they haven’t got any idea where to go with the story. Lack of proper outlining. The other reasons I might cover in another article.
It is the lack of a proper outline that most writers find they don’t have a story to tell. That is closer to accurate when talking about writer’s block. The writer doesn’t have a story to tell. Why’s this? Simple. They’ve spent no time brainstorming ideas, working out the story arc, the backside of the characters, and the list of pieces they haven’t bothered to take care of goes on and on and on and on.
Outlining is also the reason most professional writers don’t suffer from a lack of something to write. And you may have heard about Stephen King claiming “writer’s block”. If you actually read the circumstances, it is actually closer to the well simply needing to be refilled, or his brain needing a rest. According to him, he comes up with several ideas walking to the mailbox. So his version of “writer’s block” was a few hours when he couldn’t think of anything to write about.
The actuality of it is simple. His brain needing a break, or refilling is stated in jest. Though I’m not Stephen King, I’ve dealt with the same situation and spent some time analyzing what was going on. I’m a very proliferant writer. Hundreds of screenplays written and outlined, 30 sold in the last 5 years, dozens ghostwritten before that, ghostwriter books/columns/speeches/etc. for politicians and business owners/executives, thousands of news articles as a journalist, copywriter and blogger for a long list of other people, and the list goes on. One day I was asked to write a series of columns for a well-known politician, based on certain topics. I sat down in front of my computer (pen & paper at the time) ready to go to town, only to realize I was blank. Completely blank. Not an idea in my head.
Sitting back, I started to look inside my head. Yep, popped it off, got out the toolkit and pulled out the drive and started running a diagnostics. It was during this process of studying my , that I realized what my brain was actually doing. It was running through my catalog of articles. Something had flagged and it was now looking for the reason.
So, going to my archives… Yes, actual archives in big metal file cabinets where I use to keep all of my old writings. Big metal file cabinets in my office, when paper was not simply popular, but required. Sure enough, after some random (or so I originally thought) digging around in them, I came up with the block. It wasn’t that I couldn’t think of anything to write, it was a case of I’d already written a series of articles, for the same person, a few years prior, with several of the same topics they now wanted.
After a quick phone call to let them know about the situation, they thanked me, swapped those with the same topic (minus a few they wanted refreshed) for other topics of interest. The moment I clarified the details of the situation, by getting the refresh and new articles order, I was able to happily hammer away at the new outlines and quickly finished the articles.
Originality is a condition that your brain will often bulk at. Be it for not being original, or in the case of some writers that are required to repeat content in unique and different ways, Harlequin Romances is a good example of this, for being originals, these writers might be facing the condition of the originality quandary. The solution is keep track of all your work in a basic spreadsheet, with an overview of what it was about. I’m using Google Sheets for this. Then put a copy of it in a file. I’m using Google Docs to keep a copy of all text as a backup, including this article. Instead of those big metal file cabinets, I’m now using Google Drive to backup everything to all my computers, phone, tablet, etc. This is for the original files in whatever program I’m using, be it Word, Final Draft, or one of the others. This way I never lose anything, nor wonder if I’ve written it before.
A simple spreadsheet format includes the date, title, location it’s being published, type of project, along with a few sentence synopsis of the content. This will allow you to quickly scan through the list and find out if it fits the bill, or if you have already covered that topic. It can also help you find a piece that you simply need to do a rewrite on. Recycling content and refreshing it is a major time saver and allows you to make more for less time involved.
Remember my mentioning that journalists are the least likely to suffer from one of the conditions? Those that do are usually starting out and are buckling under the deadline pressure. This is usually due to their brains going into panic mode, rather than the seasoned professionals experience of going back to the basics. That brings me to the amatueur versus professional writer.
An amatuer, such as a hobby writer, or someone simply starting out, doesn’t have the skillset to overcome the writing industry challenges, due to the lack of experience and mentoring. This is one reason those that truly want to become writers seek me out for guidance through my mentoring program. I don’t teach them a writing style. That is something I’ll help them find along the way and it will be their unique voice, not one given to them. I teach them how to write faster, more effectively, and how to overcome the challenges that a professional writer faces.
The most often found issue that I address with both new and seasoned writers is going back to the basics when they are facing a challenge. Is their outline solid? Did they take any shortcuts? Did they actually follow it when they laid out their draft? What did they add that wasn’t in the outline? How does that change the story?
It is often asking yourself questions like these that brings the cause to light, rather than merely the symptom. It is by going back to the basics of writing, starting with proper brainstorming and outlining, that will overcome any writing situation, except one.
That final situation is one no one can help you with. It is one you will have to face on your own in the end. You can get opinions, thoughts, suggestions, but it will be you that has to make the final choice and it all comes down to three questions that you have to ask yourself and look within to answer. In closing, I wish you the best on your journey, no matter where it takes you and I’ll leave you with those three questions to ponder.
Do you really want to be a professional writer? Do you want to be a hobby writer? Or do you simply not want to write at all?
For those that truly want to become professional writers, ingraining the basics into your writing habits and always relying on them will allow you to never face the beast they call “Writer’s Block”!