WordCount – Freelancing in the Digital Age

By Michelle Vranizan Rafter

Drano for writers: 10 tricks to get the words flowing again

with 14 comments

dranoWriter’s block has to be one of the worst occupational hazards of freelancing, right up there with magazines that take forever to pay.

Lifehacker, one of my favorite sources of unconventional thinking on getting stuff done, suggests curing writer’s blog by stepping away from something you’re working on while the words are still flowing. Do it often enough, and you’ll avoid getting blocked at all, says Lifehacker’s Kevin Purdy.

As someone who writes for a living I can’t afford to pound the keyboard for 30 minutes, or even two hours, and then step away. If I don’t finish what I’m working on, I don’t get paid. To get rid of a case of writer’s block,  here’s what I suggest:

1. Work on elements of a story package that are easy to do: the a headline, deck, subheads, source list, photo captions, charts, etc.

2. Re-read interview notes, highlight quotes, make notes or work up an outline.

3. Get up from the computer and do something non-work related for a couple minutes – take the dog for a quick walk, fold laundry, make lunch, read the paper – then come back and have at it again.

4. Work on another project – there’s always another project.

5. Think of it like a crossword puzzle or a yoga pose. If the approach I’m taking to a specific sentence or section isn’t working, take another approach – mentally will myself to look at what it is I’m trying to say from an entire new direction. I wonder – does this mean I could write off my yoga class as a business expense?

6. Talk to someone about what you’re writing – or even just talk to yourself – to force yourself to come up with a concise explanation of the piece. This is great for when you’re stuck on a nut graph.

7.  Tackle a different section of the piece. If you’re struggling with the lead, work on a section that you know you’ve got down cold. Or go through your notes and pick out the handful of quotes you know need to be in the story, put them in your story file along with attributions. Then write the transition sentences that lead up to the quotes. Then write the transition sentences that follow the quotes. Pretty soon, you’re writing.

8. Keep a notebook and pen by your bed, or in your car, in your backpack or purse. Inevitably just as you’re drifting off to sleep, or in the grocery store checkout line or picking up daughter from soccer practice the lead, nut graph or conclusion you’ve been struggling with will pop into your head.

9. Especially if it’s late in the day, pound out as much as you can. Promise yourself you’ll stop once you hit a certain number of words, whether that’s 200, 300 or 500. Then close the file. The next morning, you may be surprised by how decent what you wrote is. But even if you end up not using much of it, it’s a start, and better than opening a file full of nothing.

10. Read something you enjoy – it could jump start your own creative process.

Here are some of my other suggestions for getting over writer’s block.

What writer’s block cures do you use?

Written by Michelle Rafter

June 4, 2009 at 9:58 am

14 Responses

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  1. I like it!

    The tip to take a notebook and pen with you everywhere is right on.

    Love the title. Reminds me of Hermes’ “Caribbean drano” (Futurama) and it’s very visual. Ha.


    June 4, 2009 at 10:15 am

  2. Stopping while the words are flowing has got to be the *worst* advice for dealing with blocks I’ve ever heard, Michelle. If I did that, I’d be blocked for hours! Days, even.

    Paula B.

    June 4, 2009 at 11:58 am

  3. The passage in the Lifehacker piece says: “…stopping while you’re “going good” leaves your mind with something to develop between now and the next time you sit down to it.” Maybe it works if you’re writing fiction, but for the kind of writing I do, I’ve got to agree that I don’t think it’d work for me.


    Michelle Rafter

    June 4, 2009 at 12:07 pm

  4. Here’s how I think of it, Michelle. You wake up in the middle of the night with a great idea, but you don’t write it down, so in the morning it’s gone.

    To me, that’s what stopping when you’re on a roll is like. Fiction, nonfiction, whatever.

    Paula B.

    June 4, 2009 at 12:43 pm

  5. Sometimes photos do it for me. If I have to find a photo for the article myself, I’ll stop writing and find that photo. There have been a lot of times that the perfect photo has inspired me and that’s all it took for the words to flow!

