Austin L Church
11 min read
Writer’s block is as varied, as personal, as your motives for writing in the first place.
It can sneak up on you too. You sit down to draft a new post. You let down the bucket into your well of good ideas. It comes up full of mud. Hrmm.
When you can’t come up with a single idea worth developing, what do you do next?
The tips that follow won’t apply to everyone at this very moment. Some of you have deep wells. Right now, the writing comes easy. Good! All of us in the blogosphere are rooting for you.
With that said, be sure to bookmark or pin this post now. Save it so that you can return to it later during the dry season and pinch a trick or two from an old English teacher.
For those of you with buckets of mud, my hope is that you can walk away with an idea, habit, or phrase that will help you write more, more often, more quickly, with more enjoyment. At the very least, you can laugh at some of my bone-headed mistakes. Two decades of writing have given me a whole museum of them.
You know that you cannot keep an audience without publishing high-quality content. But you also cannot build an audience unless you keep posting, even when you’re scraping bottom.
The most important thing is to keep going. Your audience will overlook a few duds, but if you go dark, they’ll simply forget about you.
Our attention is fleeting. Consistency trumps everything.
As for striking the balance between quality and consistency, we all have off days. We go through droughts when the clear, cogent language evaporates and leaves murky beginnings, rocky transitions, and tepid closings. (How long is he going to draw out this water and well analogy?)
So what? You quit? No. You put lipstick on that piggie and send it off to market.
If you want blogging to be your job, then make it your job. Don’t cut yourself so much slack that you hang yourself with it.
Try my “Make It Hurt” program:
In 2006, when I began pursuing a Master’s in English, what stopped up the well was trying to not embarrass myself.
I showed up on campus and joined a program already populated with talented poets and fiction writers. When everybody is special, no one is.
The gift with words that had set me apart began to look rather ordinary, and I felt the need to prove that I deserved a spot among the literati.
When I would sit down to write, POOF! A blue cartoon angel appeared on one shoulder, and a red devil appeared on the other. The angel would exhort me: “To hell with them. Write whatever you want!”
The little devil would point out every vapid paragraph and weak metaphor. He whispered, “What would Otis say about that line? This poem will get torn apart in workshop.”
Comparison stymied my creativity and production. Most of the time, my words flowed like mud. My thesis came as more sigh of relief than a barbaric yawp.
What about you?
Does the blue cartoon devil whisper discouragement in your ear? Does he make unflattering comparisons to other bloggers? Here are some of his favorite lines:
“There are millions of blogs. Your's is nothing special.”
“A hundred posts on this subject already exist.”
“Those posts have better style, better research, and more comments.”
“You have no business writing.”
If you’re anything like me, your own negative self-talk picks up the refrain:
“Why isn’t my email list growing faster?”
“No one is going to read this.”
“I must be doing something wrong.”
“Maybe I’m just wasting my time.”
You can’t get into the flow because your mind is full of insecurity and negativity. No wonder the words dry up!
How do you silence the naysayers?
Use some of my tricks:
This piece was originally going to be about finding one's voice. But it's not your voice that's the problem. Your voice just is. It is a vintage Jaguar convertible polished to high sheen or a rusted-out Chevy truck.
No, the problem is your destination, a pin on a map. In your mind you trace a line to it, thinking, “I want to go here. I want to say this.”
You muster your creative faculties. You write something. Then…
You realize that this thing, this uninspiring artifact on the page or screen, well, it isn’t nearly as ornate and elegant as the charming idea in your mind. It doesn't sound like you. Or if it sounds like you, it doesn't sparkle. It's a beater, not a Benz.
What happened? Chances are, your focus shifted from making yourself understood to being clever and original. Chronicles of Narnia author C.S. Lewis has this to say on the matter:
“Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.” (source)
Its own cadence of honesty is what makes any voice distinct.
Strive for honesty, not originality, and when you're trying to figure out where a blog post went wrong, go back and put a finger on where the truth petered out.
English majors aren’t know for their business savvy. There I said it.
Back in October 2008, five months out of grad school and penniless, I finally landed a job at a marketing agency. Trying to make myself useful, I threw myself at copywriting, branding, and social media strategy. Each week, I nominated myself to take the office’s recycling. At Christmas I even baked miniature loaves of my grandmother's pumpkin bread for all of our clients.
Overcompensate any? Yes.
Six months passed, and rather than write and confirm my suspicion that I was losing my touch, I didn’t write. Tiredness, tedious projects at the office, and the slow bite of discontentment made my mind sluggish. When I finally had a moment of clarity, I freaked out.
I didn’t want being in the business world to signify the death of my literary aspirations. I set a challenge for myself: publishing two blog posts per day for a month.
In March 2009, while working forty-five hours a week at a desk job, I wrote 28,110 words—more in a single month than I had in two years of a graduate creative writing program.
Some fiction writers and poets turn up their noses at blogging: Does Cormac McCarthy have a blog? Exactly. Blogging is pedestrian. It’s for the masses—that is, beneath artists and true wordsmiths of enduring talent.
When a popular blogger gets a book deal, guess who grumbles and scoffs? The literati.
Before I started blogging, I was trying so hard to be so good that I stopped doing the one thing that helps you become good: practicing.
That March, blogging healed my creative process. I was finally able to break through the literary trappings that had slowed me down. Words became friends again.
Let the literati have their ivory towers. Let’s you and I write for the joy of it. Let’s be kids in big sandboxes of words and ideas. And when we want to be adults, we’ll go to blogging conferences in beautiful places and drink fancy drinks.
Are you having fun?
You may get writer’s block, but you don’t get talker’s block. “Writing” your first drafts by recording voice memos offers two distinct advantages:
First of all, you can “write” while your hands are otherwise occupied. While you’re driving, you can riff on an idea and get some words down without having your laptop or journal.
Now, you might already be thinking, “Fine, but those words are trapped in the voice memo.” Only temporarily. Hire a transcriptionist. Mine is a lovely guy named Klaus who lives in Ireland and sends transcriptions to me within 24 hours.
Speaking your first draft can be really efficient means of raw production. You will get more writing done if you record an audio and then pay someone $20 to transcribe it.
Secondly, as a writer and blogger, you are still looking for ways to strengthen your voice. If you want to find your voice, it’s never going to come through more clearly than when you speak.
This seems obvious, right?
When we sit down to write, we often end up with words that are perhaps more academic than necessary. The English language contains thousands of clumsy Latinate contraptions that lack the memorable and visceral punch of conversational English. Big words often lack the grace and power that simple spoken language can have, and that’s true of all languages.
Try speaking first drafts. The beautiful cadences, nuances, and idioms of spoken language will come out. You’ll be so busy trying to make a point that you’ll forget to try to sound impressive.
You’ll write like you talk, and you can circumvent writer’s block and unearth your voice at the same time.
Here’s my process:
If you don’t have a transcriptionist, hire one on Upwork. It’s easy. You can watch this step-by-step video that shows how I find great talent.
In closing, here are the 5 tips to help bloggers beat writer’s block:
Get a free course full of blogging prompts.
I have already touched on one of the most common writer’s block busters: prompts. If you want a free, 7-lesson course called “Blogging Prompts That Don’t Suck,” then subscribe here. You’ll like some of the stuff I’ve curated.
May your well stay full, my friend.