So, let’s set the stage: I’m a writer, learning to be vegan … and a fan of Thomas Harris’s Hannibal series about an erudite cannibal. Hannibal itself is one of my favorite books: while the world Harris creates is dark and depressing, that world feels compellingly real to me — which leaves me in the unenviable position of having a mental model of Dr. Hannibal Lecter, as played by Sir Anthony Hopkins, leaning over my shoulder and judging me while I’m cooking.
Now, don’t get me wrong – he’s not judging me for my plant-based cooking (I’m not a vegan, but I am married to one, and I’m trying). He’s judging me based on my poor technique, my unrefined tastes, and my willingness to prepare quick meals when I’ve got work to do. But as a writer, I’m fascinated with how Harris created a world so realistic that I’ve built up a mental model of a nonexistent person.
For the rest, please check it out at the Milford blog. Milford is a great writing conference and I recommend it to everyone: I describe more of Milford and my experiences here:
Are you interested in the Milford SF Writer’s Conference? A year ago, I definitely was! I was in the middle of the Taos Toolbox Writer’s Workshop and couldn’t get enough of its “Milford-Style Critique” – a collaborative process in which a dozen or so writers critique each other’s stories in a circle of peers. For each story, every attendee offers 2-3 minutes of commentary (timed) to which the writer listens (quietly), at which point they may respond, followed by open discussion.
Please go check them out! And be nice to people, or one of them might eat you.
About four years ago, one of my colleagues at work found out I was a writer and asked, "So, tell me Anthony, how can I be a better writer?" I don't claim any special wisdom in this department, but I do claim two things: first, that I have opinions about the matter, and second, that I wrote a long email to my friend about it, an email which I thought I'd posted on my blog. Unfortunately, after an extensive search, I wasn't able to find the post.Now, I could attempt to clean this email up prior to posting it here, but I'm afraid that if I do that, I'll just end up going several years without posting it.SO! Here's that email, largely unedited, on "How to be a better writer!"
Sorry it took so long to respond to your question about how to be a better writer - I thought I wrote an article on this on my blog, or perhaps in an email to a friend, but if so, I couldn't find it. Then I tried to write a long response, but that turned into something book length. So let me give you the short version.
First, just write! That's the best thing anyone can do to become a better writer. Ten thousand hours of practice can build mastery in almost any skill, so the first thing you can do to help yourself is to write regularly - preferably, about whatever comes to mind, so you're not trying to practice when you're on the spot.
Try morning pages. The best tool I know to help people get into the habit of writing is to write morning pages - writing, each day, ideally when you get up, three pages in a notebook. Write bla bla bla if you have to - you'll get bored of it quickly, and will write what comes to mind.
Take a creativity course. The book The Artist's Way is one of the most famous of these, and it's what inspires me to suggest morning pages. Actually, I've never finished this course - I always get so energized just trying it that I get sucked off into my own projects. Try one that works for you.
Read more than you write. You can't consciously choose the words that come out as you write them; they come from your subconscious. So it's important to feed your subconscious with a lot of interesting material to help you generate a lot of interesting material of your own.
Read great writing of the type you want to create. What you enjoy reading most might not be the writing you want to emulate most, so hunt down the great writers of the type of writing you're aiming for, read them, and try to figure out what you like about them - and what makes them tick.
Read great books on writing. The first two I always recommend to people are Ayn Rand's (yes, that Ayn Rand) The Art of Fiction and The Art of Nonfiction. More than any book I've ever read, the Art of Fiction boils down what makes good fiction writing. John Gardner's On Being a Novelist is another great, but there are so many of these it's hard to pick one.
Read great books on style. The two I recommend to people the most are The Elements of Style by Strunk and White and Building Great Sentences by Brooks Landon. Strunk and White is the classic, and Building Great Sentences is its antidote. If you have to pick one, pick Building Great Sentences - hands down.
Do writing exercises. There are many, many of these - The Artist's Way has some, at Barnes and Noble you can find dozens of books like 500 Writing Prompts or Creativity Bootcamp that have others; the important thing is to try different writing styles on.
Try timed challenges. Write to the End (writetotheend.com) tries 20 minute writing challenges; Shut Up and Write ( meetup.com/shutupandwritesfo ) tries (I think) an hour; National Novel Writing Month (nanowrimo.org) tries 50,000 words in a month. These cure you of the notion you need to wait for your muse.
Join a writing group. Not a critique group - those are dangerous until you get more confidence in and acceptance of your own writing (and a thicker skin). I already mentioned Write to the End and Shut Up and Write, but there are many more (even some at Google, such as the Creative Writing Lunch).
Take on writing projects. Write novels, write stories, write essays, write memoirs, write documentation, write songs, write plays, write poetry, write haiku, write impenetrable postmodern explorations of what it means for something to be writing - but take on a writing project that has a beginning, middle, and end ...
