(Self-deprecating note: this blogpost is a rough draft of an essay that I’m later planning to refine for the Write to the End site, but I’ve been asked to share it, so I finished it up and am sharing it as is. When the full article is cleaned up, I’ll link to it … but in the meantime, enjoy, and try not to wince too much).
So for way of introduction to the Write to the End group, I’ve been asked by a lot of people recently “How can I become a better writer?” — a question for which I’ve generated a bit of stock advice I frequently sum up as, “Just Write!” But, when I dug a little deeper, I found almost half of the people asking me that question were really asking the question, “How can I overcome Writer’s Block?” Well, I have some theories. And I’m going to tell you about them. But more importantly, I’ve got some techniques which I’m going to share with you, and even better, I’m using one of them right now: if you sit down to write and get writer’s block, then write down very explicitly why you sat down to write, and what kind of writing you hope to have produced when you get up again. If you don’t know why you want to write, and you don’t know what you hope to produce before you get up again, congratulations! You’re done. Get up from the page and go have a soda, something really nice, not diet, like with Italian flavoring or an ice cream float. If you do know what you want to write, or what you want to have written, congratulations! Actually writing that down can get you … um … on the order of 227 words, according to Scrivener’s count, probably 300 by the time you’re done. The hope is that getting yourself writing ANYTHING will get your pen moving, and saying what you want to write will get you rolling in the right direction; however, if you finish saying what you want to write and remain stuck, then be really explicit about what you want to say next and what you feel is your barrier to writing more. That’s the big thing I want to leave with you: if you have writer’s block trying to write something, you can overcome it by either describing what you want to write, or why you want to write it, and springboarding off that with more questions and answers, until, in the end, you’re just writing.
Huh. A notch over 350 words. I underestimated.
Now, I know some of the people who are reading this are technical writers, and so I want to warn you up front that there’s a problem with my approach that doesn’t apply to fiction writers: describing what you want to write is not a substitute for the thought that needs to go into the technical meat of whatever it is you’re writing. For example, if you’re trying to, say, write a design doc for your teammates, you may think that outlining the project, its goals, its problems, and its possible solutions is enough to make a design doc—but it’s not. That’s what a fiction writer calls an outline. While there are fiction stories that are essentially nothing but outlines, and even more that are outlines in narrative, fiction generally isn’t an outline, but is instead people in places, talking and doing things, told in a particular way — or what we technically call character and setting, dialogue and action, and scene and narration wrapped in that stylistic veneer we call voice. But technical writers, we can get tricked by outlines of technical items into thinking we’ve said something about a problem — so it is really critical that after you get a rough outline down that you go back over it, extract the important ideas, to think about they fit together, and to identify the key ideas that are not obvious about the problem — and those key ideas are what should go into your design doc or project proposal or product requirements document or launch announcement or marketing communication or scientific paper or anything else. The value of your document is not the structure of the problem, which is often well known, but the original thought that you bring to the table.
And that brings us to the primary reason for writer’s block, at least for experienced writers, that is: not having thought clearly enough about what comes next.
But wait! Because I’m writing this extemporaneously — a big-ass word for saying I’m pulling this out of my orifice — I’ve forgotten to tell you about the other kinds of writer’s block, which is somewhat important in case you’re possibly getting bored and want a quick way to figure whether slogging on through the desert of this essay in search of water that will quench your particular search is a vain hope or not, but which is actually far more important because some of those kinds of writer’s block can KILL YOU. Well, actually, no, that’s not very likely, but they can get you to kill your story and end up back at stage one.
So how can you get blocked? Let’s tick a few of these off so we can hold your interest while I drag out the big red warning sign. First, sometimes writer’s block is caused because you just don’t want to write — Ayn Rand used to call this “white sneakers disease” because she knew a writer who’d’ve rather cleaned their sneakers than write. Ayn Rand thought that, technically speaking, this wasn’t a block, but nevermind, since people have developed a good technique for resolving “white sneaker’s disease,” and that technique is called BIC — Butt In Chair. If you think you want to write, and you are not writing, then stop whatever you are doing, go put your butt in chair in front of a pen, piece of paper and writing surface, and sit there until you get bored enough to write something, or find that you cannot and AHA NOW this is writer’s block, congratulations, move on to the techniques for tackling writer’s block proper.
