Aw, writer’s block… creator’s block, if you prefer. It can keep
even the best of us from doing our best at the things we do best. So it’s time
to stop that crazy shit.
What leads us to procrastinate on written work? I can assure you they all are things which are less powerful than you, and thus can be resolved.
Each section introduces a typical block to writing and discusses how to overcome that block. Get ready to unblock your blocks.
I’m not qualified to write about this.
This one may also take the form of, “I should get more experience before I write about this.”
I have two requirements for writing an article I seem barely qualified to write: (1) I perceive I can create value by writing it, and (2) I feel compelled to write it (i.e. inspired—see below). In short, I must be duty-bound. Otherwise I should just journal on the topic or do more research (i.e. consume information and experience it directly). Generally, though, I find that writing an article helps me to understand a subject better (create value for myself). And, I usually say something that could be potentially valuable to others, even if the most potentially-valuable parts of the article are either very general or very specific (i.e. an example), and are not directly related to the title.
So, if you want to write something and you think some good may come out of it, go ahead and write about it. If it’s terrible, you can get rid of it. If it’s decent yet it reveals obvious holes in your experience, you can always write a Part Two later.
That seems too mental/too emotional, and I don’t want to be too mental/too emotional.
This one could also take the form of its opposite—“I’m not mental/emotional enough.” “Mental” in this case is interchangeable with “intellectual” and “logical,” and “emotional” means about the same as “intuitive.”
Mental writing emphasizes clear organization, being concise (saying as much as possible with few words), demonstrating complete reasoning (all logical gaps are considered and filled), and showing evidence. Mental writing might be based off an outline that is created prior to writing. Writing tends not to cease until all possibilities have been exhausted. The purpose of mental writing is generally to inform- that is, to discuss data and ideas. It can form a tentative conclusion about the information as well. Mental writing may also (but not necessarily) take the perspective that a sentence should be worded perfectly- crisply and cleanly, yet also beautifully. What I want to say doesn’t matter as much as how I say it.
The purpose of emotional writing is generally to inspire, and it emphasizes saying what feels right to say in the moment. Very brief notes might be made to consider during writing, but the point is to say what feels right now, not five minutes ago. Some points in the writing piece may not be discussed to their logical limit, but the premise is that the reader will understand what needs to be understood anyway. Sometimes, what needs to be understood is not blatantly relayed by plain text. Rather, it is the revelations and feelings provoked by the text that matters more so than the text itself. The feelings behind the words are what make the piece: the words are just a means of sharing those feelings. The words I use will not resonate with people if they do not reflect the feelings I have.
Unless there is brain damage it is impossible to write an article that is either entirely mental or entirely emotional. Humans are simultaneously mental and emotional beings, and this fact is not easily escaped. An emotional piece of writing is bound to have some logical organization, just as a mental piece of writing can inspire.
To share, my main concern with writing too mentally is that the writing will take unnecessarily long and over-focus on the small details as opposed to the big picture (AKA “analysis paralysis”). My main concerns with writing too emotionally is that I will be difficult to understand and I will not sound credible.
These fears assume that I don’t have both intellectual and emotional abilities at once. I can pull my head out of the sand of analysis and simply say whatever comes up next, just as I can scrutinize a statement I’ve made that seems a little too fluffy.
If you’d rather not switch modes while writing, you can edit from the mode opposite that which you wrote from. So, if you wrote an article that is highly mental, edit emotionally. Do I feel good about having said this? Does it feel like truth to me? Does saying this make me feel badly unnecessarily? Does this piece inspire me to take action?
If you wrote a piece that is highly emotional, edit mentally. Are the terms I used clearly defined? Can what I wrote be understood by most people as-is? What would a professor or philosopher think of this? Are there any nuances or biases I should address?
However you decide to approach this block, remember that you are not a robot nor a rainbow-coated, lollipop-sucking fairy. If you’re worried about coming off as either too stuck in your head or not enough so, you are denying that you can come and go as you please.
If you suck at switching modes, then practice. To practice emotional writing, open a blank word document and write as fast as you can, without thinking, for at least 10 minutes. You can’t look at the screen, you can’t make any edits, and you can’t stop typing. Don’t write gibberish, though. You write down the thoughts that pop into your head as quickly as they arise.
Tim Ferriss refers to this exercise as a “brain dump,” and it can be helpful for addressing things that bother you. You may not solve the problem in this exercise, but putting it down on paper can prevent you from thinking the exact same thoughts about it over and over again. In this way your mind gets cleared and open to other matters, such as writing a damn good book or article.
To practice mental writing, write down a question and try to answer it as thoroughly as possible, considering every perspective, nuance, and exception that may be relevant. It can be a question you think you know the answer to, but by discussing it from a mental perspective you will see that things are not as straightforward as they seem.
