Saturday, September 10, 2005

No Such Thing as Writer's Block

Saturday Writer: Prewriting

I believe ‘writer’s block’ is the normal state of writing; that is, you rarely have anything just flow easily from your brain to the keyboard. And if it does, it’s usually pretty bad. Good writing is almost always hard, and what I think sometimes happens is that writers forget how hard it is, or don’t want to do the work any more, and they call this ‘writer’s block.’“ Dave Barry

I sit here in what was a boy scout camp. Now it’s a rustic bed and no breakfast cabin in the woods. Nice enough, but I have this article to write before we can break out the wine. So I do what I can to make the writing go smoothly. I set up the space. I want my brain to know that this is writing time.

Visual distractions are out of the way. Headphones are on with my music playing. My writing tools are out around me. The table is moved so the lighting is right. I added a pillow to the wooden chair. My notes are here and in arm’s reach are my favorite “lean back and think” treats.

I started prewriting this article last week when I finished Writing—A Paradox on Paper. Almost immediately my mind switched to the question of what would come next. How much of the writing process should I cover?

Writing is hard. It’s hard to find a good idea. To mold that idea so that you fall in love with it, to invest your best thinking takes work—and preparation. The hardest part of writing is figuring out what you want to say. The next hardest part is figuring out a plan for how to say it. Those two are called prewriting.


Beth, an editor about to finish her first year, sat down in my office and announced that she had bad news.

“I can’t write this page of front matter. I’ve been looking at it and thinking about it for three days. I’m not up to it. I can’t do it.”

“You don’t know what you want to say.”

She looked at me.

“You’re a great writer. If you knew what to say, you could write that page in an hour. So let’s figure it out.”

She finished writing the page an hour after our conversation ended. For Beth, prewriting was a conversation and her experience on the product that she was writing about. She used her notes to pull together a cohesive and informative page that read with life and energy.


Imagine sitting down to write with ideas at your fingertips ready to flow onto the page like type into a pagemaking program. That’s the purpose of prewriting—to have a plan and ideas lined up in support of that plan. Writers prewrite to separate the information gathering and organizational planning so that they can concentrate on the writing when the drafting begins.

Prewriting stategies come in many shapes and sizes but all agree on one requirement. All ideas are accepted; no editing allowed. Prewriting is a chance to try out new ideas, to play with new concepts, to let your subconscious have a go with what you see. I send my self editor on break when I prewrite. My goal is to gather a critical mass of ideas.

Surveying formally and informally has been a strategy I've used to get ideas when I didn't have any. Asking friend for ideas has always been a help but its fun sometimes to concoct an unusual survey to garner some quirky and unusual ideas. Writing is a social activity. Our ideas come from observing and interacting with people. Why not invite them to take part in the process?

Brainstorming is listing without stopping to review. Choose a topic that interests you; then list all of the terms that you know about it. Chose one of the terms and brainstorm again to expand on that term. Looping around on a term will help information to bubble up from your subconscious. When you find a topic that captures your interest, brainstorm a question to narrow the topic—looking for how you might spin yourself in it.

Nontraditional researching works really well for me when I want to find fast ideas. Start with a broad topic such as toys and run it through a search or two to see where you get. Click through to a topic or three, and you might find a something that catches your interest. That’s how the Yo-Yo article happened.

Mind Mapping, Idea Mapping, Clustering and Idea Trees basically work the same way. Start with a circle that has the main idea. Branch out by adding subtopics that relate to your idea on lines or smaller circles around it. If you’re more organized, draw an Idea Tree like an organizational chart downward and out. Get to know how these work. Then you might define your own graphic organizer to test how your subtopics relate.

Freewriting is writing continuously for an uninterrupted period of time, even if you feel you have nothing to say. Then you write “I have nothing to say. I’m just writing until I have something to say.” I was skeptical the first time I tried it but some of my best writing started out as freewriting. The usually recommended time is 5-10 minutes, but I’ve found that longer works best for me. Reminder in a Coffee Cup came from a freewriting journal of mine and needed very little editing.