Finish what you write! This is so important I wanted to write this earlier, but the problem is, it depends on what you're writing for. If you just want to improve your skill, reading Strunk and White might do it - but if you want your writing to go further, you need to finish what you write.
Don't edit while you write! Some people do this very well, but most people have two modes: producing text, and refining text. Unless you're very confident in your ability to not rework the first paragraph of something forever, make sure you first finish, then edit. But before you do that ...
Let your manuscripts cool off. It's hard to have perspective right after you've finished something. At least sleep on it, if you have time; ideally, come back to a story after a week or two and see if what you wrote before still makes sense to you and does what you wanted it to. In the meantime ...
Work on something else. Start something new. Creating a new work has an almost magical way of solving problems you have in the work you have cooling on the back burner. Your skills improve, you're not invested in your old ideas, and you come back with a fresh start.
Revise your work! Give your manuscript at least a once over. I guarantee, it's not perfect. The books Self Editing for Fiction Writers or The Elements of Editing can help you with this task. It's worth working on something a bit until you can't see anything obviously wrong to it.
Share your work with a friendly audience. You're not ready for a critique group yet; they're often way too harsh. What you want are three friendly reviewers: a coach to help with your skills, a critic to help find flaws, and a cheerleader to praise goodness - and if the cheerleader complains, listen very closely to them.
Revise your work again before sending it out. Listen to your friendly critics. Revise your work. Make it the best it can be. Then you're ready to send it out - to a critique group if you have to and if you have one, but ideally, to where you want the work received or published.
Keep your work circulating until sold. This may not apply to bloggers, writers of memoirs, and internal communications, but if you've got something you want to send to an external audience, send it to as many places as you can. Some great books went to dozens of publishers before getting accepted.
Don't argue with your critics. Whether it's a friend, a critique group, or an editor, they're not critiquing you to hurt your feelings. Listen carefully, and perhaps if there's some small misconception, feel free to clear it up, but ask yourself - why wasn't your story so clear that they got it the first time?
Solve the problems your critics raise, but don't feel compelled to use their solutions. Humans are great at confabulating fake reasons for the feelings they have. Don't feel the need to use every suggestion your critics raise - but if two or more have problems at the same spot, listen closely.
Learn from your genre. Whether it's writing a thesis, writing documentation, or writing science fiction stories, there are documents out there on the pitfalls of the genre and the techniques from success, from How to Complete and Survive a Doctoral Dissertation to the Evil Overlord List.
Learn from the style guide. If you're aimed at a particular market, whether it's a science fiction magazine accepting William Shunn's document format, or a book publisher who wants the Chicago Manual of Style, or it's the American Psychological Association, read the style book. With a grain of salt, of course.
Learn from publication. Once something is published, take a look at the published work. I can guarantee you, you'll find something about it you'd do differently now, whether it's a typo or a new way to phrase things. Think carefully about this difference and what it can teach you.
Find a great critique group. By this point, you've been exposed to enough information to have your own opinions and to make up your own mind - and that's the right time to engage a whole bunch of other opinionated, thoughtful people to get their ideas of how to improve your work.
Find a great workshop. These are harder to get into, but put you in touch with great writers of your particular genre or style and can really take you to the next level, if that's what you want.
Find a great program - or embark on a great project. If you really want to be a writer, some people suggest a MFA program or other longer-term, intensive course. I simply prefer to take on little projects like 21 book urban fantasy series; these force you to learn some of the same things. :-D
Well, that's about it for the short version. As I said ... the long version's probably a book. :-) I hope this helps! Please feel free to ask me more questions!
And there you have it. I hope that's not a repeat!
Hail, fellow adventurers! I’ll be reading my flash fiction short, “One Day Your Strength May Fail” at the Los Gatos Lit Crawl this Sunday - today, in about twelve hours, eek! Axually, my reading will be closer to four, but as part of the Los Gatos - Listowel Writers Festival, and organized by the Flash Fiction Forum, a whole passel of writers will read from 3 to 5 all over the city:
3:00pm – Los Gatos Coffee Roasting Company – featuring :
Kevin Sharp – Saturday Night & Sunday Morning
Victoria Johnson – Broken Dreams
Lita Kurth – How to be my Revolutionary Boy
Pushpa McFarlane – Bring on the Harlequins
3:30pm – Carry Nation – featuring:
Susannah Carlson – TheWhale’s Bargain
Bob Dickerson (and Ina on banjo) – River Bird
Caesar Kent – Weekend Work Program
4:00pm – The Black Watch – featuring:
Maria Judnick – Walking the Line
Caroline Bracken – Five
Keiko O’Leary – The Golden Beauty of Carlina Johansen, Author of Milliner’s Dreams
Anthony Francis – One Day Your Strength Will Fail
4:30 pm – C.B. Hannegan’s – featuring:
C.K. Kramer – Kendra
Jade Bradbury – Blam
Tania Martin – Brut 33
Lots of great readers will be there, including Keiko O’Leary of Write to the End and Thinking Ink Press reading her fascinating and disturbing story “The Golden Beauty of Carlina Johansen, Author of Milliner’s Dreams", along with many other authors who are mainstays of the Flash Fiction Forum reading stuff I haven’t heard before. Come check it out!
