When the Words Just Won’t Come

I know it’s happened to you. It happens to all writers.

It’s the tyranny of the blank page, Otherwise known as ‘writer’s block.’

This bane of all writers can strike at any time. It can hit when you first start writing. Or it can raise its monstrous head as you’ve been sailing along doing just fine.

So what do you do?

Since I’ve been writing for over 15 years now, I’d planned on giving you my strategies. Then I decided to look at what a few famous writers do to defeat this monster. Here are their strategies with mine mixed in for good measure …

1. When the first words refuse to come …

If you’re having problems getting started from the get-go, Master Copywriter, AWAI Board member, and Bootcamp favorite John Forde is blunt about the solution. The problem lies, he says, in not having a good enough ‘Big Idea.’

We don’t have the space to get into how to identify a strong Big Idea here. Two TGT articles back in November 2012 go into the detail that we can’t. Click these two links to read those articles after you finish this one: “The Hidden Component” and “Finding the Big Idea.”

While the Big Idea was born in the financial niche, it powers effective copywriting in all niches. Big Ideas – in fact compelling ideas for any writing you do – come from one place; Research.

So if you’re having trouble getting started writing on a project, it tells me you need to do more research.

What if you’re under the gun to complete the writing by a pressing deadline? You’ll spend more time writing bad copy if you haven’t done enough research than the time it takes to do the research. (I speak from hard earned experience here).

2. You’re going along fine, then …

So, you have a good Big Idea and everything’s going smoothly. The suddenly, BOOM! Nothing. You simply cannot go forward.

While prolific sci-fi author Ray Bradbury never wrote marketing copy, he certainly faced this problem while writing 27 novels and over 600 short stories. Here’s his take on it …

“What if you have a blockage and you don’t know what to do about it? Well, it’s obvious you’re doing the wrong thing. In the middle of writing something you go blank … You’re being warned, aren’t you? Your subconscious is saying ‘I don’t like you anymore. You’re writing about things I don’t give a damn for.”

Makes abundant sense. When I get stuck like this and can’t get onto the next sentence, I feel exactly like Bradbury does. My strategy? I’ve adopted the same one Orson Scott Card – another renowned author – uses …

“Writer’s block is my unconscious mind telling me that something I’ve just written is either unbelievable or unimportant to me, and I solve it by going back and reinventing some part of what I’ve already written … Writer’s block is never solved by forcing oneself to “write through it,” because you haven’t solved the problem that caused your unconscious mind to rebel against the story, so it still won’t work – for you or for the reader.”

If the next sentences refuse to come, I stop and go back over what I’ve already written. I can usually spot some copy or an idea in the copy that I forced. It hadn’t really flowed from what came before, but I tried to force it in. I use this strategy all the time – frequently when I’m writing The Golden Thread or my Circle of Success blog. And it usually always works.

3. Sometimes you just need a break …

Okay, so you have a good Big Idea. And even after going back over what you’ve already written, you can’t find any forced copy. So what do you do then?

Neil Gaiman is an author of many best-selling books including Coraline, an animated feature film that grossed over $120 million dollars worldwide. Here’s what he, many successful writers, and I all do when we hit this snag …

Put it aside for a few days, or longer, do other things, try not to think about it.

I call this process “letting ideas blossom.” It’s not usually necessary to let go for a few days either. Often you can get over the hump by getting away from the keyboard. Go for a walk, exercise, take a shower, or dance.

But do something that takes your mind far enough away from your work so you can harness your greatest ally in your search for the right words.

That ally is your subconscious. Research shows that ideas develop in the subconscious. When you’re trying too hard to grab at those ideas with your conscious mind, you hinder your subconscious’s ability to develop them.

So, when the words just won’t come, sometimes the best thing to do is something else.

4. And sometimes you just need to write …

Often when you’re first starting on a project, the first step is the hardest. “How do I start? What am I going to say?”

It’s almost as if the writing part of your brain were a pump that’s gone dry. So what do you do when a pump goes dry? You prime it, of course.

“What I try to do is write … And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try … And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, “Okay. Okay. I’ll come.” – Maya Angelou

“I encourage my students at times like these to get one page of anything written, three hundred words of memories or dreams or stream of consciousness on how much they hate writing.” – Anne Lamott

This is exactly the strategy I’ve recommended to aspiring writers for quite a few years now. Only I don’t recommend starting out by writing ‘anything.’ If you’re writing promotional copy, stop writing ‘copy.’

Instead, forget all the copywriting strategies you’ve learned and write a friendly letter to a good friend. Start out without saying anything about your product. Nothing. Zero. Nada. Tell you friend about your recent trip to the Amazon. Ask how her son is doing in Clown College.

Then, when your conscious mind is relaxed and your subconscious has had a chance to activate, write about the product. But do not write promo copy. Keep the same breezy, informal chitchat going you used in the beginning.

You’ve primed the pump, and pretty soon you’re well on your way to leaping over the barrier that was blocking you.

These four strategies for smashing through writer’s block all work. I know. I’ve used them all … many times.

I’d love to hear other strategies that work for you. Send them to me at wnewman@awaionline.com. I’ll try them the next time writer’s block decides it’s going to make my life difficult.

Until next week … keep writing!

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

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Published: April 1, 2013

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