Writer’s block? Smish it to smithereens

Jo Marshall | January 13, 2021 | Copywriting |  Higher education |  Writing Tips | 

Do you ever sit down to write something and the words just don’t wanna come?

You write a few words.
Write another sentence.
Delete again.
Have another go.
Nah, still not happy with it.
Delete, delete, delete.

And then on other days:

The words just seem to fall out of your head onto the page, in a near-perfectly-formed state.
You get loads done.
Rattle off drafts.
Nail that succinctly-worded email in the time it takes for the kettle to boil for your 11am cup o’ Tetleys.

Yep, me too.

In fact, most pro writers will tell you the same thing.

Some days the writing process seems to come oh-so easily.

And yet on others, it’s like you’ve almost forgotten how to write altogether.

American playright and author Tony Kushner put it well when he said:

“I find writing very difficult. It’s hard and it hurts sometimes, and it’s scary because of the fear of failure and the very unpleasant feeling that you may have reached the limit of your abilities.”

So if accomplished wordsmiths feel like that, no need to give yourself a hard time if the words aren’t flowing. Seems that every writer feels the struggle sometimes. Even the famous ones.

The question is, what to do about it?

If the words are a struggle.

Get your head down and soldier your way through it?

Or see it as a sign to take a different approach?

I’ve come to realise that difficult writing (for me, anyway) usually boils down to one of these three blocks:

1. Not enough information

2. Too much editing

3. Perfectionism

And if I can pinpoint which of this troublesome trio is holding me back, there are usually steps I can take to get past it.

Words not flowing? Give my three block-busters a go to see if they help you:

Writing block 1: Not enough information

Sounds blindingly obvious, but there’s very little point sitting down to write anything without enough information.

But sometimes – on rush projects in particular – you might feel the urge to jump on a task, and start getting words on the page sooner than you really should.

The problem being: if you haven’t thought enough about what you need to say, who you’re talking to or what you’re trying to achieve, you’re more likely to end up flailing around in a sea of uncertainty, unsure of what direction to go in, desperately trying to fill in the gaps.

If ‘not enough information’ is your block:

Step away from your keyboard and tell yourself you’re not ready to write yet. There’s still some more thinking to do.

‘More thinking’ usually boils down to going away and doing some more research.

Or finding a subject expert and talking to them, to get the detail you need. 

As a bare minimum, you need to be sure you’ve got the basics nailed:

  • What’s the key thing you need to get across in your copy?
  • Who’s going to be reading it and what do they care about?
  • What are you trying to achieve?

Without the answer to these questions, it’s always going to be harder to write with confidence.

So go away, fill in any gaps. And there’s a good chance you’ll come back in a much better place to write.

Writing block 2: Too much editing

As Robert Graves famously put it, “There’s no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting”. Or to put it another way: Your first draft is likely to be s**t. And that’s ok.

Writing and editing are two separate tasks, so it’s strongly advisable to treat them as such. Edit too much while you’re writing, and you’ll slow yourself down and make the writing process much more tortuous.

If ‘too much editing’ is your block:

Do what professional writers do: get clear on your process and what works for you. And then stick to it.

Usually that means:

  • Writing your first draft (getting down what you want to say, without worrying too much about the language)
  • Having a break (so your subconscious can mull it over), and
  • Coming back to it later (to edit, tighten up and polish).

You’ll write much faster this way. And you should quickly spot things you need to change when you come back to your copy again with fresh eyes.

Writing block 3: Perfectionism

The third block, and a biggie for writers-of-all-kinds to overcome – myself included – is never being entirely satisfied with your draft.

If perfectionism’s the problem, you’re likely to end up tinkering with a piece of copy for far too long, changing words and sentence order, and changing them back again. And spending a disproportionate amount of time writing something, when really the difference you’ve made is going to be negligible to anyone but you.

As one of my first writing mentors wisely said to me over 20 years ago: “If your draft is 95% there, there’s very little point spending hours getting it up to 96 or 97% as no one’s going to notice. And your 95% is likely to be more than good enough anyway!”

If ‘perfectionism’ is your block:

Again it’s about process, and being strict with yourself (write first, edit later). But at some point you also need to let go, and trust that what you’ve written is good enough.

If it reads well and answers the three basic questions above (on message, audience and objective), then more than likely it is.

So have faith and let your writing out into the world.

And if none of the above does the trick?

Tell yourself it’s not a writing day.

And do something different instead (watch a film, get out into nature, Zoom a friend – anything to re-set your mind and feed your soul).

A bit of time away from the keyboard could be just what you need to get back into more productive writing mode again tomorrow.