Pictured: Something I ate in Los Gatos once, as I could not easily find other pictures I’ve taken of Los Gatos.
Ahoy, fellow adventurers, if you’re interested in tales from a traveler who’s voyaged far and wide across the sea of unending stories, yet somehow returned to the shores we know, you can come listen to me talk at Clockwork Alchemy this year - I’m on four panels!
12 Noon: The Science of Airships Scheduled Presentation Time: Sunday Noon - 12:50pm
Location: The Academy (San Martin Room)
2PM: Organizing an Anthology Scheduled Presentation Time: Sunday 2pm-2:50pm
Location: Author's Salon (Monterey Room)
I’ve given the "Science of Airships" before, and have done panels similar to “Writing Victorian Sci-Fi” and “Organizing an Anthology”, but “Overcoming Writer’s Block” I’ve not presented before to a public audience, so it should be interesting!
Wow, something awesome just happened. Our publishing company, Thinking Ink Press, independently invented the idea of a postcard short - a flash fiction story on a postcard - and a new one has just been published which really ups the ante in the genre with its postmodern take on a postmodern book, illustrated with a mashup of The Book of Kells and a Nook!
Finnegan's Firewall: Awesome art by my wife Sandi Billingsley, great design by Keiko O'Leary, cool story by David Colby, all in a postcard! Right now you need to get this in person from Thinking Ink, but we’re working on making it possible for you to check it out!
The small press I’m associated with, Thinking Ink Press, has just announced its first anthology, 30 DAYS LATER, edited by A.J. Sikes, B.J. Sikes, and Dover Whitecliff of the Treehouse Writers’ Group! Check out the Thinking Ink Press announcement for more details, but it should be coming out around the time of the Clockwork Alchemy conference this May.
(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.
For those of us who are hermits, it’s sometimes good to get a reminder of the great things that can happen via social support. At the recent Write to the End meeting, I stepped up as facilitator when Keiko O’Leary was delayed on a plane flight - but when she showed up, after an offhanded comment by one of the members, we all decided to pretended that she was new to the group! We asked her to introduce herself, welcomed her warmly, and explained everything as we went, which she found hilarious - and comforting, since she didn’t have to do any work handing out prompts or monitoring the time. It was a great writing session for all, and couldn’t have happened without the happy synergy of all the different people working together.
I had a similar experience at lunch at work recently - I’m a loner, and normally go off on my own to read or write my books, but I do try to join the team a few times a week. At the lunch table, thinking of one of my problems, I said: “Wouldn’t it be neat if we could apply X technology to Y”? Suddenly, EVERYONE was chiming in: one TL scoped out the problem, another coworker had great suggestions, and after twenty minutes of discussion I offered to go write it up. But I didn’t have time before I had to interview a candidate, so when I came back I found a one-pager written by a coworker. I sat down to expand it, realized my coworker had a key insight, and ended up producing a half-dozen page design doc. I may have been the first person to utter “apply X to Y” but the final idea was very much a joint product of every person at the table - and could NOT have been done alone.
As an on-again, off-again follower of Ayn Rand, I guess this is exposes one of the many flaws of traditional Objectivist thinking: its black and white nature, particularly with regards to committees. Several of Ayn Rand’s books lambast the work produced by committees, and I indeed have seen horrors produced by them - but call a committee a “brainstorming session”, and you can literally produce things which no-one could have produced alone. Of course, a single person or small group must then refine and focus the ideas so they can be implemented, or everyone will go driving in different directions - but even that seeming aimless search can be a success if you’ve got a large technology space to explore and a diverse group of committed, dedicated engineers to explore it.
But the possibility of brainstorming is not really what I want to focus on: it’s the great things that come out of treating your fellow people right. Being nice to each other greases the wheel, sharing your ideas and being open to theirs improves intellectual debate, and treating one person as special on a special occasion can really lift their day - whether it’s a thank you card and gift to a former manager, a day off for the facilitator of a group, or just giving a friend who’s into centaurs a centaur statuette that you happened to pick up two of by accident. These little things don’t just brighten our day - they change it, making the world a better place, one small act of kindness at a time.
Pictured: a gift of a friend, via a friend, the first of whom professionally collects genre materials and ended up with two of the same statuette, and the second of whom brought it to the writing group for me because she knew I liked centaurs.