I used to give into writer’s block a lot. Growing up an artist, I thought of writing as some mythical practice, and if the muses and fairies didn’t deign to bless you, then writing would not get done. It wasn’t my fault the words weren’t flowing, my inspiration was dry and there was nothing I could do about that.
As I grew older and my love for writing turned from hobby to business, I realized that line of thinking wasn’t going to fly. I didn’t have a boss watching over my shoulder. If I didn’t write, no one was going to make me and then no writing would get done.
Writer’s block was no longer a good enough reason not to write, but that didn’t mean I was suddenly cured of it. The deeper I got into writing, the more resources I found for managing my muses, so to speak. It wasn’t that I suddenly, magically, never got writer’s block again. I just knew the importance of finding ways to overcome that challenge.
We run into different issues with different genres. In fiction, I often find myself up against a plot writing wall. In journalism, my problems run the gamut from sources to research. Because of that, I think it’s important to tackle nonfiction – the broad spectrum of personal essays, journalism and factual writing, separately from fiction. Here are a few ways I manage writer’s block when writing nonfiction.
- Go back to the source (literally): This first one is for journalism, specifically. When I say source, I refer to the interviews and quotes collected by a reporter on their assignment. It’s no easy task to keep an eye on your notes during the interview, since you’re so interested in getting the answers you’re after. Going back through the questions and answers, even if you’ve already done it several times, can shine a new light on the story you’re writing. Here, it’s especially important to keep the perspective of your sources in mind – what about their past or profession would prompt them to say those things, and how does it factor into your narrative?
- Go back to the source (not so literally): A lot of nonfiction is written without quotes or interviews. Personal essays and memoirs are factual accounts of a person’s experience, but often bring their own set of complications – especially as writers have to go through their often difficult pasts. In this case, the source is why are you writing this story? The source of inspiration, rather than information. The original reasoning behind telling the story might have changed, but going all the way back will give new insight into your process.
- Research, research, research: Whether we’re writing a complicated investigative report on an international hacking ring, or the story of going back to Georgia every summer, research can fundamentally alter the way a story looks – and it can help kickstart a stalled motor. Much of journalism is research, and no journalist will ever go into writing a story without it, but that doesn’t mean it’s ever a bad idea to look for more. If you’re stuck on an element, finding a new set of statistics or a hidden newspaper article might even help solve a story that didn’t have all the pieces. As for creative nonfiction, telling about events that happened the summer you were in Georgia – was it a festival or a murder – will give new energy to your work.
- Figure out the point: No, journalists are not supposed to make thesis statements, at least not in the traditional sense. They set up a story and they prove the point using facts and quotes from credible and well-rounded sources. But, they still need to know the point they’re trying to make. Every single story, be it fiction, nonfiction, journalism, or essay, should be able to sum of the purpose of the story. International Hacking Ring Tied to Several Government Agencies or, You Can Never Really Go Home Again are both effective points to make in your writing. When the story lags or the research doesn’t seem to add up, you can always, always come back to the main purpose of your story and figure out what’s missing.
- Don’t be afraid to change the point: This will happen to you – it happens to every writer. You’ll be writing a story, a novel, an essay, and when you take a step back you realize it’s not the piece you meant to write at all. That’s okay. We often go in with a set of ideas, but things change. Maybe new memories sparked a different understanding of what going home really meant. Maybe the financial records prove that government organizations were working against instead of for the hacking rings. Often times when we hit an impasse, it’s the story’s way of telling us that something isn’t right. Taking a step back to evaluate what the story is actually about will help you get back on track.
- Talk it out: This writing process doesn’t work for everyone – none of them will, but I can’t really work through my writing any other way. I’m not necessarily looking for advice, when I bring a tangled tale to the dining room table, but a way to bounce ideas off other people to find what’s buried underneath. I think out loud, which can be effective alone, but works better with an audience. If you bring up the impact of seeing your grandfather age from summer to summer, your family, friends or writer’s group might ask the pertinent, and often difficult, questions that will help you find the next steps in your story.
- Take a Break: Go for a walk. Get a cup of coffee. My favorite way to work through complicated stories, no matter the genre, is a good, difficult workout. While I’m running or dancing at the gym, my mind sharpens. The writing process is time consuming, and a lot of us don’t have the luxury of sitting still for an hour, imaging how two people might interact, but getting away from the desk, even for ten minutes, takes us out of the headspace of our work. With our nose to the proverbial grindstone, we often lose sight of the big picture, which makes it hard to determine where we’re going next. Take that step back and everything will be much, much clearer.
- Storyboard: My writing process is pretty invasive. I bring things up at the dinner table, I ask for character input, I put out requests for names. One of the most effective things I include in this invasive writing process, is the storyboard. In my case, it’s invasive because I only recently got rid of the 12 foot white board in the foyer with a full-length novel outline. I still have a smaller white board and two bulletin boards in my office, however. Everyone storyboards differently. I need a visual element before me, especially with pieces I can move around, like push pins and notes. Adding a tab or post-it to an important element of the story helps to keep everything straight. This is particularly helpful if you have a research heavy project. That being said, if an outline is more your speed – go for it. Breaking down your essay into single line elements will help you see the flow and process that the piece is supposed to follow. Then you can take that important step back and see if anything needs to change.
- Figure out your audience: Are you writing a memoir of your struggle with postpartum depression, but it’s aimed at husbands of women struggling, rather than the women themselves? That’s an altogether different kind of story. Is your tale of returning to Georgia for the children of broken families, or geared towards the feel-good folksy style of Southern storytelling? Determining your audience, and what you’re trying to say to them, is fundamental to moving forward on a piece. Take that extra minute to think about who you’re writing for and you might find conjuring the image of your audience gives you a whole slew of inspiration and ideas.
- Go work on something else: We’re writers – which also means we’re editors, marketers, publishers and promoters. Even if we have a team of people running all our social media accounts (and very few authors do), there’s bound to be another project around. Find it. Edit your other article. Transcribe your other interview. Find a way to distance yourself without wasting time, if you can afford to. Then come back to the story you’re on and see what’s missing.
- Just f**king write: Sometimes you don’t have a damn choice in the matter. The article is due, the publisher is breathing down your neck, you have a deadline on the horizon or a flight in the morning. There are a million reasons why we might not have the luxury of more interviews or more research. Fine. Plant your ass in the chair and write – even if it you’re literally hacking away one painstaking key at a time, you’re getting something done. Nora Roberts once said, “I can fix a bad page. I can’t fix a blank page.” Write the worst draft you’ve ever written, but write a draft. You may not be able to keep a single word, but at least you’ll be able to look at where you went wrong, and hopefully that will help with the next draft, and the next. Eventually, you’re bound to get it right.
Writing is a process and it’s a lot more difficult than people think. Each author or journalist has their own way of dealing with challenges, and it can change from one story or article to the next. That’s a good thing – the world wouldn’t want all their writers to work the same way.
These tips are just a starting off point. I’ve been a professional writer for several years and I still struggle with days where there aren’t any words. But then I pull myself up by my bootstraps, dust off my jacket and remind myself why I’m doing this. I love words. I love telling stories. I love informing people. So yes, you will get writer’s block, and yes, there will be challenges, and yes, writing is fundamentally difficult, but yes, it is worth it. ♦