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How To Get Unstuck When You’re Writing

January 27, 2014

 

I’m not talking about the stuck people refer to when they cannot think of something to write. If you are a writer and you can’t think of anything to write about, you’re probably in the wrong business.

 

The writer’s problem is not that he has nothing to write. Quite the opposite. He has a million thoughts that need to be put down on paper. These thoughts and ideas are entering his mind at such a fast rate he can’t possibly latch onto them all.

 

No, the stuck I’m referring to is that phenomenon that occurs when you sit down in front of the blank screen to begin a piece on a topic you’ve settled on. You know what you want to write about, but you can’t seem to begin. You sit and stare at the screen hoping your muse finds the time to drop some sort of brilliant thought into your conscious.

 

First, let’s clear one thing up right now. There is no muse, just as there is no Santa Clause. People worked hard for the money to buy those gifts that landed under the tree, and you have to work hard if the words are going to land on that page.

 

You are probably stuck because you are trying to start at the beginning. You’re probably trying to start at the beginning because instead of inviting your inner writer to sit down in front of the screen you showed up with your inner editor.

 

Of course, the editor can’t get started until he’s come up with this piece’s equivalent to “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” That’s her job, and that’s why you’re stuck.

 

It happens to me all the time. But as soon as I catch myself staring at that blank screen for more than a minute or two I realize what’s happening. I quickly tell my editor to get lost and pull out the chair for the writer.

 

My goal at this point is only to get the required number of words down on the screen. They don’t have to be the best words, and they don’t have to make much sense. They just have to be something…anything on topic.

 

It takes me about an hour to get 1000 words on the screen. I’m using 1000 words because that is double my final word count of much of my work I do for clients. It’s my first draft word count give or take 100 or so words and ten or so minutes. So, I set my timer for sixty minutes and focus on the task.

 

Now I should say here it takes about an hour because inevitably as soon as I’ve set the timer I suddenly make one last ditch effort at procrastination and decide I simply must have a cup of tea before I can start. Once that has been made I can begin.

 

I almost never begin at the beginning. I sometimes begin at the end, and sometimes I begin in the middle. I just don’t know it’s the end or the middle because it doesn’t matter.

 

The best I can do is work in paragraphs. This first pass is a brain dump of anything and everything that seems to make sense at the time. I don’t edit my thoughts. I don’t make decisions about what belongs and what doesn’t. I just furiously tap away.

 

When the timer goes off I have about 1000 words on the page. Most of it is crap. It’s my first draft, so I don’t care. It’s a big pile of words and thoughts that may or may not go in the final piece.

 

 

My inner editor would be appalled at what is left on the page. But my inner editor will never see it, so I don’t much care. If I had any guts at all, I’d show you a sample of one of my first drafts and then another example of the finished product. I’m terrified that someone would get a hold of that first draft out of context, and I’d be dubbed the worst writer in the world. So just take my word for it, it’s total crap.

 

Then I let that first draft sit and ferment for a while. That “while” might be just an hour if I’m backed up against a deadline. If I have more time, it might be a day. Suffice it to say when my writer returns to that document she’s ready to begin the real work.

 

Somehow, as if by magic it begins to take shape. Sometimes there is much in that first draft that can be used, but often most will get dumped. Now that my writer brain is no longer swimming with tons of irrelevant information the gems start to appear.

 

A logical sequence emerges and after a few more passes (inviting my inner editor to work along side me) I have my final draft. When I send that final draft to the client, I quaintly call it my first draft. They don’t need to know my process. It’s none of their business.

 

This method of working is the only way I can make a decent living as a freelance writer. I don’t charge by the hour. I charge by the piece. A 500 word article should take me three hours at the most to complete from research through the final draft.

 

My rate basically drops $25 an hour if I allow myself to stare at the screen for a full hour trying to start with the perfect beginning. That’s just bad economics. I’m penalizing myself and rightly so. Why should my client be penalized because I was not working efficiently.

 

So, the next time you find yourself stuck, get out a timer and set it for 60 minutes. Then make a cup of tea as that will satisfy your inner procrastinator. Then start typing away. Just get it all out of your head and on the screen…or paper if you’re a “classical” writer.

 

Don’t worry about that awesome opening. That’s going to come to you either when your in the shower or while you’re in line at the grocery store. In which case, I don’t care if you have to prick your finger and write it on the back of an envelope or in the mirror in blood. Just write the damn thing down.

 

Photo Credit: madamepsychosis via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: ashley rose, via Compfight cc

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