irreverent, thought-provoking analysis of the industry.
Unblocking Writers Block
How to get those creative juices flowing again.
by Mike Hartnett (September, 2003)
(Note: This was inspired by Kate's column, "Fostering
Creativity" which is available by clicking on Kate's Collage in
the left-hand column.)
The blank computer screen can be scary. Your deadline is fast
approaching, your boss is waiting -- and you can't think of anything
to write. Everything you try either doesn't "sound" right
or makes no sense at all.
If it's any consolation, you're not alone. You have writer's block,
an illness that eventually affects everyone, from Pulitzer
prizewinners to fifth graders trying to describe their summer
vacation. I suffer from it all the time.
The only advice I can give you was given to me by the late William
Maxwell, the former fiction editor for the New Yorker magazine. In
his time, Mr. Maxwell wrote numerous prize-winning novels and as
editor, helped most of the great writers of the 20th century fight
through writer's block.
He said he often suffered from writer's block when he was about to
start a new chapter. What did he do? He wrote anyway.
"Just write," he told me, even if you know what you're
writing is garbage. Keep going. Write as much as you need to write
that day, then stop and put it away.
When you return to it the next day, you'll see all sorts of things
wrong with it, and you'll immediately start fixing it. In fact, you
may have to fix so much of it that the end result barely resembles
That's ok. Yesterday was not wasted; it gave you something to work
with today. And you'll find, as you "fix" yesterday's
work, you're in the groove again. Besides, the key to good writing
isn't writing, it's good re-writing.
This advice, of course, does not work if you wait to begin 20
minutes before your project is due. You have to start at least a few
days in advance.
What if you don't have a few days? I suspect Mr. Maxwell's advice
would apply to designers, painters, and others who are being paid
for their creativity; I don't know about them, but for writers, when
there's no time and no inspiration, that's when the
"craft" of writing has to take over.
The "craft" of writing means using basic principles that
will enable you to be clear and persuasive despite feeling blocked.
Whether you're writing a column, a newsletter, a report, or a sales
presentation, here are some basic guidelines:
1. Have you led the readers through all the steps to bring
them to the conclusion you want? Did you go through steps A, B, and
C, or did you skip B? Don't force the reader to make too large a
jump. (It may not seem large to you, but it might to the reader.)
2. Do the paragraphs flow? Look at the last sentence of each
paragraph and the first sentence of the next one. It should be a
very easy transition.
3. Did you tie in your last sentence or two with your lead?
(If you have writer's block, don't worry about the lead in your
first draft. In fact, you don't have to start writing with the lead.
Just start anywhere. Re-writing the lead might be the last thing you
4. Remember, if you have the space, it's always better to
show the readers something, rather than tell them. Show them and
guide them to make the conclusion you want them to make. They will
believe something much more so if they decide themselves, rather
than just taking your word for it.
5. Proof read! Running Spellcheck is not proofreading! When
you're finished proofing your masterpiece, give it to someone else
to proof. After a while, you can't see the forest from the trees,
and some mistake may be obvious to fresh eyes, but invisible to you.
It may seem ironic, but proofreading is doubly important when the
creative spirit has filled you and the words just flowed. It's
especially easy to skip point B when you're in the groove.
6. I don't know if this works for novels, but for reports and
such, when you think you're finished, have the computer count the
number of words. Then force yourself to cut at least 10% of them.
When you have to cut words, you'll find all sorts of unncessary
language in your copy. By cutting them, you'll make your writing
much more concise.
See? That blank screen's not so scary after all.
(Note: Have any suggestions for getting those creative juices
flowing? How do you do it? Email your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org
and we'll share them here. To read earlier Business-Wise columns,
click on the titles in the right-hand column.)