Second, as I said earlier, experienced writers can have writer’s block because they haven’t thought through what comes next. Third, inexperienced writers can have writer’s block because they’re cognitively overwhelmed — which is the real point of this essay, and which is why I started the essay off with one paragraph specifically tackling this problem in case that was all that you read, but, don’t fear, if “inexperienced writer staring at a blank page feeling just that, a blank” describes you, then hang in there, I’m writing this essay specifically for you and will come back to this in detail.
But the fourth kind is the real dangerous kind of writer’s block, a particular kind of voluntary writer’s block which can hit writers of any stripe, both unmotivated and motivated, inexperienced and experienced; in fact, it almost hit me writing the second section of this essay, and if I’d given into it, I never would have written the words you’re reading right now — because I would have spent the same time editing the first section of this essay, and that right there is Writer’s Block of the Fourth Kind: editing while you write.
Trying to edit while you write is particularly dangerous for reasons I’ll get back to when I explain Why Novices Feel Fear At The Dreaded Blank Page, but the more immediate reason is that you can spend arbitrary amounts of time editing without adding to your draft. Now, there are some writers who edit while they write all the time — especially poets, who may spend as much time working over ten words as it takes me to write a thousand words —but right there that shows you that if you’re trying to cough up a ten thousand word story, it doesn’t behoove you to drill down on a perfect first sentence. There’s a reason we call our writing group Write to the End: it’s because we believe you should finish what you start before you try to edit it, or you will never finish anything at all.
Okay, that’s a first pass at why Writer’s Block of the Fourth Kind is dangerous: it can stall you out, and worse, trick you into thinking you’re actually writing. But what if you don’t have anything to edit? What if you’re suffering from Writer’s Block of the Third Kind, the Dreaded Fear of the Blank Page? This feeling of blankness is the feeling you get when you’re cognitively overwhelmed, and to understand the reasons I separate it out from Writer’s Block of the Second Kind, AKA Not Thinking Through Your Shit, we need to talk a little bit about cognitive psychology — specifically, working memory and cognitive skill acquisition.
You see, when a writer sits down at the page, we may imagine we’re creating worlds — but we’re not gods, and can hold only a finite amount of information in our heads at one time. Our working memories can only manipulate a handful of chunks of discrete information at a time — famously estimated in cognitive psychology as a short term memory holding roughly seven plus or minus two items. Of course, it ain’t that simple when you dig into the details, but as a rough rule of thumb, it holds — and that explains both writer’s block for experienced writers and the Dreaded Fear of the Blank Page for inexperienced ones.
When faced with a blank page, you can easily see how you could get blocked not knowing why you want to write, or what you want to write about, or what’s the meat behind the structure of the idea — there’s just nothing in your short term memory to put on the page. But why do so many inexperienced writers who know the answers to all these questions nevertheless come to me complaining that they feel a blank when sitting down at the page? Well, that’s easy: I’m a psychic magnet for those kinds of problems — just kidding. The real reason is that inexperienced writers have, by definition, a set of skills which are not fully developed — and we don’t actually have short term memories that hold information, we have working memories which are both the product of and are used by our skills.
