Unblocking the flow — or overcoming writer’s block

What I mean to say &#8230 . A strategy for overcoming writer’s block. Photo: Mark Diamond

What I mean to say … . A strategy for overcoming writer’s block. Photo: Mark Diamond

The most important thing to know about writer’s block is that although it is extremely painful, it is rarely fatal, and there are a multitude of ways to overcome it. None, however, is guaranteed, and a solution which works for one person might not work for another. The trick, then, is to try anything at all that might help. Here is just one suggestion, based on the premise that writer’s block is often a consequence of being overly censorious of one’s own writing process.

Start by turning on your word-processor and opening a new file. Next, make your writing invisible. Yes! You read correctly. Invisible—or at least completely illegible. The purpose of rendering your typing illegible is to force you to dissociate the early process of writing from what should be a late-occurring process, namely editing. Preventing yourself from being able to read what you have written will effectively stifle any unwanted impulse you have to try and edit. There are several ways of scrambling your writing, but here are three (a) Turn off the screen so that you cannot see what you are typing, (b) make the font size so small (2pt, for example), so that it is impossible to read, or (c) select a font like Dingbats which will show you some pretty patterns without the pattern being meaningful or distracting.

Now, start striking the keys! If you think you don’t know what to say, type something anyway. Type meaningless words strung together, type “I don’t know what to say”, or better yet, type “What I mean to say is …What I mean to say is …What I mean to say is …”, until something else comes to mind. But no matter what, keep going. Type anything! Since you will be unable to read what you have written, your reward will come solely from the happy sound of bouncing fingers and the sight of the cursor moving inexorably across the screen. In the absence of fire or power-failure, do not stop tapping at the keys for at least 30 minutes. Finally, still without having looked at what you have produced, save your work. Even if only 10 per cent of what you have written is ultimately useful, you will have produced something. When you next go back to the computer, repeat the exercise as before. No editing. No rereading. No changing the font back to something you can read. Aside from tapping, striking, typing and saving, the only thing you’re allowed to do is check the word count. And since your computer does not need a sensible font to be able to count “words”, you will still have no excuse for peeking.

Once you have written for several sessions, you can aggregate the files you have produced, and change the font back to something you can read. At that point you can begin editing. As a person with a primary diagnosis of Writer’s Block, you are likely to find editing by far the easier task.

I would like to be able to claim that the suggestions here are entirely original, but they are not. I believe that the idea of rendering one’s writing illegible originates with Barbara Turner-Vesselago, the author of “Freefall: writing without a parachute” (ISBN 0-969-7810-3-2). It was Dr Cecily Scutt, currently of Murdoch University, who first suggested to me that one type “What I mean to say is …”

Contributors: Mark R. Diamond