June 13, 2018
Every so often we like to use our blog to highlight our amazing partners. One such partner is our go-to freelance writer, Maggie Van Dyke. We’ve worked with Maggie for years to produce compelling content for our clients, which has appeared in a number of top-tier publications. We asked Maggie if she could provide our readers with some tips to combat something we all struggle with in this industry at one time or another: writer’s block. Please enjoy these “insider tips” provided by Maggie, and another one of our star freelance writers, Jeni Williams:
“Ice cream sandwiches … in the freezer!” With this thought, I jumped up from my chair for the third time since sitting down to write a feature article. The first time, I lasted 10 minutes before getting up to start a load of laundry. The second time I had barely sat down before deciding to walk to the park and back. Then I ate not just one ice cream sandwich but two. (The mini 100-calorie kind so two counts as one, right?) You might assume I had a classic case of procrastination. Yet I knew my symptoms well: I was experiencing the percolating part of the writing process. Soon after finishing my ice cream, I sat down and wrote 300 words that had been going round my head since my walk. As with any trade, certain parts of writing can be learned and honed, from grammar rules and research skills to formulas for organizing articles (e.g., the Wall Street Journal approach for feature articles). But the parts of writing that I have always found the most challenging are psychological in nature. After nearly 30 years as a full-time writer and editor, I still struggle against the triple scourges of self-doubt, writer’s block, and deadline burnout.
Here are two strategies I use to get around some of the psychological traps of writing:
- Schedule in simmering time. Before beginning to write, I read over the material I’ve gathered on the topic (e.g., interviews with experts, research) as well as notes I’ve made about key take-aways, good quotes to use, etc. Then, ideally, I shut down shop for the day and engage in mindless but soothing activities that have nothing to do with the piece I’m writing, such as chopping vegetables for dinner. Typically, by the next morning, I have magically written the first paragraph or two in my head. It’s not always possible or necessary to schedule overnight percolation periods. Mini percolation breaks throughout the workday often suffice. The key, for me, is to purposely take a break when I’ve come up against an obstacle in the writing, such as how to describe something complicated or transition from one point to another. Small challenges may only require a single 10-minute break; large ones might require three breaks and an ice cream sandwich.
- Write a haiku. Sometimes the percolating trick doesn’t work. For me, this often means I’m getting in my own way. For instance, I might be distracted, procrastinating, or filled with irrational dread that I’ve lost the ability to write. Alternatively, my ego might be in high gear, and I waste an hour trying to write the best sentence the world has ever seen. One of my tricks in these situations is to write a haiku. These short three-line poems are supposed to be observations, typically of the natural world. Metaphors and similes are a no-no. You’re just supposed to pay attention with all your senses and report back in 17 syllables. Writing a haiku gives a quick confidence boost. In addition, the process is a type of mindfulness exercise, which helps me focus. Plus, it reminds me that perfectionism is often counter-productive. “Just report, Maggie, just report,” I remind myself.
Since different strategies likely work for different writers, I decided to check in with a freelance writer friend of mine, Jeni Williams, to see what tricks she has up her sleeves for getting around writing hang ups. Jeni kindly shared these two terrific tips:
- Make it a game. On Mother’s Day morning, I needed to write a 2,000-word report, but I also wanted to spend the day with my kids. The night before, I set my alarm for 4 a.m. and told myself, “This is going to be fun!” I woke up with that same mindset and treated the project as if it were a race that I had four hours to complete. The work went quickly, and I was able to relax with my family afterward. This is an approach I use sparingly so that when I need to psych myself up for a project—whether it’s because I’m tired or overloaded—I can draw on that inner cheerleader quickly.
- Pretend it’s a conversation. When I’m facing writer’s block from the very first paragraph, I ask myself: “If I were going to tell my mother what this project is about, what would I say?” It’s an approach that strips the project down to basics. If I were really talking with my mother, I’d break that explanation down to a sentence. That sentence gives me the jumping-off point I need to settle into the material and start writing.
Thanks Jeni. I am going to try both of these tricks in the next few weeks. In the meantime, I have another deadline to meet. So I’m pulling out my go-to mantra (from a Robert Frost poem): “The only way round is through.”
So, have you ever tried any of these tricks? Do you have your own tricks you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you on Twitter @AriaMarketing! To learn more about Maggie and her amazing work, please check her out on LinkedIn.