making yourself write.

Reader M.K. asks:

As memory serves, you were once some kind of professional writer. Got any advice about actually getting writing done? I’m supposed to be working on a journal paper but I’m having a hell of a time actually getting stuff written.

Dear M.K:

Thank you for remembering — yes, I am a professional writer! 🙂

Your problem is rather classic for all writers, from the third grader writing her first book report to the novelist who churns out four books a year. Writer’s block is one of the worst self-induced problems I’ve ever encountered. It has a lot to do with internal psychology, self-doubt, procrastination, and all those wonderful other hang-ups that keep us from doing anything.

The number one tip any professional writer will give you is: “Just write.” It’s true. They’ll tell you just to sit down at your writing desk and type. It doesn’t matter what comes out — word salad is good enough. To overcome the wall that surrounds you, you’ve got to just start building a ladder, or toss a rope over, or whatever. Just be proactive. Eventually it will become habit and you won’t be able to stop.

Of course, that’s a lot easier than it sounds.

And if you’re writing an actual journal paper, word salad definitely won’t be good enough.


Image: Chris Sharp / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I’m the kind of paper-writer who gestates before I actually put anything down. You may be similarly wired, taking the two weeks after the paper was assigned to consider your topic, rehashing everything over and over in your mind until the words just spill out on the page (usually 15 hours before the paper is due). Even if you’re not this type of person, you may consider incorporating the theory into your non-writing period. Meditate on your subject. Read everything you can on it; Google it relentlessly; talk about it with your mother. By steeping yourself in your topic, you’ll come to a point where you can’t help but write about it (that is, if you are lyrically inclined).

My father has a great story about Thomas Edison’s method for inducing a “eureka!” moment. According to dear old dad (and if this isn’t true, I’m sorry), Edison would fall asleep in a chair holding a ball bearing in each hand. When he actually dozed off, he’d drop the ball bearing, and the sound would awaken him, and whatever quandary it was that had been troubling him would suddenly become clear. The psychology behind this is that at the moment you fall asleep, your brain sorts things out unconsciously, so you have a better chance of finding an answer to something than you would if you consciously think about it.

A similar way to accomplish this is through lucid dreaming. If you have the time to put the effort into lucid dreaming, you can get things done in your dreams that you might otherwise never do. (I’m not making this up; it’s science. I’m currently in the middle of Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming by Stephen LaBerge. He has a laboratory at Stanford. My elitist, educated standards say that this makes him a good person to trust.)

However, if you don’t have time to get yourself all prepped for lucid dreaming, or you’re not interested in interrupting your sleep cycle to come up with the best ideas, and you already know what you want to write about and kind of want to get this journal paper done ASAP, follow these friendly steps on writing a paper in two weeks, based on advice from your local fifth-grade teacher:

Day 1: Do your research. Go to the library. Take to the Interwebs. Just make sure you take copious notes. Read, watch, and absorb everything you possibly can on the subject, no matter how silly sounding. Don’t get too distracted by tangents, but let everything in.

Day 2: Organize your research. Re-read the most pertinent things. Write down the best quotations or research you think you could include in your paper.

Day 3: Write an outline. Yes. Fifth-grade style. Sort everything out. Take the big ideas and make them headers, then elaborate on them. Put your quotations and research in, too. Don’t write anything in a complete sentence. Keep it simple.

Day 4: Write your bibliography. This may sound backwards, but trust me. Write your bibliography or works cited page first, so that when you’re doing the references throughout the paper, it’s easy. You can always add more to your bibliography. It will also help you sort the wheat from the chaff in terms of your research. (Microsoft Word has a great works cited feature now that will do most of the work for you, too.)

Day 5: Get crackin’. Start the paper. Use your outline. In fact, just copy and paste your outline (or open it and Save As for a new doc) and flesh it out as you go.

Day 6: Keep writin’. If you didn’t finish it the day before, just keep going. Repeat as necessary.

Day 7: Rest. According to some sources, that’s what God does. Give your brain a day off. Think about something else for a while. Maybe take two days. Chances are, other ideas will come to you.

Day 8: Revisit your paper. Edit it lightly. Look for grammatical mistakes in a once-over. Then re-read it and see if your argument flows. You can write more if you feel like it (and you probably will), or you can just leave it, all red-lined and raw.

Day 9: Finish it. Get it all out there. Pretend today is your deadline and just hash it all out. Then go to bed.

Day 10: Give it to a friend. I’d recommend someone who is either interested in or an expert in your subject matter. You can consider giving it to a professional writer, but they may charge you. (Wink. Wink.) What another reader will do is find any errors you’ve made grammatically or constitutionally, and maybe give you more ideas on how to expand your thesis.

Day 11: Make changes. Add in all the ideas your friend gave you. Edit the sentences you hate. Cut things out. Reorganize it. Just change it.

Day 12: Re-check your bibliography. Make sure you’ve got everything listed that could possibly be construed as having given you an idea.

Day 13: Final edits. If you need to write a cover letter to submit the piece, do this today. You already know it backwards and forwards, so describing it shouldn’t be that hard.

Day 14: Submit. And drink some champagne.

These days can, of course, be amended as necessary (I know not everyone has full days off just to write).  Add or subtract from them as you please.

The other most important thing about writing is finding the place where you can do it. I am a huge fan of coffee shops, because they provide distraction when I need it, people to watch when I’m stuck, and, well, coffee. Some people can’t write with other people around. If that’s the case, put yourself in the quiet room in your house that doesn’t have a TV (I think TVs are generally anathema for writing) and get to it. Or go to the library. Or go to a friend’s house. Listen to music if it helps, but if you need quiet, find someplace quiet.

And now I will seal the deal by giving you that old writers’ adage: Just write.


2 Responses to “making yourself write.”

  1. 1 Kristin
    March 16, 2010 at 9:47 am

    Good advice! (I particularly like the part about talking to your mom – I’ve been known to do it with my research!) I think more people have this problem than admit to it. I know that I never start writing until I absolutely have to. I’ve learned over the years that I am afraid of the blank white page. I cope with this by not leaving it blank – I start with typed-out notes, then organize them into an outline that is invariably far longer than my finished product will be. That means I always have more information than I need, and never have to worry about filling empty pages – just condensing overly full ones.

  2. 2 Kerrie
    March 16, 2010 at 2:34 pm

    Just write…. what I tell myself every day, and it just never happens. 😦

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