If you ask yourself, “Where do I live?” you will probably begin by writing out your address. But then you consider that addresses don’t really matter from a geological perspective, so you might say “I live in a deciduous forest biome near many mountains” (as I do). Or, more simply, “I live on planet Earth.” But then you take a subjective reality perspective and recognize that “Earth” is just an abstract idea in your mind: you cannot directly prove you live there. Sure, you can fly into space and take pictures, but now you aren’t on Earth anymore—you’re in space. So do you really live on Earth if you’re in space right now and you’re alive right now? You may thus answer the question with, “Here.”
Unless you are writing a scientific publication, it probably isn’t worth spending a long time deciding whether to write more mentally or more emotionally. I would suggest writing in whichever way you are more skilled, making sure to practice with the other mode every now and then and incorporate it as needed. That, or you can just begin writing and see which mode seems to dominate. Unless the piece is fairly balanced, one will become apparent soon enough.
Author Neil Strauss has said that The book is smarter than you. This means that the book you have envisioned will become something much greater than what you envision, as long as you work at it and allow it to do so. Begin writing and the mental or emotional nature of your masterpiece will reveal itself (but you have to start writing first. So, to remove this block you have to remove this block. Ding dong!).
I’m not sure that I was truly inspired to write about this.
You thought about it, didn’t you? Where the heck did that idea come from anyway? You could say from your collective experiences; but, how did that particular idea hit you in this particular moment? You probably have, well, no idea. Isn’t that inspiration enough for you?
I know some ideas are far more inspiring than others. When hit with certain ideas you get immediately exciting and make a mad dash to begin working, writing as fast as you can the whole way through.
Other times you might get an idea, consider it for a few seconds, and then get a sense of, “Hey, I could write about this. I think I will do that.” You aren’t jumping off the walls to get going, yet working on this idea feels like the right thing to do. Chances are that while you are writing you feel that this is the best possible use of your time at present—even if this feeling doesn’t totally overwhelm you. In this case your feelings are subtle, yet they are powerful enough to get you moving.
The experience of being inspired is not always the same, so try not to get too attached to calling one feeling or general experience “inspiration” and excluding all other possibilities. Rather, you will find that inspiration takes on a few different general forms. It might be excitement, it might be a calm sense of duty and exploration, or it might smash you over the head with the message of, Hey, you need to do this.
I find that, for myself, the second form is most common, and the third is least common. Likewise, the second is least powerful, and the third is most. Still, this doesn’t mean that #2 isn’t powerful: it is. It just takes some getting used to as all. Be open to all three forms (and more) of inspiration, and chances are that you will both notice and act on them more frequently. Because #2 is subtle it can be mistaken for any old passing thought. However, when ideas are acted on more frequently you can more easily recognize which ideas are likely to produce more value (inspired ideas) and which are not (impulses and everyday/circular thought. “Everyday” thought tends to take the form of worries and stories which you uselessly imagine telling to others).
Acting on inspiration does not consist merely in doing the bidding of an idea brought on by some force whose identity is not readily apparent. Rather, you must recognize the inspiration for what it is and choose to act on it. Generally, though, the inspiration will be so strong that it will be hard to say No to it.
I have so many other ideas: what if one of those is better?
Which idea do you want to work with most right now? Which idea is most likely to provide value to people? Which idea is most likely to provide the strongest value? Certainly there are answers that pop into your head. Listen for them, though do so without influencing them.
At least for me, this block is folly in that I usually incorporate the points I wanted to make in one article into the article I actually write anyway. As long as they work in this way, there’s no reason you can’t smash two or more ideas together. For me, though, I usually get more leverage out of focusing on one: the other makes an appearance on its own.
Both ideas have been on my mind, after all, so especially if I’m writing emotionally, the idea I didn’t choose is bound to squeak out to some extent in some form. As I mention at the end, this article obviously covers much more than just writing. I may focus on a specific topic when I write, but I try to reduce what I’m writing to general principles so that the ideas may be applied by a variety of people and in a variety of situations.
If you want to provide value through your writing and not feel like you’re excluding too many ideas, share what generalizations you can make from what you have written. Examples are specific, principles are general. Even if both are present in one piece a reader can benefit from considering both. You don’t always have to push the generalizations, though: especially if you are driven by a defined purpose, you will recognize them soon enough after writing something of substance (the piece doesn’t have to be complete before this happens).
You can also go the inspiration route and consider which idea makes you feel most excited and ready to get to work. If you’re stuck then it may be wise to go with the idea you can most easily start on right now. Even if it doesn’t turn out so hot you will have picked up the momentum of writing, which will help you to work more easily on other, potentially better ideas. You will also have more clarity as to what works and what doesn’t.
If all else fails, remember that as long as you’re alive, you can work with one of those other ideas later.
