About Writing

Writer’s Block: When the Words Won’t Come

By Jack Limpert

I’ve worked with lots of writers and the worst case of writer’s block involved one of the smartest people I’ve ever known. When we hired him at The Washingtonian, he had come from the museum world. He had a great education and interesting mind and he got off to a promising start. After about a year he began to freeze up and miss deadlines. We both knew this couldn’t go on very long.

Then one afternoon he came in, looking happy, and said, “Jack, we’ve figured it out. I’ve been seeing a psychiatrist. He says it’s either fear of success or fear of failure.”

That didn’t help and he soon left the magazine, moving to New York City. He got a job writing for radio, then went to a popular weekly magazine, where he became a star.

The cure seemed to be getting away from a monthly magazine where the long deadlines can lead to too much thinking and brooding. Writing for radio fixed that.

I dropped out of law school in 1960 and landed a job in the Minneapolis bureau of UPI. I had no journalism experience–but I had worked my way through college as a bartender and met a lot of reporters. My first job was to file the radio-television wire to Minnesota and the Dakotas–that meant coming up with 20 minutes of regional news every hour. To come up with that 20 minutes of broadcast news, I rewrote newspaper stories for radio and TV. Short words, short sentences, make it easy to say out loud. I’ve always thought they should have kids do that in journalism school–rewrite newspaper stories for radio.

That early UPI experience probably minimized my writer’s block. When I did have trouble getting started, my approach was to keep the typewriter keys moving even if I knew I was writing the equivalent of “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog’s back.”

Does writing on computer lessen the chances of writer’s block? Maybe. It was hard having to start a story over and over again on a typewriter. You tossed out lots of paper.

A p.s. on that first journalism job: The very first piece of advice from the Minneapolis bureau chief was, “Whatever you do, don’t f— up the livestock report.”

Have a good writer’s block story? Send it along to [email protected] and I’ll post it.

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