You have a report that must be completed by Friday. It’s only five or six pages, so it shouldn’t be that big of a deal. Over the last few days, you’ve worked on it a couple times, but you never get far. Each time you begin to write, the ideas tangle into a mess of complication. You don’t know where to begin.
Everyone who writes experiences writer’s block at some time. A former colleague and fellow writer liked to call it writer’s cramp, and he wasn’t talking about muscles. He was talking about the stomach and the nausea that can be part of the struggle to write.
Reasons for the struggle
In most cases, the struggle to write has little to do with words. It’s not a vocabulary or sentence construction issue. The problem is with your thinking, and as the name implies, your thoughts have become blocked.
Here are some of the most common reasons for writer’s block:
- You’re anxious about an approaching deadline.
- There are too many distractions in your work environment.
- You’re not clear about the purpose of what you’re writing.
- The task seems too large and you feel overwhelmed.
You’re revising when you should be writing.
How to fix the problem
Peter Elbow wrote a great book with lots of practical suggestions on the writing process called Writing With Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process. The title is apt since his ideas do make you powerful. The six-step process I’m about to give you is based partly on the ideas in his book.
Step 1: Schedule your time
It’s no accident that writer’s block strikes the hardest when a deadline looms. The first thing you need to do is reassure yourself that you will complete the task. Any schedule is better than none. A plan will help you calm down. Give yourself half of the available time for writing a first draft and the other half of the available time for revising. Don’t allow yourself to deviate from this schedule.
Step 2: Remove distractions
Close your office door or put on ear phones to cut down on outside noise. Writing is thinking and thinking demands focus. It also helps to set aside a block of time in advance on your calendar. If it’s important enough to write, it’s important enough to include in your schedule.
Step 3: Focus on the purpose
Make sure you understand why you are writing. Who needs the information? What do they already know? What do they need to know? If you’re not sure, pick up the phone and ask. People will respect you for it. Your willingness to explore this basic topic proves that you care about helping them.
Step 4: Lets your thoughts flow
Turn away from your computer screen, and pick up a pad of paper and a pen. Start writing down your thoughts in point form. If you’re being hypercritical of yourself, write faster. Start with what is most familiar and go on from there. Don’t stop until all of the ideas are written down.
Step 5: Structure your ideas
Now that your ideas are on paper, put a star beside the main points you need to cover. Cross out information that does not support the main points. Organize the other thoughts that you jotted down around the main points. There you have it—the structure of your content.
A lot of the frustration expressed as writer’s block comes from a sense that the task is too large. Once you figure out what is important and begin to structure the content around the main points, the task shrinks to a manageable size.
This is a radical shift for many of us. We’ve been taught to believe we should know the main points before we write anything down. This limiting belief can prevent you from enjoying one of the greatest benefits of the writing process—it can help you discover your best ideas. Writing, especially low-pressure writing on a notepad, frees the thinking process.
**This blog is about writing a five-page report. If you were writing something longer, or something that needs to capture the collective intelligence of the place where you work, you would need to collaborate with colleagues on a document plan.
Step 6: Write a rough draft
Now, start writing a rough draft based on your notes. Work quickly. Don’t allow yourself to fuss over how pretty your sentences are. Your goal is to capture all of the information that needs to be included. The draft will be rough and that is not a problem.
If you’ve stuck to your schedule and saved half of the available time for revising, you can fix the sentences later. That is what revision is for and that is when revision works best. We can’t revise effectively until all of the ideas have been captured.
Also, this is important. If you remember nothing else, remember this! Revising as thoughts are forming is a major cause of writer’s block.
In my next blog, I’ll give you tips on how to revise. Until then, I wish you happy writing. Try out this process if you don’t already use it. Let me know how it goes.
© Debbie Bateman 2019. Image purchased from Adobe Stock.