Yes, that’s right — I tricked you! I started talking about working memory, then smoothly slipped to talking about short term memory in the same sentence, because for a long time cognitive psychologists made the same mistake. We imagined that humans had a short term memory like a buffer that passively held information, like a briefcase, but when you carry through the implications that model breaks down, and that’s not really how the cortex of the brain is organized anyway. It’s better to think of the brain’s fixed storage capacity as less a passive buffer and more of an active internal dashboard reporting the state all the brain’s cognitive systems. Now, there are no photogenic cartoon characters monitoring that dashboard like in Inside Out—in part because of licensing issues with Pixar, but mostly because it would involve an infinite regress—if there’s a little character monitoring your internal dashboard, who’s monitoring their internal dashboards? Cognitive psychologists call that homunculus fallacy, and so a better image of the mental stage of the mind is an empty spherical cockpit filled with instruments projecting their findings to each other. Your consciousness is just the part of your mind that is easily accessible to other parts of your mind. For example, you can recognize a person’s face, but unless there are really obvious features, like Salvador Dali’s mustache that points all the way up to your eyeballs, you can’t describe a face in sufficient detail for someone else to recognize it, because the details of your facial recognition system aren’t accessible to conscious awareness.
In most animals, the instruments of the cockpit are fixed by the design of the system, like the gas gauge on your car, which reports the status of your fuel tank, or the flashing light on the fast return switch of your TARDIS, which shows that the Ship is trying to return to its previous destination.What distinguishes humans is that many of its screens are programmable, the same way your car’s GPS can update itself when the manufacturer pushes an update, or the way your TARDIS reconfigures its controls to match your personality every time you regenerate. Over time, the systems of the cockpit collect information, slowly improving over time with respect to the problems for which they were designed, like a GPS picking up new roads. But the human mind isn’t a car, with an army of of engineers designing updates that get pushed to it over a wireless network, or a TARDIS, with a billion years of engineering designed into its architectural reconfiguration system to help it adapt. No, the human mind has to update itself from scratch, often adapting to skills for which it has no evolutionary precedent — like, for example, writing.
You’ve got dials on your dashboard for hunger, sound, even speech, but writing is something humans made up from whole cloth. And when you’ve got to learn a skill for which you’ve got no precedent, no inbuilt system that can just pick up new roads, your mind has to fall back on more powerful general problem solving techniques. These techniques involve representing the information we know about a problem explicitly, collecting the implications of that knowledge from our long term memory, and putting all that data together into new conclusions. Once again, the components of your dashboard notice these leaps from information to conclusion, storing it to make it available to solve new problems. This process is called automatization, and it’s called that because it’s transforming explicit information that you’re representing in your conscious dashboard into skilled knowledge you can use automatically without conscious awareness.
You’d think that automatization wouldn’t help you, since you’re trying to store new information, but all you have are existing systems – but one of the fundamental tricks of computing is that any sufficiently powerful process can simulate just about any other process, and the cockpit of your glorious machine—in which all the systems you’ve accumulated over a billion years of evolution can talk to each other—certainly qualifies as a very powerful process that can simulate almost anything. SO, if you keep learning basic facts about a new skill, and keep storing them in whatever systems you have that are even remotely compatible, over time, your overall cognitive system will learn a new, automatic skill—but hang on. To represent the information about a problem, to dredge up its implications, and draw conclusions, your mind needs scratchspace—temporary storage to hold this information so your general problem solving processes can work it over, and that information must be accessible your conscious awareness. Learning a new cognitive skill needs your dashboard. It needs your highly limited working memory.
But wait! Weren’t we using that to hold what we wanted to write about?
Exactly. Now you’re starting to see the problem.
As a novice writer, you may know how to physically write—how to generate words on the page in response to prompts, like writing down items for a grocery list for your spouse in response to spoken requests, or writing down the contents of a shipment from the Queen of Sheba as it comes off the boat—but when you’re writing an article or story, what you’re actually doing is the separate and more complex task of composition — the task of creating new sequences of words. Take a simple example, composing your Captain’s Log. You can’t just hit a button on the Captain’s Chair and start jabbering about what happened on the planet: the task involves creating a specific set of words in a specific sequence which is stereotyped. You start with “Captain’s Log”, followed by the stardate, followed by a sentence reporting the location or situation, followed by one or two more sentences discussing the key questions of the mission and whatever red-shirted disposable crewmembers were eaten by the monster of the week. That structure itself is information, information which you need to call to mind, somehow, in order to organize the words that you speak, and if you’ve been rattled by a bunch of red-shirted disposable crewmembers being eaten by the monster of the week, you might have trouble gathering your thoughts. An experienced Starfleet captain like Picard or Kirk, however, will have no trouble—because for them, the structure of the log is automatic.
