Thousands of years ago, Greek epics began with characters calling upon the Muses to throw down a great story from the heavens. While this is a terrible way to meet deadlines, the brutal truth is that we modern writers still practice this archaic activity, and we do it every time we say those magic words: “I’m waiting for inspiration to strike.”
This is just another way of saying you are waiting for someone to throw the right words into your mind from the heavens above. And when the Muses don’t answer our prayers, we get writer’s block: staring at the uncarved wood of the blank screen. However, there are four easy tricks to make writer’s block a thing of the past. And the best part is that no divine intervention is required.
1. Set a regular time to write
One of the greatest privileges of writing as a living is the freedom it affords you. When you have no commutes to face or time cards to punch, writing seems easy: you can do it whenever you want. The downside is that if you’re not careful, you never really establish a pattern for successful writing: the plan to sleep in and write after coffee gets pushed back to after lunch with your friend which gets pushed back to after the kids are in bed … before you know it, your entire day to write has been compressed into the little time at the end of the night before you fall asleep on your keyboard.
By setting a regular writing time, you condition your brain to produce SOMETHING during this time. It may not be perfect – see the importance of step three – but you will learn to be productive at this time each and every day. Once you’ve mastered this, the hardest part is over: you’re no longer waiting for inspiration because it’s now waiting for you.
2. Create bite-sized goals
Once you get used to writing at a regular time each day, it’s easy to get discouraged when you don’t meet your goals. For the aggressive go-getters out there, these goals are sometimes unnecessarily high: I’ve seen writers berate themselves for not finishing a few thousand words in an hour. Objectively, the goal is insane, but the motivated writers are so goal-oriented that not meeting the goal right away consistently depresses them.
The answer: change the goal! Unless you’ve channeled your inner college freshman and waited until the last minute to do your assignments, you’ll have time to get the job absolutely right. Create bite-sized goals commensurate with your available writing time. For instance, tell yourself you will “only” write a few hundred words in one writing interval, research sources in the next, and so on. Not only is your writing stronger because you’ve taken your time to construct truly quality work, but you’ll feel happier: instead of focusing on what you haven’t finished yet, you’ll celebrate what you’ve accomplished so far after each writing session!
3: Revise, revise, revise
I know what you’re thinking: that you’ve known the importance of revision since you could hold a pencil. So, why am I bringing it up? The truth is that many writers are paralyzed by perfection: they imagine that revision is primarily a matter of checking for grammatical mistakes, verifying sources, and so on. That means that they spend the bulk of their main writing time trying to get a sentence just right, never leaving this task for later. This is a noble goal – the pursuit of the elusive “bon mot” is part of what drives us. But if that dedication to making each line perfect keeps you from producing very many lines, then it’s hurting your work and your career.
The solution? Use the regular writing time from step one to achieve your writing goal of the day. Don’t worry if everything’s not perfect because some of your bite-sized goals for later intervals will be to revise your paragraphs. Imagine yourself as a sculptor: the initial drafts of your work are the raw material, but it’s your editing sessions that sculpt that raw material into something amazing. Something that your old English teachers may not have told you is that the word “essay” originally meant “trial” or “attempt.” Perfection can only be achieved through multiple attempts, and frequent and substantial revisions are how you chisel something ephemeral into something eternal.
4: Add humor
This is the writing advice that is given relatively rarely: be funny! The closest we come to this advice in traditional circles is the ever-vague admonition for your writing to “have personality.” Nonetheless, writers often hold back humor and other bits of humanity for fear that it symbolizes vulnerability: chinks in the armor of the cold perfection they have worked so hard to achieve in their writing.
The reality is that most clients want at least some level of humor in their writing. It makes the content feel less like something pressed from a copy mill and it increases the chances of customers actually paying attention to it. After all, in a culture of memes and ironic hashtags, many people now expect humor in something they read online, and a completely humorless sales pitch or informative article will turn them off immediately. Adding humor also helps you feel more ownership of your work: much more keenly than customers, you can see the person beneath the paragraphs and, perhaps for the first time, actually recognize your own witty self. You’ll be happier, more productive, and better paid, which is an absolutely amazing incentive to overcome writer’s block and return to that keyboard day after day!
For more information on how to perfect your writing, visit our entertaining and informative success stories to get inspired.
Media Shower writer Dr. Chris Snellgrove is an English Professor well-know for his marketing, education, and career pieces.