3 Ways I Keep Writer’s Block at Bay

For me, writer’s block is simply the fear of bad writing–the fear that I would take the story I love, clothe it in words, and find the result looks like a poop emoji. The fear of bad writing is the enemy of all good writing. And good writers know the best way to conquer that fear is to embrace bad writing every day. Consider these wise words:

“You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.” –Jodi Picoult

“The first draft of anything is [the poop emoji]*.” –Ernest Hemingway

“Let it be crappy. It’s a first draft. Get some clay on the wheel.” –Tosca Lee

“I just give myself permission to suck. I find this hugely liberating.” –John Green

I spent years bogged down with the fear of bad writing until I came across these words and others like them. It was, as Mr. Green said, “hugely liberating.” If established writers embraced bad writing, then so could I. I resolved to write 300 words (a little more than a page) a day. Those 300 words might be awful. It didn’t matter. If I was writing, I didn’t have space for fear. (It becomes quite hard to fear the thing you do every day.)

Early in my quest to write daily I realized that momentum is key. If I stopped to think about what I was doing it was easier for fear to creep back in. I found three tools that helped me keep moving forward:

  1. Keeping a log.
  2. Leaving a rough edge.
  3. Letting the inner critic speak.

Keeping a Log

In his book If You Can Talk, You Can Write Joel Saltzman mentions that Ernest Hemingway kept a log of his words per day–or at least he did when interviewed in 1958. Most days Hemingway was only writing about 500 words (about two pages). “Not a huge output,” Saltzman notes. “But enough to add up to nine novels and about seventy short stories.”

Whether tracking the amount of time you are sitting at the word processor (and only the word processor) or the number of words written daily keeping a log is valuable both as a motivator and as an accountability tool. Keeping a log allowed me to see how a little daily effort added up week after week, month after month–as it did for Hemingway. Here’s a sample of what my current month looks like:

screen-shot-2017-01-21-at-8-43-54-am

Now, full disclosure: this is one of my best months ever. The reality is in the period 2014-2016 (the years I started keeping a log), I averaged 200 words per day and on average I didn’t write anything 10 days out of the month (not including Sundays). Those results might seem pretty paltry but that was a 500% increase over my pre-keeping a log years.

Leave a Rough Edge

Sometimes sitting down and creating a sentence–a complete idea–from scratch causes me to lose momentum. Sitting down and completing an idea is much easier. So at the end of each writing session I leave a rough edge–an incomplete sentence just waiting to be finished. So the next day, when I sit down to write, all I have to do is

You get the idea.

Let the Inner Critic Speak

It can be tempting to go back and edit when I realize I’ve written something truly awful. I tell myself, “I know that’s bad. I can’t let it stand. It makes it seem like I have bad taste.” In those moments my inner critic is actually my  best friend. I write out what my inner critic is saying in all caps in between brackets. For example:

screen-shot-2017-01-23-at-9-44-24-pm

Letting my inner critic have a voice serves two purposes. First, it marks areas in the text that I need to come back to during re-writing. I can keep moving forward, confident that the problems will get fixed eventually. Second, it lets me save face. (“See? I was well aware that was bad writing all along. I was just gripped by an insatiable need to write. I couldn’t help myself.”) And as a bonus, the inner critic adds to my word count.

A Word of Caution

These three tools are not the answer to your writer’s block. This might seem ironic after how much time I spent talking about them and how they’ve worked for me but pay attention to the title. These three tools keep my writer’s block at bay. What initially got me unblocked was the commitment to embrace bad writing on a daily basis. After that it is just a matter of momentum–moving ahead faster than fear can keep up. These tools have helped me keep moving. I hope they can do the same for you.

See also:

Three Steps to Start A Daily Writing Habit | Goins, Writer

The Cure for Writer’s Block | Pinterest

*If Arnold Samuelson’s attribution is correct, Hemingway used a more colorful term for the poop emoji.

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