You know that feeling you get where you’re sitting down, staring at a blank screen or paper, frozen by some particularly unpleasant blend of indecision, anxiety and/or doubt?
Yeah, me too.
And this article is a practical method developed to fix the problem. Whether it’s the above, or a flat-out writers block, this is a great way to remedy it.
Another piece of good news is that most writers get these kinds of blocks. Yes, even the super awesome ones.
For example, I remember reading this article by the illustrious Brian Clark of Copyblogger who confessed:
“And the truth is, every time I push myself in a new direction, I’m still afraid. I don’t think that ever changes—it’s just part of the game.”
Daniel Pink, Charlie Brooker and many, many others struggle to get started sometimes. So, before we get started, take some solace in the fact you’re not only one whose words meet the blockade. Knowing that certainly made me feel a whole lot better.
Also, this is a “swooping” strategy. So if you’re a “basher”, it might not be up your street, but I recommend at least trying it. If you’re not sure what I mean by “swoopers” and “bashers”, check out this quote from the great Kurt Vonnegut. Clearly, the ol’ boy showed his hand about which he prefers, but both are legit strategies adopted by many great writers.
I certainly wouldn’t recommend writing “higgledy-piggledy” etc. Just try and get down the majority of the words and points for the article in a moderately logical order that follows the strategy in Step 1.
Here’s a TLDR
(Too Long; Didn’t Read, just in case you don’t know)
- Forget making a perfect article for now. Instead, blast out a mind dump for your first draft using voice recognition software with your display/monitor turned off. Use one of these:a) iPhone’s Siri (dictation accuracy takes practice but is possible)
b) Dragon NaturallySpeaking (which works surprisingly well)
c) or the free iPhone app (which I haven’t tried)No edits allowed in step 1. Must be done at least 48 hours before handing in the work. Do step 1 and walk away.
- Come back to the first rough voice spoken draft after 24 hours with a fresh mind, fresh eyes and edit the copy into a coherent article. You get one pass, then walk away again.
- Come back the next day to tweak, polish, review and refine before submitting the work.
I’ll explain the steps in more detail in a moment, including why I think this works so well. But just quickly, let’s discuss how this helped to beat my typing-induced RSI.
A quick aside about repetitive strain injury (RSI)
I came across this method by accident. If necessity is indeed the mother of creation, the necessity at the time for me was an increasingly serious case of repetitive strain injury (RSI).
Apple had just released the iPhone 4 which introduced Siri, the voice recognition and talking features that made the iPhone the ultimate “smartass-in-a-box”.
I figured if I could dictate an entire draft using Siri, I could avoid the majority of the typing. I’ve long since used Dragon NaturallySpeaking which is considerably more accurate. I believe it’s free on the iPhone and works well, but I haven’t tried it.
I found that a combination of dictating drafts (I.E getting the majority of the words in place without any typing) removed most of the stress from my wrists. I then started carefully practicing the Surya Namaskara A sequence from the primary series in Ashtanga Yoga (consult a professional on this) which slowly built up their strength.
Now? No more RSI. Click to enlarge the image, if you like.
Yes, I’ve potentially helped you fix with two major writer’s problems in one article. You’re most welcome. I’ll write a more detailed article about the RSI issue another time, but meanwhile, let’s move on.
Day 1. Don’t write the first draft. Talk it.
Coupled with a half-decent USB microphone and Dragon NaturallySpeaking on iPhone or desktop, speak your first draft. Personally, I find it infinitely easier than sitting down and battling to put those first few words on paper.
Just talk. Start with a musing, a sentence, even if you know it isn’t that great. Use your voice, and just begin. You can worry about anything else later.
I’d recommend a wireless headset so you can pace your way around the room, dumping words on the page and sipping wine, munching a stick of celery or whatever takes your particular fancy while you do it.
Obviously, take care not to speak with your mouth full… Where a bib if you really must.
The goal of step one is this: Detach yourself from the second guessing. Get words on paper.
You’re not trying to write a great article at this point. You’re not trying to lay down perfect prose or interweaving your copy with amusing quips and insights.
You just want to get words on paper.
I advocate pacing round the room because it helps clear the mind and it takes you away from your screen where you’ll be tempted to edit while you write.
Never edit and write at the same time; it’s tantamount to torture and you’re supposed to be having fun with your work.
When you’re done, don’t look at the copy. Don’t examine what’s come out of your mouth and don’t look at whatever mistakes were made by the voice recognition program.
Close down your Google Doc or whatever, and walk away.
Day 2. Come back after 24 hours
Remember that anxious feeling you got staring at the endless white depths of a blank screen and second-guessing yourself about every failed attempt to start the first sentence?
Well, there’s a good chance you’ll find it refreshingly absent.
You’re no longer staring at a blank screen. You’ve got a rough direction for the content and something you can actually work with instead.
Step 2 is another swoop at the copy. Your aim is to go through it and, while there may be a little anxiety lurking and intent on forcing into a state of inaction, you should find it easier to roughly craft the copy into something resembling a coherent article.
What do you do after taking another pass? That’s right. You walk away and wait for tomorrow.
Day 3. Get it ready for submission
By the time you come back on the third day you should have something pretty close to a decent piece of work you’d be happy to give to a client.
The great thing is, now that you’re close to the deadline, you’ve got a close-to-finished product to work with instead of a blank piece of paper and a large dose of anxiety-induced motivation forcing you to rush something out.
By breaking the writing process down into these three swoops and using a voice dictated draft to start, you fix writers block by detaching yourself from the struggle just long enough to get things started.
Most of the time, and especially when you’re writing on a subject you know well, your subconscious already knows what to write anyway. Your second-guessing just gets in the way of the process.
Give it a shot, let me know what you think, and I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.