Ministry of Prose: making words work for your business

One in a semi-regular series of ponderings, musings and contemplations on the interaction of words and psychology in business.

Beating writer's block

September 2016

In my first writing job I kept a block of wood on my desk, measuring roughly the same size as a house-brick. On it I'd scrawled "Writer's Block" in biro. Whenever my brain stopped working properly I would gently bash myself on the head with this piece of timber. Colleagues were permitted to borrow the Writer's Block whenever they had similar problems generating words. It became something of an institution in that office.

I'm not suggesting this as a solution to your own problems with writer's block. After all, even mild concussion can have lasting effects. But changing your frame of mind in a dramatic way can help keep the creative juices flowing.

I've written previously that good writing is partly a function of unconscious processes. Unfortunately those processes are easily halted or interrupted by conscious action. Writing is a creative activity, and like other creative activities it can't easily be forced. I'll quote one of my favourite authors here, Robert Heinlein, in the guise of the character Lazarus Long:

"If you happen to be one of the fretful minority who can do creative work, never force an idea; you'll abort it if you do. Be patient and you'll give birth to it when the time is ripe. Learn to wait."

This applies just as much to writing as to sculpture or painting. Yes, even copywriting. There is an art to generating prose content that's readable and interesting. Skill is involved too, of course, as is practice. But even the most talented, skilled and practised writer in the world still relies on the artistic, creative part of the brain in order to generate the right words.

Unfortunately, like a quantum-dependent Schrödinger's cat, that's the part of the brain that tends to stop working if you look at it too hard.

I'm not saying that the way to produce good writing is to distract yourself. That doesn't work, in fact distraction in general is the enemy of writing productivity. You need to rid yourself of distractions in order to get started. I've written about my various distraction-free writing tools (such as this and this). Without them I wouldn't be half as productive as I am.

But the key to beating writer's block is to understand when your unconscious mind is running out of steam. Once you've churned out a certain amount of content, you need to take a break and change your perspective, to allow that part to recharge. Your own mileage may vary, but I find it impractical to write for more than about 45 minutes at a time. I can push myself to write for longer than that, but the writing simply won't be as good.

So whenever I feel writer's block kicking in I change my mindset. Sadly I no longer have that piece of wood - it vanished when I left the company twenty years ago - but there are other techniques. I might do some exercise, go for a walk, listen to some music, do some repairs to my vintage computer collection, or any number of other tasks. What I don't do - and neither should you - is read emails, browse the web or do anything else that involves using a computer screen. The point is to move the mind away from work entirely, giving the creative element time to recharge.

Beating writer's block means understanding your own mental processes. It means not banging your head against a brick wall, but instead finding a way to tunnel under that wall or jump over it. Or simply wait until the wall just melts away.

Alex Cruickshank has been a professional writer since 1994 and will try to update this blog more frequently from now on.

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