If you often sit down to write and feel frustrated, maybe you need to develop a new habit: writing away from the keyboard. And no, I don’t mean writing on paper or your phone. I mean writing in your head.
Writing is problem-solving
Writing is a puzzle. What’s the big idea? How do you start? What tone will you use? How will you order the elements of your argument? What metaphors will clarify things?
Look at all those problems for a moment. None of them require typing.
I often solve writing problems while I’m out walking, or preparing a meal, or lying in bed.
Here’s an example. Right now, I’m ghostwriting the first chapter of a book for two authors who are colleagues. I already used Google Docs to write a fat outline for the chapter and both of them commented on it. Then we met by Zoom and went over what it would take to flesh out the outline.
A lot of what we discussed included details of two contrasting case studies I will use to start the chapter. I interviewed them about what happened in each of the two case studies to help me get the material to write them up.
Later, when I was out walking, I thought about the two case studies. And I suddenly realized that both of the companies in the case studies were fundamentally trying to solve the same problem. One took an ill-considered approach and failed. The other took a sound approach and succeeded. And since the whole point of the book is what that sound approach is, the chapter crystallized in my mind: by opening the chapter with the two case studies and contrasting the two approaches, I could make the case for the sound approach — and then explain the approach and use it to introduce the rest of the book.
I do this all the time. If I’m working on a piece of writing, I gather material and start to mentally plan out what will go in there. I turn over different strategies in my head. I take note of what problems remain unsolved — in the case of this book chapter, how I’m going to turn the two case studies into a convincing argument for the approach we’re recommending. And then . . . I do something else.
And when I come back to the problem, the answer is often there. All that’s left is the writing, which is much easier since I’ve mentally solved some of the thornier writing problems before I sit down at the keyboard.
How to develop the skill of writing away from the keyboard
A metaphor occurs to me. (It actually occurred to me this morning, while I was lying in bed before awakening — thinking away from the keyboard again.)
In any sport, like basketball, soccer, or baseball, we notice players who have the ball and then make moves that lead to success and scoring (or preventing the opponent from scoring). But how does that success happen? A skilled basketball player moves to an advantageous position by imagining a near-future outcome in which they get the ball and can shoot around or above the defense. They move without the ball. The skill of moving without the ball is crucial problem-solving-in-advance: the player mentally models what will happen if they’re in the right spot at the right moment, so when they get the ball, they can quickly act to take the open shot. You may think “How did they get open? What a great shot!” But the player, having been in that situation many times before, knows just where to go to be ready to get that open shot. Players who move well without the ball are far more likely to be successful — and they’ve developed a skill that’s at least as important as being able to score with the ball.
So how can you develop the skill of thinking about writing while away from the keyboard?
First, practice writing a lot. This type of skill arises from experience. You won’t even know what writing problems to solve or what kinds of solutions are possible unless you’ve trained yourself on many other writing challenges. It’s similar to the basketball player who knows how and where to move because they’ve executed a similar play a thousand times before. So the first step is to write. A lot. The more you write, the more you learn about what kinds of writing problems you’re going to need to solve.
Second, plan. You can’t solve a writing problem away from the keyboard unless you know what that writing problem is. So write a fat outline, as I did. Map out what you’re going to write. Rearrange pieces of your research and ideas into a potential pattern. Becoming familiar with the elements of what you’re writing is essential to setting up your brain to become a writing problem-solving machine. One way to do this is try to write what you’re supposed to write and get stuck. Believe it or not, getting stuck can be an essential step on the way to getting unstuck.
Third, step away. Don’t keep smacking your head against the problem. Go do something else. Meet with colleagues, have a glass of wine, take a walk, watch a TV show. Having burrowed into the problem, your brain will continue to work on it, subconsciously, while you are doing something else. For me, at least, this isn’t a conscious strategy; I don’t think “I’ll take a walk and work on my writing.” It just happens because that’s what the back of my mind is doing at that moment.
You also need two other things to be successful at writing away from the keyboard.
You need time. It’s really hard to do this while up against a deadline. If your writing is due on Thursday, try to craft the outline or take a first shot at writing it on Monday. Give your brain some time away from the problem to work it out mentally.
And you need confidence. All writers have the experience of having an insight about writing while away from the keyboard. Be conscious of that moment. Give yourself credit. You figured it out, ergo, you’re a skilled writer. If this happens enough times, you’ll begin to trust your own mind to solve writing problems, which is a necessary attitude to actually solve them.
While sitting at the keyboard, repeatedly smacking your head against unsolved writing problems is futile. But coming up with insights away from the keyboard is exhilarating. It’s a skill worth developing if you want your life as a writer to be as fulfilling as possible.