Aside from grand dreams of writing a bestselling novel, my only real plan as I went through school and university was to avoid ending up being a teacher and to somehow make a living writing. I’ve been fortunate enough that apart from a brief spell as a bad telemarketer and a decidedly unmysterious mystery shopper, writing has been how I’ve made money to live. There’s a lot to recommend writing as a career, but it does mean that you sign up to be stalked – and eventually caught – by writer’s block.
I think it probably hits everyone differently; for me, it’s less the traditional big, black depressive weight and more a feeling of flimsiness and incredible lightness: when I’ve got it, I can’t focus or hold on to any thought and I’m incredibly easily distracted. But deadlines being what they are – albeit slightly less lethal than the Civil War originals – there are times when you just need to get on with it. So here are the methods I use when I need to crank out some words:
The first one to try is to start at a different point. One of the main disadvantages of how most people write now – using a word processor – is that it presents an unwritten piece of writing as a series of sequential blank lines that should be filled. It’s just not as easy to skip around in a Word doc as it is on a piece of paper, and I think this has contributed to people losing sight of the fact that only when a piece of writing is finished is it even remotely linear (and even then, if you’re B.S. Johnson, writer of the ‘book-in-the-box‘ that’s not true). So until you’re done, you can, as a writer go anywhere, and you should. If you can’t think of a good intro, but know what you want to say about a certain point, go there. Start where you’re most enthusiastic. You may even find that where you want to start should actually be the start, and that your fixed, linear plan – the one that made no sense to your writing brain, and gummed it up in the first place – needed fixing all along.
Secondly, if you’re convinced what your writing is just minging – that somehow, your prose is just having an ugly day – try doing the spade work instead. If you have any hand-written notes from the planing stage, or quotes you’ve underlined in books that you want
to use, when you’ve got writer’s block, it’s a good time to type them
into the word processor – it’s simple, useful work, and often, as you simply get into the typing, that your own writing will want to get going, too.
Because I like to believe the act of writing is more dramatic than it looks, this third technique sounds like a move from Streetfighter 2: unleash super stream fury. Written English is full of rules: spelling, grammar, good manners (such as not beginning a sentence with the word ‘ because’). If your inspiration is fragile, if you’re chasing a delicate meaning then these structures can easily halt your progress. So sometimes you need to just type. Don’t go near the comma or full stop buttons, don’t use the enter button, don’t think about tense or grammar: JUST TYPE. Don’t even look at the screen. Don’t be afraid to leave sentences hanging, or to repeat something in slightly different form. Just go for it, and fix it when you come back on the 2nd draft.
My fourth tip is similar to the first point: if you can’t write something, try inverting it. So if you’re writing a part of the piece that takes an overview of the situation, go for a closer look instead. Switch from the globe to the microscope, or vice versa. Although it’s a radical change, as it’s related to what you’re trying to write (i.e., it is its opposite), it will often work, and even if it doesn’t, it may help you figure out what it is you’re trying to say.
And finally, get out more. It doesn’t matter if you spend five, six, seven hours at the computer trying to write something and yet all you’ve managed to turn out is a few muddled lines. Quality, not quantity. A walk is a great way to clear the head, plus, if you’ve been huddled over a glowing screen for the last few hours, the flood of new images, sounds and smells from the outside world should act like a nitro boost to your cortex. It’s also a good opportunity to buy some milk/the paper/food for dinner, so even if you don’t get any ideas for writing, you can still tick a few errands off the list :)