Q&A: What are some solutions for writer’s block/writer’s procrastination?

  Credit: Kaboompics.com

Credit: Kaboompics.com

Another day, another question from a reader via my "Ask Me Anything" thread. A note to the person that asked the question: sorry that it took me a while to get to it. Rest assured that I do eventually get to every question, but sometimes I need more time than I estimated to answer it because, you know, life happens. So please don't be disappointed when I don't answer your question right away. I promise that I will answer each one. Have faith!

Anyway, let's get to business. The question is the following:

What are some solutions for writer’s block/writer’s procrastination?

Great question and although my answer will seem both disappointing and arrogant, I think that I've almost never had writer's block. Why? Because I think it is a proxy/excuse for two simple things: a lack of planning and a lack of clarity. Let's look at both of these together.

Lack of Planning, Lack of Clarity

Every writer needs a system. You're probably experiencing so-called writer's block because you think that being a writer means grabbing your laptop, going to Starbucks, and expecting to write The Lord of The Rings before the store closes. This is a complete myth.

Writers don't just sit down and magically complete a project in a few sittings. They have a process. A process that guides them and a process that they stick to.

Here's what mine (roughly) looks like:

1. Topic: I'll have a hunch about a topic I want to write about that has been on mind for a while. For example, after reading a news story about Italy considering bringing back military conscription, I've been thinking about writing on the topic of public service and whether the way we define "serving your country" is accurate.

 

2. Braindump: I'll write down everything I know about or think is relevant to the topic of my post, with no regard to grammar, syntax, or logical coherence of what I'm writing. I just intellectually vomit everything I'm thinking about as it relates to the topic. This actually reminds me of the brilliant advice about exam-taking that my wonderful accounting teacher in university once told my class: "If you don't know where to start... just start."

3. Message: From my experience, when I read through the contents of my braindump, I can almost always group them into 1-3 major themes. From this, I then say to myself "Alright, given that I have 1-3 major talking points to discuss in this blog post, what is the message that I really want communicate to the reader?" In other words, what's the point of my post? In the example I used in step 1, the message I want to communicate is that I think that the definition of serving your country should include more than just military service. In my blog post itself, I will explain why and how I think this.

This is what I mean by a lack of clarity. Of course you're going to get writer's block if you don't know what the heck you actually want to tell the reader. Granted, for some of my blog posts Steps 2 and 3 are interchangeable. Sometimes I'm crystal-clear about the message I want to communicate before I do a braindump, other days it's the other way round. The sequence of these two steps is negotiable, but you must address both of them.

4. Synthesization: This part is highly specific to my process, so feel free to modify it to your own preference. My braindump gives me the content, my message gives me the focus and clarity I need, so now I just need to put it all together. In what is often the most time-consuming and difficult step for me, I need to synthesize my content so that it's coherent and the reader can actually follow my train of thought. You know, making sure there's an introduction, a main body, and a conclusion, and that all my arguments are logically-constructed.

Note: during this step, I sometimes need to do extra research to find studies/data that back up the arguments I make in my blog posts.

The key to making a braindump effective is to not place any restrictions on yourself. As I said before, don't worry about grammar, syntax, structure, or any of that. That said, you do have to worry about these things eventually, otherwise your blog post will remain an incoherent collection of thoughts. Hence, in the last step I put all the pieces together so that the final product is polished and ready for public consumption.

Please note that I’m speaking from the perspective of someone that writes non-fiction. My advice might not be applicable to writers of fiction. I wouldn’t know; I’ve barely written fiction in my life.

I've followed this process for many years of writing and, while I've obviously had bad writing days like anybody else, whenever I do get stuck, I can almost always trace the cause to something I did wrong in one of the steps of my process.

Once again, writer's block boils down to a lack of planning and a lack of clarity. Fix the two and I can almost guarantee that you'll be fine.

Bonus question/comment

I also received a separate question/comment from another person (or was it the same person? I obviously don't know because it's all anonymous) that I might as well address in this post:

Haha, with all those questions, perhaps you should have been a journalist. Maybe in business and economics?

Though it's tongue-in-cheek, I actually saw the opportunity to turn it into a serious question/answer.

Once upon a time, when I was just a wee little lad, I wanted to be a sports commentator (football, specifically). Then, I wanted to be a sports journalist. However, after a ruthless rejection from my parents and finding out that sports journalism is a very rough industry (read: underpaid), I abandoned that dream. Not only that, but I also noticed that most sports channels only hire ex-players for punditry (to use a Dutch term, I think a good way to describe this phenomenon would be through the term "vriendjespolitiek", which roughly translates to "friends' politics").

Furthermore, I use my blog (and my upcoming book!) to write about things related to business, economics, and anything I find interesting and fun to write about. So that satisfies that creative hunger, I suppose.

Even though my so-called dreams of journalism/writing were mercilessly crushed, I realized that I still really liked to write. Hence, I took it up as a hobby instead of a profession. In fact, I think I only enjoy writing so much exactly because it is only my hobby and I don't depend on it as a lifeline. If it became a full-time job, I'm absolutely certain that I wouldn't like it anymore.

Moral of the story: you don't always have to completely abandon your "passion." Just make it a hobby instead of a full-time job. This might help maintain it as a passion rather than a burden/job. Or, as seems to be the buzzphrase these days, make it a "side hustle."

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See you, Space Cowboy.