The way that cognitive skill learning works is through the transformation of declarative knowledge to procedural knowledge: that is, the process of automatization takes information you express explicitly and turns it into information that’s the output of a skill. That means if you are skilled at a task, you don’t need to pay attention to it: the actions of the task will happen, well, automatically; but that also means that if you are not skilled at a task, you’re relying on your general purpose processing power to perform it—and that the information you need to perform the task will compete with what you know about the task.
The problem is even worse because the act of writing relies on many sources of knowledge. Let’s review for a moment what some of those are, and I’ll throw in some you may have not thought of yet:
- Purpose: Why you’re writing (for creative expression, because your boss asked you)
- Goal: What you want your writing to do (to be fun, to help your teammates, etc)
- Content: What you want to write about (the specific information you contribute)
- Form: What kind of thing you’re writing (a story, an article, a blogpost)
- Style: What tone of voice you want to use (lighthearted, formal, quirky)
Each of these is better thought of as a skill for generating answers to questions, rather than a source for information—and if you’re not practiced at the skill, you’ll have to store information about it in working memory, competing—but wait a minute, let’s go back to content for a moment. Think about it. To answer the question about what you want to write, you need to generate several pieces of information:
- Content: What you want to write about
- Structure: What topics do you need to cover?
- Questions: What questions should your piece answer?
- Ideas: What do you think about the questions?
- Answers: How does that translate into answers?
I’m not trying to be pedantic here—I’m making an important point, or I think I am. What you want to say involves several kinds of information: the general topic of your piece, the specific issues you want to address, whatever thoughts you have, and how to express them—but each of these types of information is, itself, a skill, which, if it is not practiced, will compete with whatever it is you have to say.
This is why inexperienced writers dread The Blank Page: because they’re actually drawing on half a dozen skills, none of which are practiced, and those are driving their ideas straight out of their head. This is why my wife, who’s a great artist but not an experienced writer, a woman who’s put a great deal of thought into eco-friendly art, who knows why she wants to write, what she wants to accomplish, and can easily spend forty-five minutes talking to me about her ideas, can nonetheless get totally stymied when she sits down to write, staring at the blank page. And this is why I separate the Writer’s Block of the Third Kind—the inexperienced author’s Dread of the Blank Page—from the simpler Writer’s Block of the Second Kind—the experienced author’s Lack of Shit Together—because if an experienced author is willing to sit down and think hard about their problem, once they get their ideas, their skills will take straight over—but if an inexperienced author tries the same thing, their very skills may drive their ideas right out their heads.
That’s why inexperienced writers may need different tools to write other than “Just Write” or “Butt in Chair” or “Stop and Think”. In cognitive skills acquisition, one way you can teach a complicated skill is to teach it in parts—we call this scaffolding. Rather than try to become a great basketball player all at once, you instead practice dribbling, taking shots, holding the ball, playing one-on-one, then pickup games—slowly building up a body of skills that eventually become the foundation for real mastery. Writing is the same way; if you’re having trouble getting started, focusing on sub-skills and developing them can give you the scaffolding you need to get started.
One scaffolding technique I’ve recommended to people is morning pages—a technique recommended in The Artist’s Way to write three pages longhand the first thing in the morning. There are a lot of reasons to do this beyond scaffolding, but it gets you past the problem of composition by giving you a safe environment to write, and it can also help you express your ideas. If even this is too hard, you may be blocked on the simple act of writing, and I recommend you try writing “bla bla bla” until you get bored with it. This doesn’t work for everyone, but you could also try the “Finding Forrester” technique of taking an existing story and typing it in until you get tired of their words and start writing your own.