Take a pocket journal with you wherever you go. Keep one by your bed. Everyone prewrites in their dreams. Catch those ideas before they float away. So many of the entries on this blog started that way.

Prewriting strategies open my mind to play ideas. They get me over the hump of the dull and mundane stuff. I don’t want to write what already is written. I want to add something new to the discussion. Most of all I don’t want to get stuck in the muck of ugly, old, boring ideas.

I want to stand with Dave Barry. There’s no such thing as Writer’s Block, only writers who forgot.
—me strauss Letting me be
Some Additional Links:

University of Kansas: Prewriting Strategies


Gone Away said...

I shouldn't read things like this. They always make me think "Blimey! I never realized writing was so complicated..." ;)

Ned said...

I had a writer's block once, it was square and I tried to put it in a round hole.

Actually, I find myself getting ideas from the Word Verifications in Blogger. Now, to write a post based on "pneninw".

ME Strauss said...

From what I hear, you already make it pretty complicated your self.

What a great idea! I'll have to try that. My word today is *acyng.*

Bluesky_Liz said...

Great article. :) Thanks for the strategies!

ME Strauss said...

Thanks Liz. Let me know if you need anything.

Gone Away said...


ME Strauss said...

Wow that is so profound.
What can I say but fsrjogf?

Tanda said...

Liz, your article and I are going to be spending a lot of time together. Hope you won't mind...


ME Strauss said...

What a nice thing to say.
I hope you know you can print it out. Enjoy. I'll email you.

Ned said...

I notice you didn't mention plagiarism in your article, but there seems to a lot of going on in the comments here and all I can say is "noortza"!!

ME Strauss said...

In the school I went to, they taught that plagarism was a drafting strategy, not a prewriting strategy--that's next week. As far as noortza"!! goes you're right I'm remiss. I left that out altogether. yzmix!

Gone Away said...

.oO(Are you allowed to say "noortza" in polite company? Americans never cease to amaze me...)

ME Strauss said...

Actually, Gone, as with some many words that cross the pond, such as pissed, "noortza" has a different meaning here. It refers to a brilliant nova birthing a nebula on the eve of the 29th of February in the Chinese year of the Dragon.

So you can relax, there is no offense to sesnsibilities.

smiles and rhixkzn,

Ned said...

Is that what I said? Whoa! I am impressed.

I thought Noortza referred to Queen Noor syndrome where you enter beauty pageants and try to make at least runner-up so you can catch the eye of some foreign monarch who will then marry you, title you and give you a nice wardrobe so you can forget the stigma of being only the runner-up.

The nova thing sounds much classier.

ME Strauss said...

Gee, Ned, what you explained is the second definition in the Alien League of Intelligent Crayons and Enigmas Standard Unabridged 21,000 volume Dictionary. I'm sorry if I chose the wrong definition. Without hearing you pronounce the word. I choose the one I thought waw most likely in context. I should have asked you I dzljpg most humbly.


Mark Cross said...

Kudos for a most EXCELLENT post Liz. Simply outstanding.

ME Strauss said...

Thank you, Mark.
I appreciate your support.

It was quite a time trying to build online in a cabin in the early a.m. hours in out-of-the-way Illinois using dial-up, getting bounced every three or four minutes. :) But I's made a promise and I was bound and determined.


easywriter said...

Oh I liked this because now I know that what I'm doing on my blog is something like freewriting. I just write whatever comes out at the moment for better or worse and if it's worse I can always fix it!

You know, writing is fun. It's supposed to be isn't it? Sometimes?

ME Strauss said...

Hi easy,
What you wrote made me smile.

Yes it's hard work that's supposed to be fun. If you're not having fun at least part of the time, you're not doing it right.

And FREEwriting should be FREEing.