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Writer's Block: 3 Proven Ways to Get Through It

From Clear Thinking Communications and Susan Parker
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Article: Writer's Block: 3 Proven Ways to Get Through It

I could feel my heart racing. I was a reporter in Guatemala at a time when the civil war was still raging. Bomb scares were part of daily life. My colleagues and I nervously entered our building every day.

Yet it wasn't the violence that had my heart pounding.

It was an article I was writing for the San Francisco Chronicle. I was assigned a piece on the civil rights struggle of Guatemala's indigenous people. It was 1992--the year that many people were celebrating the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's arrival. But people who were indigenous--those who lived in Central America before people like Columbus came from Spain--saw 1492 as the shameful start of a conquest that had led to the near annihilation of their culture.

Many of Guatemala's 21 indigenous groups protested in the streets. Their grievances, backgrounds and demands were as varied as the different languages they spoke and the colorful traje they wore.

I needed to sum all this up in 700 words.

I couldn't do it. It was too much. It was too complicated.

I know that I'm not the only one who has struggled with this kind of problem. One of the reasons why it's so hard is that it's not really writer's block that's stopping us. Instead, there are often two reasons why we get blocked and they're both easy to fix:

1. It's really thinker's block. If it's hard to start writing, it's often because you haven't thought it out enough.  You're not ready to write. You may not have read enough on the topic or talked to enough people.

The reverse is over-thinker's block. Sometimes we see so many nuances in our work that it is difficult to step out of the "weeds" and convey the big picture that a general audience needs.

For my indigenous rights article, it was over-thinker's block. I had immersed myself so much in the subject, I couldn't step back and think about the overarching thread that tied together much of the indigenous rights protesters: they wanted cultural and political power.

2. Fear. Writing is scary. You expose yourself to criticism. Something you write may not be perfect or convey the complexity of a situation. It's intimidating to put yourself out there where you might be disparaged by your peers or experts in the field.

I feared that anything I'd write about indigenous rights would be too incomplete. I was also writing for a paper in the Bay area where many Guatemalans and activists lived. I had a tough audience who might rightly criticize my piece.

After a lot of false starts, I figured out three key ways to break through my writer's block.  I use these steps to this day. They can help you as well.

1. Clarify your thinking. If you don't understand the material, go back and read some more, or better yet, talk to someone who is a source for the piece--a grantee, a funder or a program officer. Make sure you feel like you really understand the subject and the purpose of the piece. Once you're sure you have a grasp of both, it is much easier to write.

If you know your material too well, remember the advice of legendary "60 Minutes" producer Don Hewitt: "tell me a story." Tell the story of your work to someone who doesn't know anything about it. Think of a person who has been impacted by your work and write that story. This happened, and this happened, and this is how we helped and then they still had this problem and this is what we did. Even if you don't end up using the story, the process will help you clarify the key points to convey when writing about a complicated program.

If your topic doesn't lend itself to that kind of story, then do this: write a headline for your work. What is the one key point that you want to make? Then think of an example that illustrates that point. Do this for up to three key points. Always find an example that illustrates each point.

2. Write non-stop for 30 minutes. Once you've clarified your thinking, it's time to jump in. Use a timer and set it for 30 minutes.  Then close the door and write non-stop until the timer goes off. For me, I don't care how bad it is at first, I just write. This act seems to unblock something and get the process moving. I am also too busy writing to remember to be scared that someone is going to read it. The first draft may not be much good, but it's a start. That's often what you need to get past writer's block. You'll probably see something you like and then you can build on it.

3. Step away--and then come back. After you've written for 30 minutes, take a short break to stretch, and then set the timer and go again. If you keep at this for 90 minutes, you'll have something solid to work with. The timer keeps you focused. Then, take a walk outside. If you live in a city, walk to a park if you can. Don't take your cell phone. Just take a walk to stretch your legs and be outside.

The act of walking and being in natural surroundings reactivates our brain and helps us think in new ways. Simply walking away while you are in the midst of a writing project can give you new insights on how to craft it. When you get an insight, make a beeline back to your computer and start writing again.

Using these steps, I wrote my article, my editor was happy and no one tried to hunt me down for not writing the perfect piece.

Try these three steps.  You'll be proud of what you've written.

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