Another scaffolding technique is what I call the inventory method. I hinted at this at the start of the article: ask yourself explicitly the questions you need to perform the task of composition:
- Why do you want to write?
- What do you want your writing to accomplish?
- What should people learn or feel after reading your article or story?
- What is the most important specific idea that you contribute to this topic?
And so on, and so on, with the whole list of questions that I had earlier.
If even this is too hard, there’s another method I call the one page assessment. Get a piece of lined composition paper—and I mean this literally, this is for totally blocked people, so I want you to literally do these steps physically—and draw a line down its center so it has two columns. On the left, write out, one per line, the numbers one through ten, and then the words “Who what when where why how;” on the right, write out the days of the week and the months of the year. Now, for the numbers one through ten, write the top ten most important thing about your project—these can be single words or sentences, but rack your brain until you can get ten single words—and then write brief answers to each of the “Who what why …” questions below. When you’re done with that, for each day of the week or month of the year, write something significant about your project—either in the story you’re telling, or about when you as a person can work on it, or whatever (you can also do this with other breakdowns, like states or countries or oceans or planets—whatever categories work for you). When you’ve filled the sheet, pick the five things most important from the page, flip it over, write down these five as your headings, and try to write at least one sentence about each of the five things you picked.
The purpose of this exercise is to take away the need to do composition AND the need to generate questions, just focusing you in a very general, nonthreatening way on properties that affect your problem. If you make it through the page, consider doing it again, with your own headings this time. Process repeats, until you’re generating full outlines.
On the note of outlines, the technique I used for my first novel was what I called a recursive hierarchical outline. I knew I wanted to write a novel about a genetically engineered centaur, so I wrote that sentence down in a Microsoft Word document. Then I copied that sentence, italicized it, and wrote a paragraph about that sentence detailing the plot. Then I copied that paragraph, italicized it, broke it into sentences as new headings, and expanded each of those sentences into a paragraph. I repeated the process until I had a good outline; then I expanded it further until I had sections and finally paragraphs—at which point, I just started writing.
Another way to get at this information that’s locked in your head is the interview method—having a trusted friend ask you questions, and either writing down your answers or recording it for transcription later.
Finally, Bjarne Stroustrup, the creator of C++, recommends the template method—if you want to write an article on a topic, find a similar article to use as a template, and use that to help establish your questions and find the rough structure of your outline. Since he built a whole career around basically doing that to C by turning it into C++, and since he’s done it with several books and articles since then to great effect, I guess this approach has worked well for him.
The point of giving all these potential scaffolding techniques is that each writer is different, and no technique is guaranteed to work for you. We can see why this is—everyone has a slightly different set of internal equipment, and even for equipment that’s the same, everyone has a different history of learning and a different set of skills that work with facility, or not, on any given problem.
So, to sum up, the ways of tackling writer’s block are:
- Writer’s Block of the First Kind: What We Have Here is a Failure to Motivate.
Solution: Butt In Chair
- Writer’s Block of the Second Kind: Not Thinking Through Your Shit.
Solution: Stop and Think
- Writer’s Block of the Third Kind: The Dreaded Blank Page.
Solution: Cognitive Scaffolding
- Writer’s Block of the Fourth Kind: Editing While You Write.
Solution: Write to the End, then Edit
So now you see why I sum up my writing advice as “Just write—bla bla bla if you have to so your pen’s moving—because the more you write, the easier it gets, and the better you get; but if you sit down to write and get writer’s block, then write down very explicitly why you sat down to write, and what kind of writing you hope to have produced when you get up again, and then you’ll know how to proceed.” This sums up all of the problems in one Butt in Chair, provides a Cognitive Scaffold, incorporates Stop and Think—in fact, it tackles just about everything except the editing bit, which might be summed up as “Don’t critique yourself, finish your damn story!” And as for that bit …
That’s why I go to a writing group called Write to the End.