What's the hardest part of writing? Or, to put it another way, what stage of the writing process gives you the most difficulty? Is it drafting? revising? editing? proofreading?
For many of us, the hardest part of all is getting started. Sitting down in front of a computer screen or a blank sheet of paper, rolling up our sleeves, and--and nothing.
We want to write. We may be facing a deadline that should compel us to write. But instead of feeling motivated or inspired, we grow anxious and frustrated. And those negative feelings can make it even harder to get started. That's what we call "writer's block."
If it's any consolation, we're not alone. Many professional writers--of fiction and nonfiction, poetry and prose--have also had frustrating encounters with the empty page.
When asked about the most frightening thing he had ever encountered, novelist Ernest Hemingway said, "A blank sheet of paper." And none other than the Master of Terror himself, Stephen King, said that the "scariest moment is always just before you start [writing]. After that, things can only get better."
But just as professional writers have found various ways to overcome writer's block, we, too, can learn how to meet the challenge of the empty screen. Here's some advice from the pros.
1. Get Started
- "The easiest thing to do on earth is not write."
- "Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials. It's a matter of doing everything you can to avoid writing, until it is about four in the morning and you reach the point where you have to write."
- "The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair."
(Mary Heaton Vorse)
- "One of the most difficult things is the first paragraph. I have spent many months on a first paragraph, and once I get it, the rest just comes out very easily."
(Gabriel Garcia Marquez)
- "The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one."
2. Capture Ideas
- "I carry a notebook with me everywhere. But that's only the first step. Ideas are easy. It's the execution of ideas that really separates the sheep from the goats."
- "In writing, there is first a creating stage--a time you look for ideas, you explore, you cast around for what you want to say. Like the first phase of building, this creating stage is full of possibilities."
(Ralph Waldo Emerson)
- "Actually ideas are everywhere. It's the paperwork, that is, sitting down and thinking them into a coherent story, trying to find just the right words, that can and usually does get to be labor."
- "Never stop writing because you have run out of ideas. Fill the lacunae of inspiration by tidily copying out what is already written."
- "I've often said that there's no such thing as writer's block; the problem is idea block. When I find myself frozen--whether I'm working on a brief passage in a novel or brainstorming about an entire book--it's usually because I'm trying to shoehorn an idea into the passage or story where it has no place."
3. Cope with the Badness
- "We can't be as good as we'd want to, so the question then becomes, how do we cope with our own badness?"
- "You don't start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it's good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That's why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence."
- "People have writer's block not because they can't write, but because they despair of writing eloquently."
- "If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word."
- "Don't get it right, just get it written."
- "What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.’ And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, 'Okay. Okay. I’ll come.'"
- "I think writer's block is simply the dread that you are going to write something horrible. But as a writer, I believe that if you sit down at the keys long enough, sooner or later something will come out."
(Roy Blount, Jr.)
- "Lower your standards and keep writing."
4. Establish a Routine
- "I only write when I am inspired. Fortunately I am inspired at 9 o'clock every morning."
- "And I'm a slow writer: five, six hundred words is a good day. That's the reason it took me 20 years to write those million and a half words of the Civil War."
- "I set myself 600 words a day as a minimum output, regardless of the weather, my state of mind or if I'm sick or well."
- "All through my career I've written 1,000 words a day--even if I've got a hangover. You've got to discipline yourself if you're professional. There's no other way."
- "I write 2,000 words a day when I write. It sometimes takes three hours, it sometimes takes five."
- "I have to get into a sort of zone. It has something to do with an inability to concentrate, which is the absolute bottom line of writing."
- "Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don't try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It's the one and only thing you have to offer."
- "If you want to write, write it. That's the first rule."
- "My block was due to two overlapping factors: laziness and lack of discipline."
Concluded on page two