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When The Words Won’t Come

The dark tunnel of writer’s block

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

As an author what I dread most is the blank page — it is the curse of the creative writing profession.You sit down at your computer in readiness to produce something eminently readable, full of originality and verve and suddenly freeze with fear. Either you cannot think of a thing to write or the means to express what you want to say have disappeared. The imagination has dried up. The dreaded writer’s block has struck. For individuals whose occupation is creative writing, the main tool of the job is an active and fertile brain fizzing with ideas, interesting plots and characters. If that lets you down you are creatively impotent. It’s like removing tools from a carpenter, paint and brushes from an artist or access to a kitchen for a chef. As Kafka wrote:

How time flies; another ten days and I have achieved nothing. It doesn’t come off. A page now and then is successful, but I can’t keep it up, the next day I am powerless.
							–Diary entry March 11, 1915

In talking to my friends and colleagues in the Crime Writers’ Association, I have discovered that this debilitating state is not as rare as one might suppose. It may strike at any time and even the most successful and prolific of authors can be affected. Writer’s block not only produces angst and bouts of depression but can also be responsible for severe physical conditions. One eminent crime novelist revealed to me that when he fell foul of the block he suffered with severe stomach pains as a result of not being able to write creatively.

However, this stultifying condition is not the sole preserve of professional wordsmiths. Writer’s block can strike anyone without warning. There are those in all kinds of careers who are called upon to step outside their comfort zone and put their ideas, views, strong opinions into print — whether as reports, promotional material or even detailed emails covering important issues. In creating communications where words and clarity count, fluent and effective prose is essential.

So how does one cope with this crippling condition? Overcoming its effects is not easy. One of the major problems with the onset of writer’s block is that if you have a few sessions when the words will not come, it can trigger the belief that they never will again. Similar to insomnia, it can have a built-in cyclical trigger. However, the key to extracting yourself from this mire of despond is to force yourself to have a positive attitude and try various techniques to help you to regain your inspiration and fluency.

In talking to fellow writers they have suggested a variety of approaches which have helped them individually to come through the tunnel and into the daylight once more. One of the simplest suggestions is to take a break from writing — a holiday from the page. Become involved in some other activity which will engage the brain and allow it to relax and refresh itself.Often when the mind is occupied with other things, fresh ideas spring forth.Not having to having to produce quality written material for a time may very well allow that block to crumble. Of course, it is fine if you are able to take this approach but if the manager is expecting that report on his desk the next morning or the client needs that document urgently more drastic action is needed.

It is then that a practical, almost mechanical approach is necessary. The demon has to be dealt with in a methodical way. To begin with, decide what are the key points to get across in the writing and who is the audience. Make a bullet-point list as a reference guide for when you actually start composing. This is a very important process for, whether you are writing a story or a factual item, thinking hard about the essential details will help you free up your imagination and approach the task with more confidence. The next step is to write the piece trying to keep as close as you can to the list of bullet points, but more importantly, just get those thoughts down on screen or on paper. If you get stuck over a word or phrase put a question mark and carry on writing. The appropriate word or phrase will come when you are under less pressure.

Don’t be dismayed if the first draft is somewhat shambolic. No writer turns out precise and perfect prose the first time. Usually many attempts are necessary. Remember this is a work in progress and can always be edited and reshaped. And that is the next task. Take a short break if possible and then very slowly read what you have written, editing and rephrasing where you can until you end up with a sharper, more polished draft. Now it is time to refer to your bullet-point list and compare it with the written piece, ticking off the points you wanted to make and eliminating irrelevancies and repetitions. If you have missed any points, insert them now. This process could easily take you to three or four drafts. Take heart in the knowledge that you are refining your work and gradually escaping the shackles of writer’s block.

The final test is to read the piece out loud to yourself, noting the use of sentence structure and other forms of punctuation as well as the logical presentation of your material. Listen to yourself, judging how clearly, effectively and succinctly you deal with the issues involved. Your ear will tell you if your writing does not flow or where there are clumsy patches and you can then make final adjustments.

One of the aspects of writer’s block that can be particularly difficult is knowing what you want to say but being unsure how to approach the subject. Where should you start? How do you introduce the topic and develop it? The bullet-point list will help here also. Prioritise the points and then consider where the important ones would best be placed: at the beginning, in the middle or at the end, for example. If it is not that obvious – and it is not always that obvious – one must indulge in a process of trial and error. Try all the options you consider viable and test them out by writing different versions. It soon will become clear which works best, but, if you have the opportunity, try them out on a reliable friend or colleague. Their views will assist you to reach a decision even if you disagree with their opinion. This will help point you in the right direction.

The important thing to remember is that writer’s block is not the end of the world. All those who write are affected by it from time to time. If you find yourself down that dark wordless cul de sac, it may help to refer to some of your previous jottings, written pieces which have been successful and hit their target. They will bring encouragement. Just persevere and all will be well.

Crime writer David Stuart Davies is an expert on Sherlock Holmes and the author of seven novels and two plays about the great detective. He edits Red Herrings for the Crime Writers’ Association.

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