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Writer’s block: Three ways to get over it

photo of writer's block with pencil, paper, sharpener

Suffering writer’s block? Here are tips to solve it.

Headshot of Peta RuleWriter’s block can happen to anyone. How do you get over it when you’re under pressure to get your next blog post, email or customer letter out? My colleague at Lush Digital Media, Peta Bree Rule, offers practical advice gleaned from her years as a journalist. You might be surprised at how easy it is to overcome. -Sarah.

Writer’s block: Three ways to get over it

Leo Tolstoy apparently got writer’s block. That’s pretty remarkable when you consider the length of War and Peace.

Apparently he also had 13 kids, and I kind of wonder if that had something to do with it.

In a professional sense, I don’t really believe in writer’s block.

True, writer’s block is the inability to write because you don’t know what to write. That happened to Stephen King one day: he spent a harrowing morning completely unable to think up another macabre storyline to throw at his readers. Fortunately for us (and unfortunately for his characters) he got over it.

When most people claim to have writer’s block, what they’re really battling is an inability to express themselves.

If you’re, say, a solar panel business and you want to write about the benefits of having solar panels, of course you know what you need to write about.

If you’re stuck on what to write, it’s because you’re struggling to tell the story, not because the story has come to an abrupt halt.

So, here are three tried-and-tested strategies from my newspaper days that I hope will help you get over writer’s block.

1. Just start writing

This is a well-recognised method of recovering from writer’s block. Just start putting words on the page. American poet Maya Angelou apparently used to write pages and pages of text such as ‘the cat sat on the mat, fancy that, it had a hat’ until her brain kicked in and she started writing award-winning poetry.

It’s also a trick journalists will often use. The lead paragraph of a news article is notoriously slippery to nail down: You’ve got just 30 words (40 at a stretch and if the subeditors are feeling generous) to get the key point of the story out. Crafting such a sublime and optimised sentence when you first sit down to write can be a disaster.

Instead, just start writing what you’re thinking about and go from there.

As a journalist, I usually found if I did this, the ‘lead’ sentence would jump out at me within about five minutes and it would just be a matter of rearranging the copy to get the story right.

2. Visualise telling the story to someone you are comfortable with

Very early in my journalism career, when I was stumped on how to tell a story I would imagine racing into the kitchen in my family home to tell my mother what was going on.

What words would I say? How would I explain to my mum what the story was? More often than not, they would be the words that could be used on the page.

More recently, if I am stuck for what to write I will discuss it with my partner. This isn’t necessarily because I’m expecting him to tell me what to write, but because in vocalising the story’s central themes, I find phrases and words start to loosely group together and the task feels far less impossible.

3. Ask yourself, what are you actually trying to say?

This seems kind of obvious, yes?

You’d think so, but it’s really not.

I spent a few years teaching journalism students to write. Court reporting was particularly challenging because the students needed to write the story in the reverse order to how they experienced it – for example, the verdict would be the lead and the crime was detailed in the story.

Their experience in the courtroom, of course, was the opposite: They heard about the crime and then got the verdict.

When they came back to the classroom, almost universally they would begin with details of a crime which happened six months ago and get bogged down in the detail.

So I would ask: ‘What are you actually trying to say?’

And they’d answer: ‘This guy is going to spend three years in jail for holding up petrol stations with a machete’.

BAM: suddenly, they had their lead, and the ‘writer’s block’ was gone.

This reframes the question: What you are actually trying to say is exactly what you are actually trying to say.

There’s no magic trick to writing. If you’re stuck, the problem is probably one of two things:

  • You don’t know what you’re writing about.
  • You don’t know how to say it.

They are issues that aren’t so hard to conquer; a bit of research and deep thinking and you’re over it.

After all, you’re not trying to write War and Peace with 13 kids running around your house.

Thoughts from the Brand Newsroom

Nic Hayes from Media Stable and Sarah Mitchell discussed writer’s block on the Brand Newsroom podcast. You can listen here.

More writing help

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