Also, if you’re hurtin’ bad, you can flip a coin. Keep it simple, Stupid. ;)
I don’t see how this could possibly be of value to anyone.
Anything is more valuable than nothing. So if you have an idea that doesn’t seem very good but you’re deficient in other ideas, then roll with that one for now. Chances are that working with the idea will help you to come up with other, better ones.
This is similar to the next point. Read that one.
They’ll all just ignore me again…
If you suck (see the last (not previous) point), that is likely. But if you keep going and consciously try to improve each time that you write, odds are that, eventually, you won’t suck anymore.
Perhaps your skill in writing is fantastic but your content isn’t very good, meaning that no one cares about it. If you want to know what people care about, you can see which products, media outlets (e.g. TV shows, podcasts), and Google searches are most popular. Similarly, you can ask people whether they care about certain subjects and why, and whether they would like to know more about them.
A stronger approach might be to read some of the most famous, time-tested (i.e. old) books and determine what humanity really cares about, if people are still reading about this stuff after hundreds of years. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic, and the works of Plato and Aristotle are good examples—this stuff is over a thousand years old, and it all is still quite popular today.
Most important, though, is that you write about something you care about. If you couldn’t give two figs for your writing then it will probably suck, and thus not be of value to many, if any, people.
What I like to do is write on something that I think will provide value to me. I don’t write with every word pre-planned: rather, I write to figure things out. At the top of this word document (which you will not see) I wrote, What is it that leads me to procrastinate on written work? I asked this because I had trouble getting started with writing today. Now I have worked through the question and I have some answers.
Because I am a human being and I am writing for human beings, I suspect there are people who have asked similar questions and who would benefit from reading this article. Plus, from here on out, whenever I start to procrastinate I can look at (or remember) this article and say, Oh, I’m just being silly. Get over yourself, Kim, and start writing! And because I published this article, you get to do that too! Woohoo!
Also consider that the issue may not be with the content, but rather with the delivery. Maybe people would love to read your blog articles, for instance, but your website is too new to be found easily. See about sharing or at least discussing your content in various outlets aside from your own: that way more people will know you exist. Marketing your writing is just as important as creating it, so make sure you get the word out about your words.
Remember: if only one person derives value from what you've written, value has been delivered. You have not been ignored (still, you could probably do better).
I’m afraid to share that information/discuss that topic. People might look at me differently and even dislike me for it.
If you want to talk about something but are afraid to do so, chances are that you will benefit from doing so. In particular, you will better understand and feel more comfortable with that information, and fear it less thus.
For all you know you could have something valuable to say on this topic, and by keeping shut you are withholding that value. Your fear doesn’t serve anyone.
When you share what you’re really thinking and what you really care about, you will get some odd looks. Some people will turn around and try to never look back at you (at least, blind themselves to that part of you), but others will be curious. Maybe you just opened a perspective they never considered, and by discussing it with them you can enable them to explore life in a different way—one which may prove immensely helpful to them.
Then, there will be people who don’t look at you strangely at all, but instead relate to you immediately and regard you as a kindred spirit. You might be shocked at how much even the initially-frightened people open up to you once you act honestly. Someone you’ve known for years might tell you something you never could have imagined about them now that you finally are being honest yourself.
This is the 21st century. If you live in a developed country, odds are that what you say won’t put your life in danger. What you have to say may indeed be highly unpopular, but in America you theoretically have the right to say it. So, go on and exercise that right if that’s what you want to do.
Unfortunately, some people receive death threats for things that they say—even if they intend to serve other people. Edward Snowden is a prime example (if you don’t know, he has been exiled to Russia for revealing the privacy infringements made by the NSA). If this seems like a possible outcome for you, you will have to determine how much you value sharing the truth with others. You should also make sure that what you’re saying is truth in the first place. It would be quite sad to be run out of town for attempting to help people by sharing the truth but, in actuality, spreading lies. Surely Snowden told the truth if the government is so darned mad at him, right? J
Unless your thoughts are those of blind hatred, you are always more likely to be of service by expressing yourself as you wish to than you are by doing nothing at all. You might meet some neat people by sharing your interests, too! So do yourself and all of us a favor and tell us what you’ve been thinking about (if you think it would help you, you can Contact me).
I suck at this.
For most people for most skills, an initial “suck period” might as well be a requirement. Before I ever won a championship title in running I ran at the back of the pack for several years. Now, after several successful years I am once again in a suck period, which is nearly two years old. Not only do I suck (again) at shorter distances, but because I just began running ultramarathons 1 year ago I now suck at those as well. In my first race I was the last woman to finish, and in my second (and last) race I didn’t finish at all.
I know, it can be scary to suck—especially when the sucking seems to never end. You wonder, What’s the point of trying if I’m just going to fail? I know I will only be beaten into the ground.
