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!