There is no such thing as (nonfiction) writer’s block

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My writer friends tell me they’re suffering from writer’s block. They’re not.

Oh, sure, they’re unable to write anything useful, but “writer’s block” conjures up an inability to write for unknowable reasons. In fact, I know exactly why they can’t write.

If you’re suffering from writer’s block, allow me to help diagnose your problem — and explain to you how to fix it. (This applies only to nonfiction. If you want to write fiction and are stuck, I can’t really help you.)

If you have nothing interesting to write about . . .

. . . then your problem is that you’re bored, not that you have writer’s block.

What have you learned that no one else knows about?

What have you seen in your everyday work that others need to hear about?

What take do you have on the world that’s different from what you’ve read?

Nothing? Really? If you have observed nothing worth writing about, then you aren’t a writer (yet). Start gathering experiences — observe and think. Check back in six months.

If you have a topic and don’t know what to say . . .

. . . then you need to gather information and learn more. Develop a thesis — the more extreme, the better — and gather data. Do a Web search. Find people to interview.

When you’ve assembled enough material, you’ll have something to say.

If you have something to say, but it doesn’t hang together . . .

. . . then you need a framework, a structure, a way to organize your concept.

So how do you get that?

Get in a room with a whiteboard and somebody smart that you trust and start doodling. Draw some pictures of your idea. Explain it.

Frameworks evolve, usually because of collaboration, communication, and feedback.

When you’ve created a framework, you really have something to write about.

If you know what you want to write, but can’t seem to figure out how to write it . . .

. . . recognize that writing from scratch is hard. And keeping a structure in your head, along with all the facts that support it, is beyond most writers’ ability.

I suggest writing a fat outline. Throw all your content into a bin. Write some bits and pieces, don’t worry about style. Organize it into a rough narrative, so there’s a thread running through it.

The same remedy applies to people who start writing, then get stuck. If you had a fat outline to follow, you would know what to write next.

Now, try to start writing. Follow the thread, weave together all the pieces you’ve arranged. That’s a lot easier than just starting from scratch.

If you can’t get the time to write . . .

. . . well, this is a real problem. If your days are chockablock with other demanding tasks, you’ll find it hard to gather the creative energy to write. No one can write well in stolen 15-minute chunks of time.

Block off some time. And no, that doesn’t mean 10 pm after a long day, or 5 am if you’re not a morning person. You need 60 or 90 minutes in the heart of your creative time. It could be on a weekend, or it could be in an evening, if that works for you. Some people write best on airplanes.

If you can’t block off that time, you’re not a writer, you’re a person dreaming of writing. That’s nice, but you won’t get anything published until you can make the time to write.

If everything you write seems like crap . . .

. . . write it anyway. Every heard of a shitty first draft?

It’s easier to turn crap into great writing than to turn a blank page into anything. Hold your nose and get it down on the page.

Just don’t publish the crap until you rewrite it.

If you can’t get past a big chunk . . .

. . . skip it and move on.

If you’ve written chapters 1 through 4 but can’t seem to get chapter 5 going, then write Chapter 6. Go on to Chapter 7. You’ll eventually figure out what is supposed to go in Chapter 5, or maybe that you don’t need it all.

If you doubt yourself . . .

. . . well, I can’t cure psychological problems. But you’re probably not the imposter that you imagine yourself to be.

If I had a cure for imposter syndrome, I’d be writing about that. But some things that might help get you unstuck include speaking with others, dictating your ideas aloud, or interviewing people.

You’ll realize you have more to say than you thought.

Curiosity and colloquy cure writer’s block

If you’re paying attention, there’s a pattern here.

It’s talking to people and finding things out.

You cannot be a writer without curiosity. Writer’s are driven to figure out what’s happening, and why. Finding things out generates the fuel for writing and the need to describe what you’ve found.

And while writing is known as a solitary activity, it really isn’t. The best source of ideas — or improvements to ideas — is other people. Bounce your ideas off of them. Test them out. Colloquy leads to insight and refines it.

The answer is certainly not staring at a screen while your mind races aimlessly. Get out there!

One response to “There is no such thing as (nonfiction) writer’s block

  1. For someone who gives (mostly useful) advice about writing, I wish you would spend a few minutes checking your own blog writing. It frequently contains minor errors that reflect badly on your editing capabilities. I know – your contributions are weightier and more helpful than correcting grammar and typos, but sloppiness is not an attractive attribute.
    e.g. “Writer’s are driven to figure out what’s happening…”
    “…it’s really isn’t.”
    I know you’re a busy guy but it only takes a minute to reread and clean up what you’ve just written.

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