A friend of mine asked me for some advice: he’s preparing to leave the military, and thought writing might be his next career. Did I have any pearls of wisdom? I gave him two main pieces of advice. The second one: he must understand that there’s no such thing as “writer’s block.”
Really: no matter what anyone tells you, there’s just no such thing as writer’s block. A writer who “can’t write” simply has nothing to say. If you always have something to say, you’ll never have a “block.” It really is that simple.
Wanna-be writers use being “blocked” as an excuse to not write.
When I first starting having some success as a writer, I would sometimes go to “writer’s conferences,” which were numerous in the Los Angeles area, where I lived at the time. Just about every one of them had a session on writer’s block. After the first few conferences I went to, I began to realize a truth: most such conferences are where wanna-be writers pay to talk about …no, not writing, but how cool it would be to be a successful writer! Successful writers rarely go to these conferences: they spend that time writing, instead — and getting paid for their work. I quit going to the conferences and spent that time writing, instead — and getting paid for my work!
The exception to this: networking with actual peers at your level of expertise or success (or, if you’re lucky, a higher level than you), or bona fide mastermind groups of peers who will give you useful feedback on your writing work and career. When run well, those are worth your time.
How to Fix Writer’s Block
I had a good friend from work at my prior day job, at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. (“Had” being a bummer: he died at 37.) He was a NASA engineer, but what he really wanted to do was write. He is the only writer I know who had been published quite a few times in magazines as a freelancer, and yet never had a rejection. Awesome.
But one day he told me he was “blocked” and hadn’t written anything for weeks. I went over to his house and said, “Want me to fix that for you?” He didn’t know what I was up to, but he definitely wanted help, so he agreed to try my cure.
I gave him this assignment: sit his ass in front of his computer and start writing — right now! I told him that I would come back in half an hour. Here’s the key to my method: I said if he could think of nothing else to write, he was to type “I have nothing I want to say” over and over and over again, until he had something better than that to write.
After half an hour of chatting with his wife, I opened his office door to see how he was doing. He didn’t even look up! He said “I’ll be out in a bit — I’m in the middle of something now!” I’ll bet it took him less than a minute to realize he had something he’d rather write than “I have nothing I want to say” over and over.
And he still never got a rejection slip to the day he died.
The First Piece of Advice
I said that understanding there’s no such thing as writer’s block was my second piece of advice. The first: write every day. Every … freaking … day! You want to be a writer? Then write! It’s your job! Get to work!
Have you heard of the 10,000 hour rule? Successful professionals — from musicians to carpenters to anything else that requires real skill — need 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at their craft. A typical work year (8 hours/day for 5 days/week for 50 weeks) is 2,000 hours, so we’re talking about five years of full time practice — preferably with feedback from a qualified instructor (or at least an audience!) — to reach a true professional level.
Yeah, you got some writing instruction in school, but remember what a slacker you were? And it certainly wasn’t full time on writing alone. So maybe if you paid attention and got some good instruction, you have one of those five years under your belt from school. You’re not going to be truly good as a writer until you get rest of your 10,000 hours in. You better get started!
(I just love it when people say they’re a writer because they were taught to write in school. My response: you were taught to finger-paint in kindergarten. Does that make you a professional illustrator?)
I suggest taking college-level classes in Journalism and English: Journalism to learn how to research, and to write quickly, and English to learn proper grammar and other technical aspects of writing. Putting random apostrophes in words (like “vegetable’s” — shudder!) isn’t a “style thing,” it’s proof you’re an amateur. Learn to write correctly and accurately so your mistakes don’t get in the way; you can worry about developing “style” later. (Tip: you won’t need to worry about style later, either, as it will develop on its own. Trying to force a “style” will look amateurish too.)
And the whole time you’re doing this, whether you have a class assignment or not, write every day.
But it doesn’t do much good — if you want to be a professional writer who makes a living from your work — to fill journals that no one reads. Get it out there! Start a blog where you put something good out to the world at least weekly. Collect the email addresses of your fans onto a mailing list (I use AWeber for this) so you can email them every week or two to alert them to the new stuff you’ve posted. That’s how you develop a following. You can’t expect your fans to remember to come back week after week; you have to remind them. If you get no fans or following, maybe you need to rethink the track you’re on.
But stop using the “writer’s block” excuse. If you’re a “real” writer, no one can stop you from writing.
Randy Cassingham runs The Writerati, a mastermind group for successful writers. His day job: he’s the author of This is True, one of the first online subscription features (weekly starting in 1994). This essay was first published in his blog.
Related Story on Medium by Randy Cassingham: Writers Write.