I’m not usually struck with writer’s block. I’ve been a journalist for 40 years; when you work for a daily newspaper you are not allowed that luxury. You report, you go back to the office, you pound it out on deadline.

But the other day, working on a profile of a famous writer, I found myself with too much information, too many avenues into his life, all interesting, and I could not figure out what to write. What was the beginning? What was my theme? I didn’t know. The fact that my deadline was weeks away did not help.

Five life hacks for beating writer's block

Read how contributor, freelancer and teacher Kim Cross gets words on the page under deadline.

My blockage was probably my own fault — I’d overprepared. I’d read three of this writer’s books (one of them twice), looked up articles he’d written in his youth, read reviews, watched interviews with him on YouTube, talked to him for more than an hour. When it came time to write, I was stymied. I wasn’t blocked as much as I was confused — what did I want to say? There was so much material, and so many different ways I could go.

So in a moment of procrastination, I posted on Facebook: “I am waiting, in vain, for this story to just write itself.”

The tips came pouring in — writer friends, journalist friends, friend friends. Everyone wanted to be helpful. Everyone wanted to provide the perfect tip that would shake me out of my paralysis.

They were all great tips. I used none of them.

I think we each must find our own way, and none of these suggestions — helpful as they are — was what I needed. For this particular story, I needed to procrastinate, which actually means I needed to put it in the back of my mind and do other things and let my brain work it out. The next day I cobbled together a lede and started writing and went home with 40 inches under my belt. And that night I figured out what the story really is about. I knew that I had to start over, which I will do, as soon as I finish writing this. But I’m not sure I would have figured that out if I hadn’t gone down the wrong road first.

Here are the suggestions from Facebook. They’re all good. You never know. Some might fit you.

  1. DON’T listen to the interview again!!!!! Just tell me what you’d tell me about it if you had only one minute.
  2. Big piece, little piece? Can you do the “write the second graf first” thing, just to get yourself started? Or do you like to nail a good lede and let it flow from there?
  3. Call the person back and say, “I’m struggling to find a theme for your life story. What would you suggest?”
  4. Have you tried talking to yourself and stomping around? That helps.
  5. The best thing to do is set it out for the elves.
  6. I always found a noon run helpful for composing a story. Go for a walk!
  7. Sit and pound out, “Hold onto your hats, ladies and gentlemen! This one’s gonna knock you for a loop!” (But remember to cut that later before you move the story.)
  8. It never does just write itself. You’ll sweat every word.
  9. Dear Mom, …….. Then delete ‘Dear Mom.’
  10. Eat a cookie. That is my patented 13th step in my 27-step process of writing a thing.
None of these would work for me. But I am fascinated by how instantly helpful people were (and funny — there were many funny comments) and I am fascinated by how we all have our own rituals. Eating a cookie would not help. Going for a walk might help, but not necessarily. Writing “Dear Mom” to get the fingers typing would mean that the words “Dear Mom” would be all alone on my screen for a long, long time.

Stymied? Blocked? Not to be brutal, but I think the real answer is, figure it out. And then share your advice with a writer friend. Who, I can almost guarantee, will not take it — but will be eternally grateful for your kindness.

Most popular articles from Nieman Storyboard

Show comments / Leave a comment