In advance, you can have some sense of whether you will one day succeed or fail—or at least, improve. It is not something I can demonstrate objectively, but I do think that seeds and signs of the future exist in the present, if only we know where to look. Of course, these signs tend not to become apparent until the future has arrived. It is then, as Steve Jobs said, that we can only connect the dots looking backward.
Whether this game of connect the dots consists of imaginary correlations (i.e. the illusion that two events are related) or synchronicities isn’t really the point, though. One of the most accurate and apparent indicators of the future is how you feel right now. In the lead-up to my first ultramarathon I felt incredibly confident in my ability to finish the race: I finished that race without too much suffering or even doubt. While training for my second ultramarathon I was miserable, in pain, and scared: I had doubts but I didn’t want to admit to them. That race was prematurely ended by suffering I could not overcome.
When I began my running career at the age of 12 I was very excited to challenge myself and become physically fit, but I had no vision of how I might do in the future. I just had a desire to be “awesome,” as the thought always came, and this desire led me to get started.
I wasn’t “awesome” at running by any stretch of the imagination until I was 14, but I found that, generally, the more excited I was to race the more I improved. In contrast, when I dread a race- as I often do now- I tend to run terribly. I headed to the start of a 15K behind the veil of excitement yesterday, but once I began running I knew dread was the real captain (and I did badly—11 minutes slower than my best time).
Negative feelings such as dread shouldn’t always be perused. Often they are fleeting, and are better off ignored or shooed away. Don’t get upset with yourself about being upset and you won’t be upset for long.
However, when you consistently feel negative about a situation (or your whole life!) for at least several weeks the feeling should be examined. The feeling is too strong to ignore and replace with positive thoughts: it needs to be acknowledged. To ignore such a strong feeling is to be in denial, and to be in denial is to stagnate and then devolve.
First, just admit that you feel the way that you do. You don’t have to tell another person, though if this would provide some relief then go ahead—preferably, that person should care about you (however, some acquaintances and even strangers can be quite empathic when you open up to them—you’d be surprised).
Next, consider what you ought to do to feel better. Now, an important distinction must be made here: this isn’t about merely getting rid of the feeling. The feeling is so strong because it’s trying to tell you something, and you need to listen. If you try to drink it away it’ll be back before long, and your life won’t actually get any better until you deal with the cause of the feeling directly.
By the way, as you get more accustomed to this process, you’ll be able to determine much more quickly than several weeks whether you should listen to a negative feeling or ignore it.
The strategies of resolving each of the blocks tend to overlap. Picking an idea entails determining what will be of value and what people will care about. Sharing what you’re afraid to share can be done more easily by writing with either a mental or emotional focus, or by eschewing to choose a focus entirely. Sucking less means worrying less about whether you’re qualified.
Clearly this article covers far more than just writer’s block, but as far as self-expression goes the principles are the same all around. The rule of thumb is this: if you want to say or do it and you think you and/or others (preferably “and”) will benefit from your doing so, then go ahead and do it. You might not be as far in the wrong as you think: if you are, then you can get feedback that will let you know this. But, much of the time, you can only know whether your ideas are erroneous if you share them.
So, if there’s something you want to do, get to work on it and share it with someone else, whether you just discuss it with them or show it to them directly. When you ask for others’ opinions, make sure to ask for your own first and foremost. Other people can’t be certain of what is right for you to do because they aren’t you. You can use their opinions to supplement your own, but not to replace your own. Even if you’d rather not, you have the final say. If someone persuades you to act in a certain way it’s because you let them do so. You let your opinions overlap enough for you to act as they wanted you to.
If you’d rather not deal with others’ opinions before you get very far, work in private (as much as possible) at first. People don’t have to know what you’re doing. If you want to keep your intentions free and clear of persuasion and put-downs then you have every right to stay silent about them.
At some point, though, people will have to know what you’re up to if you want to get very far. Your friends don’t have to know that you want to start a business, but it’ll be much easier to communicate with them if they do.
Hiding from others can put a strain on your relationships—not just on your relationships with people, but also on your relationship with yourself and on your relationship with life. Not only that, but if you don’t tell others what you want they can’t help you to get it, and you’re bound to miss out on huge opportunities this way. You won’t be able to help others get what they want, either.
You will find that the more you live honestly, the easier it is to live. If your life would be destroyed by honesty, then that life is worth destroying. Build a new one from scratch and be honest about it from the jump. That way you can finally start to live in service to others as well as to yourself.
One more thing: you live In Your Own Private World. You cannot guarantee that other people actually read and think about what you write, as you cannot experience the thoughts of others directly. If something does not work in your world, then it will not work in the world at large. Ignore your private world and you will find yourself without a world. If you want to serve the big world in the best way that you can, make sure to serve your world as well.
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