You know how it is. You’ve spent ages thinking about what you’re going to write, anticipating it, feeling frustrated because other things are getting in the way of it. Finally, you clear a couple of hours from your busy schedule, switch on your computer or get out your pen and paper and … nothing. The words won’t come, or they seem laughably trite or clichéd or flaccid. You’re gripped by the urgent need to wash the kitchen floor, track down a sock that’s been missing for the past five years or surf a favourite website. Hey, maybe you could call that research.
Or maybe you could call it procrastination. Or writer’s block.
It’s an insidious business because the more you allow it to happen, the more often it will happen. So how do you stop it? Here are my tips.
1.As Mark Twain so famously said (and as other writers have echoed since), writing is all about application: the application of the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. Don’t give in to those internal urgings to tidy up, sow some lettuce seeds or do anything else that will curtail the agony of sitting there and not writing. You’ll never make any progress if you don’t get those words down. Sit it out!
2.If you find that you’ve spent two hours at your desk but most of that time has involved writing emails or surfing the web, then the only answer is to switch off your Internet connection at its source before you start work. If you don’t, you’ll be drawn to the icon of your chosen browser sooner or later. Don’t give yourself that temptation.
3.If the words really won’t come, write something else instead. Write about how you’re feeling. Write a letter to your dog. It doesn’t really matter what you write, as long as you write something. (But don’t write anything self-defeating, such as telling yourself how pathetic you are. That won’t help.) Write for ten minutes and stop. Switch to your current project and start writing that. Don’t think about it. Just do it.
4.Writing is an untidy business, but published books rarely reflect that. If they’ve been edited and produced in a professional manner, the prose is seamless. It flows in a way that may make you tear your hair on a bad day. Don’t let yourself be intimidated by this. The raw manuscript of your favourite novel was probably just as messy as yours is right now. That’s OK. No one is going to see it. You aren’t completing an exam paper.
5.If you want every sentence to be perfect as soon as you’ve written it, or you fret that your grasp of apostrophes isn’t all it could be, you will probably agonize over every word so much that the flow will soon dry up. Right now, you need to get the words down. The editing stage can come later. And if there really is room for improvement, maybe you could start teaching yourself grammar, spelling and syntax in your spare time.
6.If you aren’t happy about a word or a sentencewhen you write it, highlight it so you can come back to it later and keep the flow going in the meantime. If you use Microsoft Word, get into the habit of using Track Changes. This allows you to insert a comment into your text at the relevant point, so you can flag whatever is necessary. Track Changes also remembers your editing in case you have second thoughts about it and want to revert to your original text.
7.Set yourself an achievable goal. If you’ve only got half an hour of writing time, there’s no point in telling yourself you’re going to write 1000 words. It’s unlikely to happen, which will be discouraging. If you are really struggling, aim to write a single paragraph. Then, if you’ve got time, write the next one.
8.Some writers like to stop work when they reach the end of a chapter. Others always stop mid-chapter or even mid-sentence, so they can plunge straight back into what they were writing because they’re excited about what happens next.
9.Ideally, try to write at the same time each day. This makes it part of your daily routine, so it becomes a habit. If you show up every day for the muse, the muse is more likely to show up for you.