    Other times, I take a walk outside with my camera and just take pics of whatever: the clouds, flowers, insects. And after I’ve cleared my head for a bit, I come back and get busy.

    Great post! I tweeted about it and shared it on Facebook. :-)


  6. Thanks!


    Michelle Rafter

    June 4, 2009 at 10:12 pm

  7. I think Lifehacker’s advice is about training your state. By stopping while you’re still ‘in the flow’ rather than waiting until you’re blocked when you come back to the page your mind has an easier time getting back into state. If every time you leave the page you’ve reached ‘the end’ or ‘the hard part’ then every time you come back to the page it’s unfriendly.

    Still, sometimes NOTHING much works. My current novel has been ‘waiting’ for me for what feels like months now and I still haven’t found a way to get past the block, on other projects it’s just fine. In fact, so long as I avoid all thought of my novel my writing flow is wonderful. If I start thinking about the book EVERYTHING jams up. Wish there was a more literal drano for that kind of problem. lol

    Rebecca Laffar-Smith

    June 5, 2009 at 1:40 am

  8. I haven’t attempted writing fiction – maybe because I’m so blocked I can’t even get started! – so thanks for sharing this perspective. I understand what you mean about stopping when you’re in the flow – that’s why I suggest putting something down on the page so the next day you’re not starting from zero. I often will start a story late in the afternoon of the day before it’s due and pound out several hundred words, including the lead and first couple paragraphs. I don’t normally create a written outline – if it’s a 500, 1,000 or even 1,500 word piece I’m pretty good about outlining it in my head. But if I have those first five or six opening graphs done, including the intro and nut graph, I can open the story file the next morning and know exactly where I am and what I have to work on.


    Michelle Rafter

    June 5, 2009 at 10:39 am

  9. Hi Michelle,

    I love your blog! I’ve been making my way through all of your posts. I’m at December 08 so far and loving it all! Thanks for all of the useful info!

    Style and Inspiration

    June 5, 2009 at 4:59 am

  10. Thanks so much – from the time stamps on your comments, it looks like you were reading all night – hope it was worth it!


    Michelle Rafter

    June 5, 2009 at 10:40 am

  11. I prefer any type of cognitive distraction – like throwing a baseball into a glove, for example. You can still think about your subject, but the mechanical action of throwing the ball forces your brain to be “doing” something else.

    That, and I’m a total baseball geek, so any excuse I can get to pull out the glove is good with me!

    J. Bentz

    June 5, 2009 at 9:38 am

  12. I have two kids who are kinetic learners – they do best if they’re able to move around, wiggle, look around, do something, while they’re absorbing material, whether it’s reading or listening to a teacher. Sounds a lot like what you’re describing. As for baseball: I didn’t start out as a fan, but 12 years of going to my kids’ games has converted me.


    Michelle Rafter

    June 5, 2009 at 10:34 am

  13. I mainly do longer feature writing. When I finish an interview, often combined with seeing a subject in action, at a “scene” of some kind, & am ready to transcribe, I first roughly describe the scene (clothing, environment, actions, etc). When I’m ready to write the first draft, I have several of these “scenes” already roughly written. Usually one of them is the opening. Maybe another is a scene I know will be used mid-way through the piece. I just copy-and-paste it into the first draft & begin fine-tuning. Presto, I’m not facing a blank screen, a major trigger for writer’s block. In effect, I started writing the story while I was doing the reporting & interviewing. I’ve found this to be very effective.

    David Hayes

    June 5, 2009 at 9:43 am

  14. David: This reminded me of when I was still a newspaper reporter. Sometimes I couldn’t drive back to the office fast enough to start writing – the words were literally racing into my head. A few times I turned on my tape recorder and dictated opening lines to myself. Other times, mainly when I was away on assignment, I’d sit in my car or my hotel room and write everything that was pouring into my head as soon as I could in order to capture it before it went away. This was all before laptops were cheap enough for newspapers to give to all their reporters or me to own, otherwise I would have used one for that purpose.


    Michelle Rafter

    June 5, 2009 at 10:31 am

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