Archives for March 2012


Writer’s block hurts!

It’s no fun to stare at a blank page, knowing you have something to say but unable to get to it. In the course of ghostwriting 30 books, editing some 100 manuscripts, and facing deadlines as an investigative reporter and marketing copywriter—I learned how to dissolve writer’s block and step back into the Zone.

I call it the COCO system and add an A (COCOA) whenever it seems like a little sugar will help as well. Writer’s block usually comes from lack of:

1. CLARITY. It’s hard to produce pages or enjoy writing when we don’t know exactly where we’re going, why we’re going there, and how we’ll know when we’re there. Before you start writing, ask yourself:

  • What do I want to say?
  • To whom?
  • Why? What is the specific result I want to produce?
  • How many words or pages do I have to say it?

2. ORGANIZATION. It can be fun just to follow our noses and go wherever our writing takes us—but not having a specific plan or structure for what we’re writing can also act as a “stop.” When I find myself staring at the computer screen, my mind slowly turning to oatmeal, gloom and doom beginning to set in, it’s often because I’m afraid to start out in any particular direction for fear it will be the “wrong”one. It is often useful to have an outline or at least a Table of Contents. Here is a fast, efficient, easy way to create one:

  • Make a list of all the subjects you want to cover.
  • Select the 10-15 most important ideas.
  • Group the rest of your ideas inside these major ideas as subheads.
  • As more ideas occur to you, keep grouping them under your major headings.
  • Reorganize your major and minor headings as needed.

Keep your outline/Table of Contents flexible. Let it shift as your thinking organizes itself—but meanwhile, just keep following the outline until you see that it needs to be revised. Then revise it.

3. COHERENT WORK HABITS. This may seem obvious, but remember to:

  • Take off that chenille bathrobe and put on some clothes.
  • Organize your work space so that it is clean, clear, and set up to work for you.
  • Write in the times of day that work for you, and stick to whatever schedule you set up.
  • Set deadlines for yourself so that you don’t get into “on and on and on and I’ll never finish” writing.

4. OPTIMISM OR CONFIDENCE It’s easy for one unsuccessful bout with writer’s block to turn into a mental miasma of:

  • “I can’t do it!”
  • “It’s too overwhelming and I’m not up to it.”
  • “This was a bad idea anyway. Who do I think I am to try this?”
  • “I have writer’s block, so I can’t write.”

The best “fix” for writer’s block is to write your way out of it. Just write something, anything. Follow Anne Lamott’s suggestion in Bird by Bird: “Write shitty first drafts.” Then you have something on paper to edit. You can do it.

Another way to boost your confidence and optimism is to review the answers you gave to 1 and 2 above. It will remind you that you know where you are going, why, and how to get there.

Now, what about that A that turns COCO into COCOA? A is for Applause! Give yourself a big hand and remember to pat yourself on the back regularly and frequently for embracing the high challenge and calling of writing!



“When I’m on a deadline, my brain freezes and I can’t write,” my client Mary said.

It reminded me of all the times, both as a reporter and as a ghostwriter, that I despaired of making a deadline and decided I’d better apply to plumbing school.

We all get BFUD (Brain Freeze Under Deadline) occasionally, and it’s befuddling. Here’s how to fix it and be creative on demand:

1. UNDERSTAND BRAIN FREEZE. The negative chatter in our brains takes over. All the mean inner voices start yelling at the same time:

  •       “You’ll never think or write fast enough.”
  •       “Quick! Quick! What’s the perfect thing to say?”
  •       “C’mon! Out with it!”

The voices can be overwhelming and cumulative. They come from all directions, and they are all frightening. Our brains decide that maybe it’s best just to go unconscious. The creative spark within us sputters. We stare into space, horrified that we’re not producing anything. Meanwhile, time is flying by. We become paralyzed and can barely answer that 2 + 2 = 4.

Brain Freeze Under Deadline is nothing more than negative mental chatter gone wild. The solution is to take a deep breath, and to remember that they are just monkey mind and not reality. Stop the runaway monkeys. Clear your mind. Read an inspiring paragraph. Stand up and stretch. Say a prayer. Walk around the block. Break the pattern somehow.

2. GET CLEAR. When we have to drive somewhere quickly, it’s best to choose the fastest, most direct route. Take a minute before you start to plan the writing journey. What exactly do you want to say?  How long will the piece be? What is the best tone, style, or voice in which to tell this story? Who is the audience? What is the best way to organize the material?

3. FIND THE NEXT ACTION. What is the next best action? Do you need more research? Have all your questions from #2 been answered, or do you need to ask someone about length, style, or scope? Do you need statistics, pictures, or other resources? What is the next best action to take right now? Take it.

4. WRITE SOMETHING. ANYTHING! Get something down on paper. Then all you have to do is edit it. When I was writing Chasing Grace: A Novel of Odd Redemption, I sometimes spent days writing stuff I knew wasn’t great, but that I could edit later. It save me from paralysis, beating myself up, or stopping completely.

5. FIND YOUR WRITING ZONE. What puts you in that sparkling state of focused flow in which time disappears and you are complete absorbed in what you are doing? Take yourself there and let it rip!

6. MAKE FRIENDS WITH THE DEADLINE. It gives you a framework, certainty, and a definite time when the job will be over.  When is the deadline? How many hours can you realistically write each day? (It’s probably not 24, or even 12…or 8!) How much needs to be written? Divide the writing into small increments with small deadlines. How much do you need to get done each day (or hour) in order to complete the job on time? Let your deadline serve as a bookend, a guidepost for how much time and energy you can realistically put into the project, and a finish line where you will break the tape in triumph.

7. REMEMBER THAT NEITHER YOU NOR YOUR WRITING HAS TO BE PERFECT. Nothing is. Your job is only to do the best you can, in the time you have, while treating yourself in a kind, humane manner. Beating yourself up and/or going crazy only makes it worse.

Take a deep breath and begin. You can do it.