Academic Advice, Writing

Writers’ Block? Just Write.

Image credit: Drew Coffman, flickr
Image credit: Drew Coffman, flickr

“I realized that if I wasn’t writing, I could no longer call myself a writer.”

This quote came from an aspiring author who had recently suffered a long stretch of writers’ block (we’re talking months here). How did she cure this chronic ailment? Well… She wrote. Nothing good for a long while, according to her, but she wrote, and eventually regained her voice, as well her identity as a writer.

Writers’ block can strike out of nowhere. But what if this dreaded affliction is less of an actual condition and more of a mistaken view of the writing process? Here’s the issue: Most of us think we need to know what to write before we write it. But what if it’s the other way around? What if the very act of writing unlocks what we want to say? According to sociologist Kristin Luker,

“Someone once asked Balzac, who supported himself by writing reviews of plays, how he liked a play he had just seen. ‘How should I know?’ he is reported to have answered. ‘I haven’t written the review yet!'”

Writing can be like a water filter for thoughts. Throw in all the muck that’s in your head, and you come out with something clear and palatable. Your ideas are there, plain as day, you just couldn’t see them until you filtered them onto paper.

This is why (and please don’t tell my 6th grade English teacher) I don’t do “pre-writing” anymore – no outlines, no “mind maps,” or anything like that.

Nope. Not gonna do it.
Nope. Not gonna do it.

Don’t get me wrong, for some writers – especially students – structured pre-writing is helpful, but if staring at a blank paper or an empty outline doesn’t work for you, stop doing it. You may not know what you’re writing about yet, but that just might be a good thing.

Thriller writer Stephen King, who builds mysteries around complex narratives, says he does not outline his plots before writing a novel. In his book, On Writing, King states,

“I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible… The story which results from [plotting] is apt to feel artificial and labored.”

King says he prefers to leave the plot-building to his characters, putting them “in some sort of predicament and then watch[ing] them try to work themselves free.” I’ve found that the same can be done in non-fiction writing, even research. Instead of characters, you’re putting your thoughts, theories, and data into a variety of predicaments on paper, watching how they interact through the lens of your own experience. Cite a few authors and see – do they they “play nice” with your observations, or get into fistfights until one emerges victorious? Or perhaps, once you give them the bricks and mortar of your new data, they’ll build something new altogether.

Regardless, at some point, you just need to let them all out into the backyard of your word processer to see what happens. Through writing about them, you can watch them break free, trying to make sense of themselves and the world they occupy.

Two major disclaimers: 1) This process won’t work for everyone (particularly militant members of the mind mapping camp), but I’d suggest at least giving it a try. 2) This method of letting your words just flow and play will require substantial re-writes. You might still end up mapping and outlining your work later on, but the point is, that can come later. Tackle structure and organization after you have your thoughts (however messy) down on a page. You’ll at least have given yourself something to work with. Why do you think no one ever talks about “editors’ block?” It’s because once you’ve given yourself something concrete to work with, the process, however arduous, has at least gotten off of the ground.

In the end, as with so many things in life, Sean Connery said it better: Just as he quipped to his writing-blocked protege in Finding Forrester,

“The first key to writing… is to write. Not to think.”

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1 thought on “Writers’ Block? Just Write.”

  1. I just finished “Write your Dissertation in 15 minutes a day” (spoiler alert: title is a lie!), and she supports your method. I use it to get unstuck, or if I really don’t know what I’m doing (see: my methodology section), but I use outlines when I know the argument I want to make. I think one thing that we don’t teach when we teach writing though is that it’s okay if you change your outline as you write – it’s fine to change your mind, realize something knew, or even learn something as you write!

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