What should you do if you need to write something and you can’t seem to get started? The answer depends on what’s stopping you: lack of ideas, lack of material, or lack of the will to live . . . I mean, will to write.
I thought about this when a participant asked it in a writing workshop I gave yesterday. This applies to writing a non-fiction piece, but is pretty broad — these are the reasons that I’ve encountered in my career of three decades as a writer and editor. I’ve treated this as a doctor or therapist would — look down the list, find the symptoms that apply to you, and treat them accordingly.
You don’t have an idea
Symptoms: When you try to write, you just have no concept of what you’re doing. You not only don’t know where to start, you don’t know where you’re going.
Treatment: Trying to write without an idea is pointless — anything you produce will be vacuous. To get an idea, talk to others, interact with creative people, read on the topic, and find something worth saying.
Cure: If this recurs, you’re not working hard enough on ideas. Develop a discipline to find and develop ideas. Make it into a routine part of your work, and it will fuel your writing.
You don’t have enough material to work with
Symptoms: You get stuck because of lack of arguments, evidence, or points to make.
Treatment: Writing without sufficient research is like running without eating first — you’re going to run out of gas. Stop trying to write and do the research.
Cure: Allot sufficient time to the research phase of a piece, and spend the research time actually doing research, not procrastinating. In my writer survey, people on a writing project spent an average of 45% of their time on research.
You don’t know how to start
Symptoms: You have many possible paths forward, but can’t seem to pick one.
Treatment: You should have a roadmap for your piece before writing. Make a fat outline to organize the ideas first. Then write to the outline.
Cure: For anything longer than 750 words, block out the structure before writing.
You’ve written yourself into an impasse
Symptoms: You’re in the middle of a piece but have reached a dead end with no way forward.
Treatment: Skip over the sketchy part and write a different part of the piece. Then go back and rearrange pieces when you see how it fits together.
Cure: This happens to everyone. Remember that you can always rearrange things or delete pieces that don’t fit. You’re using a word processor, not a quill pen on a parchment scroll.
You put off writing until later
Symptoms: You keep doing other things even though you ought to be writing.
Treatment: You need a deadline to motivate you. Promise the piece to someone by a given date. Then use fear to get yourself going.
Cure: Always write on a deadline, with a reward for hitting the deadline and a penalty for missing it.
You hate what you’re writing
Symptoms: You are suffused with feelings of boredom or disgust about the topic.
Treatment: Find new ways to enliven the topic. Talk to inspiring people, find a new spin, or just take a break.
Cure: Change beats or change jobs.
Nothing can motivate you
Symptoms: You hate the thought of writing so much that deadlines make no difference.
Treatment: This is not a writing problem, it’s an emotional problem. Talk to a therapist about why you’re depressed.
Cure: If something else is depressing you, take care of it. If writing is what’s depressing you, take a long break and do something else.
You seem to have no talent
Symptoms: No matter what you do, you produce crap, and you always have.
Treatment: Find a sympathetic editor and work with them to improve.
Cure: Are you sure you are actually a writer? Consider that maybe you’re not.
Here’s a chart to keep handy when you’re blocked.