Alan's guide to beating writer's block into a bloody pulp
Updated: Sep 24, 2021
Although this piece is now eight years old, it felt as useful today as when I wrote it. So I've pinned it for any aspiring writers out there...
Like every writer under the sun (and a whole load more who remain pale-skinned and stored away from direct sunlight… like myself in fact), I am well aware that I have a predisposition towards procrastination. Brought up in a era where the internet was maturing, distractions are just too easy, and a quick bit of research into ‘what year was that handset made?’ can lead me down a Wikipedia rabbit hole of distractions. Just writing that sentence has made me want to look up rabbits on Wikipedia, but I shall stay focused because that’s what this blog post is all about.
This is how I start every Freelance Friday. Only I don’t colour in the hearts.
With that opening paragraph, you may think I’m the worst person in the world to be writing on that topic. Well tough, you’re reading this now, and presumably you didn’t get distracted by the link to rabbits on Wikipedia, so you passed the first test.
Anyway, I’ve taken a small step towards becoming my own boss. Every Friday, I don’t make the short walk to Tooting Rail Station, and instead spend the day writing. So I’ve had to become a bit more disciplined a lot more quickly. So these tips are to remind myself, as much as anything. Here’s Alan’s Guide to Beating Writer’s Block Into a Bloody Pulp That Can Only Be Recognised With Reference to Dental Records:
1) Just Get It Down
You’ve got a wordcount of 1,500 words to fill. That’s easy, a tiny amount once you get started, but getting started is the hardest bit. The longer you stay staring at that blank page, the harder it becomes so just dig in with any words that come to mind. If you take this approach, your basic structure will be in place, and then you can go back and make it read well later.
You’re not sending it as it is: only you see this draft, full of typos, repeated words and vagueness, so don’t be so bloody precious about it. Suddenly your wordcount is half full and you can go back, fact-check and make it presentable, and nobody need ever be any the wiser about the mess it was before.
2) Plan it Out
This may sound like it directly contradicts the first point, and it might do, or it might not. If you know you have certain points you have to cover in your 1,500 words, then put a heading for each area you have to cover in the order you think would flow most naturally. Then you can combine this point with the first and rattle your way through the entire article in no time, leaving you plenty of room to tidy things up. This is no doubt partly psychological: it means that blank page is no longer blank.
3) Kill All Distractions
If this isn’t working, it’s time to get serious. Remove any background music with lyrics (I find Unwed Sailor is great to work to, because it’s just indie instrumentals that won’t distract with words and meanings), and block internet sites you don’t need. This may be as simple as full-screening your writing program, or you may decide to take more drastic steps.
The trouble with this, of course, is that you may need the internet for legitimate research. If you have a laptop and a PC, you can make one your writing point and the other your research station. Sounds silly, but this differentiation can really help you out and keep you focussed.
My favourite tip in this situation is to use my iPad with a Bluetooth keyboard with the iA Writer app, which is the most barebones writing tool around: it’s literally just you and the text you write. No distractions, just a wall of text and a wordcounter. Perfect for getting the basics down for more refined editing later (and the editing, though tedious, is a lot easier.)
4) Don’t Stop Reading
Around £13 in spend, and one very confused newsagent. but hopefully loads of ideas…
But let’s say you don’t have a specific brief of what to write about and you’re looking for inspiration. The best thing is to read all around the area that you want to write about from as many different sources as possible. I will quite often read opinion pieces from The Guardian and The Telegraph, and this keeps my synapses firing on topics I didn’t think it was possible to have an original thought on. Don’t just stop at the articles and opinion pieces: read the comments too. Yes, they’ll make you angry and despair for humanity, but often a single sentence thrown off by a commenter will unlock a whole new chain of ideas in your head and you’re pitching away like a man possessed. This is how my first New Statesman piece came into existence.
This has the added bonus of making you read other established writers, to see how they craft their articles and views into a coherent argument. I like to think I’m pretty good at this after many years of writing professionally but if you’re new to writing it’s invaluable, and you can always learn more.
5) Talk it Through With Somebody Else
Sometimes it can be really helpful to find someone you haven’t bored to tears with such requests before just to bounce ideas off. They don’t need to know the subject area - in fact, it’s often better that they don’t as it can make you question whether you should be a bit clearer in defining terms.
But what often happens is the person will interrupt and ask questions that you hadn’t even considered, and make your brain fire off in a whole new direction. Bam, suddenly your challenge is not reaching the wordcount, but trying to make sure you don’t smash through it.
6) Clear Your Head
The idea a year ago that I would, without irony, instruct other people to go for a run would be laughable, but as someone who now does so himself every other day, I can really see its benefits. There are plenty of ways of taking a break from writing, but ideally you want something to allow your brain to just percolate on ideas without cramming new stuff in, so watching TV, reading a book or playing a game is out. Running is perfect, because it’s so mind-numbingly dull that you can’t help but let your mind wander. Meditation might also be good, and I used to get a similar effect from walking places, so these will probably work if you can’t stomach the idea of being one of those smug runners (I know: I dislike myself immensely for becoming one of those people too).
I use Endomondo to track my runs. This lets others send messages while you’re out running, as my brother demonstrates with this wonderful peptalk.
7) Read it over
If you’ve said everything you wanted to say, and you’re still short on words, then go back and tidy up what you’ve already done. I tend to proofread my work at least two or three times before signing off on it, and I’m constantly tinkering with my word choice. But if you do this before hitting the word count, it’ll allow you to spot bits you haven’t covered and expand on them.
And hopefully you’re done! Feel free to reward yourself with this short Blackadder clip below (I might genuinely start playing this every time I send in an invoice from hereon in):