(a.k.a. How to Prevent Writer’s Block)
Pssst! Last week, I talked about how there are no real secrets to writing well, but there are tools and processes that you can follow to make you better at it. I shared some of the tools I use as I edit and write and promised that this week I would give up my secrets about the specific processes I use when I’m writing.
Er … except that … truthfully, there is no great mystery to writing well. It takes what most things worth doing in life take: knowledge and discipline. To write well, you’ll need to acquire and employ both.
The first discipline I always recommend is one that you’ve heard many times before: outlining. There are many ways to outline, but the basic idea behind it is to give your writing a plan. Just think what would have happened to Game of Thrones if George R. R. Martin hadn’t had a plan for the two books he hasn’t written yet. Fans of the HBO TV series would have had to wait a lot longer for the conclusion than April 2019.
Some people keep an outline in their heads (which may be okay for seasoned writers), but I recommend writing it out, especially for anyone experiencing writer’s block. A concrete outline that you can refer to periodically can help keep you moving forward when you might otherwise get stuck.
A second discipline to employ is research. I recommend doing the bulk of your research before you start writing. Invariably, you’ll discover additional items you’ll need to research once you begin, but having most of your research compiled ahead of time can also prevent writer’s block by sparking additional ideas, and it will help you to complete a more effective outline. Research also helps keep your writing accurate, or in the case of fiction, more believable.
Next, I recommend that you just write. That is, write without editing. Once you’ve got your thoughts organized with research and an outline, just start putting words on paper (or screen) and keep going until you’re done. (It is okay to take bathroom breaks! And you can break up large projects into smaller chunks of time.)
Once you’re done writing, now it’s time to edit. What that means is that you must give yourself enough time (before your deadline) to go back over what you’ve written to make corrections. You need time to make sure your sentences make sense and to ensure that the entire document is well organized and has enough transitional language so that it flows well.
Now that you’ve done your editing, it’s time to do the nitpicky work: proofreading. This is where you check spelling, grammar, punctuation, and style (based on whichever style manual you are using).
The rule of thumb is that Associated Press style is used for newspapers and most websites, including blogs and online articles. Chicago style is used for most books. APA and MLA are typically used for academic papers and journal articles.
The last suggestion is to read a lot and write a lot. Reading while observing how your favorite author writes is a good way to learn about writing, and it will improve your vocabulary. Writing and writing, and writing again, will give you practice. The more you practice, the better you’ll get.
If you have any specific questions about your writing, I’d be happy to answer them if I can. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.