Everything I’ve read—every writer’s guide, every website geared toward writers—says the most important part of writing is to get it on paper. Don’t worry how sloppy it is. Don’t worry if it’s barely comprehensible. Just get it on paper. You can’t edit and polish if you have nothing to work with, right?
But what if you can’t get it on the paper?
Many of our IFW editors proclaim there is no such thing as writer’s block. (I’m looking at you, Rhonda Browning White.) But the little kid in me wants to throw a temper tantrum and scream, Yes, there is such a thing as writer’s block! There is, there is, there is! as if it can somehow excuse all the months I go without writing a word.
But I don’t think writer’s block is the real problem—at least not for people like me.
Let me tell you why. I had an English teacher in high school who, for his doctoral dissertation, studied the processes and styles of young writers. He told me something that I didn’t know about myself: I do the writing, editing, and polishing stages all at the same time. Meaning, that I write, edit, then polish what I want to say all in my mind before a single word ever appears on paper.
So when I open my Word document and can’t get the words from my brain to the page, it isn’t writer’s block, per se. Rather, it’s that I can’t find the perfect way to say what I want to say. And if I can’t say it perfectly at that moment, I can’t say it at all.
It’s not lack of inspiration or writer’s block. It’s that my perfectionism—the ingrained desire for my writing to be perfect on the first try—stops my fingers from flying and my story from being told.
It’s a struggle for me to just write down words for the sake of getting them on paper. It’s like someone telling my five-foot, un-athletic, chocoholic self that I have to jump over a twenty-foot tall wall to get to the brownies on the other side. I’d rather deny myself the brownies than fail in the attempt to get them.
My other writing flaw is that I have to write in chronological order. Translation: I have to write scenes (or in essay writing, the elements of the argument) in the order in which they occur in the story. I can’t skip around and come back to it later. I just can’t. It’s not the way my brain works.
So sometimes I have to cheat. Trick my brain into letting me get past these little idiosyncrasies of mine.
When I can’t say it perfectly at that moment, when I just can’t write it out, I write a note in that spot instead. Sometimes it’s a sentence in parentheses that says “Characters have a heart-to-heart here” or “This is where his big secret is revealed” or “Transition here.” Sometimes it’s a more detailed summary made in the margin with Microsoft Word’s comment function. But this method allows me to remember what I was going to write so I can come back to it later when I finally have the perfect words.
This same method sometimes helps when I have to work out of chronological order. In a way, it tricks my brain into thinking we’ve covered that section. Then my brain might let me move on to the part I am ready to write.
Every mind is unique. Even—perhaps especially—among writers. Sometimes the typical techniques and strategies don’t work for all of us. So we have to find our own shortcuts, our own techniques and strategies to work around our writing roadblocks.
What writing idiosyncrasies do you have? What different or strange technique works for you?