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Greg Clarke’s 10 Tips for Writer’s Block

Wednesday, 15 October, 2003

When you find yourself with writer's block, ask yourself:

  1. Do I actually have something to say?
    Am I dealing with a topic where I do have something to say? Or am I just writing about it because it's cool to write about? (I tried to do that once; it died a very quick death.) Writers often oscillate between self-flagellation and arrogance (ie. it's arrogant to think that someone would actually want to read what you've written). Sort out what you want to say. And remember, you don't have to say everything you've found out.
  2. Can I say it in a different way?
    Is my approach the problem? Have a look at the different modes and mediums of possible address: Could I write this as a poem/an article/a biography/a recipe? Is voice the problem? What would it be like if I wrote it in the first person present tense/third person past tense/second person future tense? Is tone the problem? Should it be preachy or humble, colloquial or academic? What about language? Would it work better in French or Ancient Greek? What about the use of time? What if I wrote it like Memento which contains interweaving episodes in colour (they're the ones that go backwards) and black and white (they're the ones that go forwards)? Look for different ways of dealing with the same topic. Explore variety.
  3. What can I read on the subject?
    William Faulkner says in order to be a writer, you must be a reader. Read widely. Even if it's difficult and unsavoury. The most disturbing reading I've ever done was for “Homosexuality: A History, a Story”, but even though it was disturbing, it gave me great insight and knowledge into the subject and helped me clarify my thinking.
  4. What subjects connect with what I'm saying?
    Think sideways on a subject (associative thinking). Bring up related topics that might help. If I was going to write an article about women's ordination, I'd also have to consider other topics like: what is ministry?; gender roles in the created order; church hierarchies, etc.
  5. What words and images are associated with what I'm doing?
    For example, “predestination”: chosen, election, Esau, railway tracks, ballots, etc. You'll find that the abstract (eg. election) bogs you down, so instead move towards the concrete (eg. railway tracks). Find an image that piques your interest and pursue it.
  6. If I were to write a really clichéd article on this subject, what would I say?
    Write that clichéd article. Map out the stock standard thing. At least this will give you something to work with. What can you do to upset people's expectations? The clearer the cliché, the more you will be able to do something different.
  7. Who can I talk to about this?
    There are two kinds of people you could talk to: 1. People who would understand and, 2. People who wouldn't understand (eg. non-Christians). Try to explain your topic to a non-Christian friend to get insight. Or try to explain your topic to someone who wouldn't have the foggiest about it (eg. if you're an English student, ring an engineer). This forces you explain yourself and to think hard about what you're writing about.
  8. Can I just start writing?
    Sometimes it's not that you can't write, it's that you're not writing. Start—give yourself shape and words to work with. Procrastination can often be solved by just writing. Greg said that one of the most helpful things his Honours supervisor said to him was, “You're ready to write.” He realised then that the writing is really part of the research and not something to be done after you've finished researching. This means, however, that you have to be a good self-editor and not be precious with your material. Don't be afraid to draft, draft and re-draft, and use that red pen liberally.
  9. Location, location, location: Can I write this somewhere else?
    Environment affects what you write. Sometimes you have to go to certain places to do a certain type of writing. Greg says that he, Tony Payne and Kirsten Birkett sometimes feel like they have to get out of the office and go to the Moore College library to write. I often get really inspired when I'm at a concert or a literary reading. Interact with your environment. Let it move you.
  10. When should I give up on this piece of writing?
    This relates to point 1. Do I actually have something to say? Only ever give up provisionally. Don't trash the piece; put it in the “Unlikely writing projects” folder or leave it in the middle brain or reduce its level of consciousness so it starts percolating in the background like a coffee machine. One day—maybe in ten or twenty years' time—you'll pick it up again, start working on it and make it into something brilliant. It took Neil Gaiman 14 years to write Coraline but it went on to win the Hugo and the Bram Stoker awards. Sometimes these things take time.
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