Tools for Thought

Thinking beyond productivity

Use Nonfinishing to Break Writer’s Block

by Andre · 4 Comments

Few things in a writer’s life are worse that staring at a screen groping for words for what seems like an eternity. Some writers can compose as fast as they can type, but most mortals’ writing process is more of a struggle. There may or may not be a way to escape the struggle entirely, but there is a way to consistently keeping the groping process from leading to a dead end. You can keep writing without being fatally stuck.

Notes from a pulp writer

10 years ago I saw a screening of Pulp Fiction where writer-director Quentin Tarantino appeared live for a Q-and-A after the film. Someone in the audience asked the impish auteur if he had any advice to keep up the daily discipline of screenwriting. “Q” swore by the tip he was given by a mentor.

He said organized his writing sessions so that, whatever the last scene was for that sitting, he would stop writing in the middle of it — not at the end. Since he knew how to continue the scene, he had no problem kick-starting the next writing session. His only task at the beginning was to finish the last scene, which was a downhill stroll. While he was typing out the rest of that scene, he would usually start getting ideas for the next scene.

This piece of advice was a godsend, since I was tasked to write eight 400-800 word articles a day at the time, and was seriously getting burned out. Unfortunately, I couldn’t put off each article for the next day, but what I did do was get started on the first third or half of the ninth article. This ninth article would be the first article of the following day.

So each morning began by completing the previous afternoon’s article. The piece was, as Gina Trapani would put it, “parked on a downward slope.” The workload was the same (still eight articles, not nine), but the extra momentum changed the whole tenor of the writing process throughout the day.

Stop writing before you’re at a loss for words. Start each session with something to say.

Variations on a theme

A minor problem with this method is that you have to willingly stop yourself from writing precisely at the moment when everything’s flowing. You’re naturally inclined to want to stop when your creativity is spent, not when it’s peaking. Some days I would inadvertently continue the ninth article, then realize it was basically finished, aside from copyediting.

If this becomes a problem, use time-based or task-based quotas. In a time-based session, you write for X number of minutes or hours. In a task-based session, you write X number of words. Writers love to endlessly debate which approach works better.

I prefer time-based quotas, since they’re absolute. If I’m writing about something that’s new to me, I have no idea how long it will take complete a word count — I could be off by a factor of two or three. But I always know how long four hours takes. The examples I’ll be using are time-based, but if you prefer the task-based approach, go for it.

The Short-Time Method

First, decide how long you would ideally like to write each day. Suppose it’s four hours. Just like running, writing for that length of time daily require conditioning. So start writing one hour, using a timer (as I never tire of insisting) for the first week, two hours the second week, three hours the third week, and four hours the fourth week.

Here’s the instruction that people will ignore, since everyone wants to be Superman. If everyone was Superman, he wouldn’t be extraordinary.

If you run out of thinking before your allotted time, cut your allotted time for the next session by half. In other words, if you can’t fill an hour with reasonably consistent writing output, ratchet the session back to half an hour, then do that for a week; then double it the following week, and so on, until you reach your target daily writing time. I say “reasonably consistent” because there will inevitably be spells of staring into empty space. But if most of your time is spent staring and not writing, then you’ve overcommitted.

Rinse and repeat. If you’re still struggling to fill 30 minutes, cut the following session down to 15. Even if you can only write for five minutes initially, you’re beginning a process that all the daydreaming in the world won’t set in motion.

Knowing when to quit

It’s perfectly fine to sit and do nothing during the time you’ve allotted to write. It’s not fine to do anything else. You have to choose between being bored and being productive. In most cases, if you’re starting from scratch, you’ll get off to a slow start, then gradually gain momentum. The first three minutes of a 10-minute session might be tough, but by the tenth minute, you’re anxious to keep going.

That’s where deliberate nonfinishing comes in. When the timer goes off, you must stop writing, even if you’re in the middle of a sentence. Finish it the next time you sit down to write, and you’ll probably find that getting started and continuing is much more fluid than the first time.

If you prefer the task-based approach, it should be easy enough to adapt the instructions above. If you have a daily writing goal, like one blog post a day, trying writing the first half of the following post afterward and see how it changes the writing experience.

(Photo credit: re_birf)

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Tags: Creativity · Writing


  • Will @ The Rebel MindNo Gravatar // Oct 8, 2008 at 2:11 pm

    hi Andre!

    Thanks for this great post! As I am new to writing (especially in English), they will be of great value for me. What I liked most was the Short Time Method! I will give it a try this week!

    bw, Will

  • MarelisaNo Gravatar // Oct 8, 2008 at 2:44 pm

    This post reminded me of the law of physics: an object in motion stays in motion. If you park your ideas on a downhill, as you put it, and stop while you still have something to say, then when you start writing the next day the law of physics is on your side. If you say everything you have to say in one sitting, then the laws of physics work against you the next day when you basically have to sit there trying to come up with something to say from a stand-still position. Very interesting article.

  • Dr. Nicole SundeneNo Gravatar // Oct 8, 2008 at 2:47 pm

    What a great tip and story! Thanks for sharing :D

    I always have a hard time getting started, but once I’m going I just keep on going. I will have to try this with the book I’m working on right now.

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Oct 9, 2008 at 10:30 am

    @Will & Nicole: Good luck with applying this. I always love it when people commit to applying what they read.

    @Marelisa: That’s exactly right — it’s all about inertia and momentum. If you blow all your cookies by the time you’ve finished writing, you have to start the next day gathering more cookies. (Not really congruent with the physics analogy, but I happen to be hungry :)