Dealing With Writer’s Block: I Used to Have a Headline Over My Desk at Work. It Said, “DON’T WRITE, TYPE.”

By Tom Shroder

One of the questions a young writer asked was about writer’s block—do I get it and how do I deal with it? Now that’s a subject I may actually be an expert on. Here’s my answer:

I think the first thing to know is that writer’s block isn’t some ailment akin to polio, a paralysis that is initiated by some outside force. It’s simply confronting the reality that identifying something novel and interesting to say, then saying it in the best possible way, is an extremely challenging enterprise.

The “block” is really just recognition of the huge gap between a blank screen and the finished project. There’s a kind of shock at the realization of how much effort lies ahead, and that shock triggers panic. I guess you can equate writer’s block to a kind of tantrum, like a little kid might throw, rebelling when she’s ordered to clean up a room that is buried under weeks worth of scattered toys, dirty clothes, half-eaten snacks, and general chaos. It’s. Just. Too. Hard. BOO HOO HOO.

Underlying it all is a fear of failure. Every time you start to tentatively type a few words, your critical instinct tells you THEY STINK, and you just recoil from your own ineptitude and shut down. The solution to writer’s block is to shut down your gag reflex, to allow yourself to stink, understanding as Hemingway famously recognized, “The first draft of anything is [bad word goes here].”

I used to have a headline set in type over my desk at work. It said, “DON’T WRITE, TYPE.” This reminded me that the purpose of the first draft is not to write something good, but to write something bad that you can then begin to work on to make better.

Before Michelangelo could sculpt the statue of David, he had to have a big old block of marble he could chisel away at. The first draft is your block of marble. Not that you should anticipate creating a deathless masterpiece—that in itself will give you a monster case of writer’s block. But the analogy stands even for mere mortals; trying to write even what you humbly intended to write without having an indifferent lump of first draft is like trying to sculpt David out of thin air. Can’t be done. So JUST TYPE.

It doesn’t matter how bad it is. Disengage all your critical functions and just let your subconscious put whatever words out there it wants to. Then you start: You look at what is on the page and you think, what’s wrong with this? Why does it suck? And in answering those questions, you begin to figure out ways to make it better. Continue the process. Rinse, lather, repeat.

What I’ve found is I hate writing, but I actually love to rewrite. Identifying problems and fixing them can be challenging but fun, like a good puzzle.

Tom Shroder was editor of The Washington Post Magazine. Here’s a link to his website bio. And a link to an earlier post he did on “How I Became an Editor.” For more on ways to deal with writer’s block, see this earlier post on “Writer’s Block: What to Do When the Words Won’t Come.”

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