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Posts Tagged ‘writer’s block’

51ylynf4muL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Peter Elbow was one of the leaders in revising the way we teach writing during the seventies and eighties. His books Writing Without Teachers and Writing With Power were beloved by teachers and students alike for their multitude of ideas about getting the whole writing process going. Back in the days when I taught Freshman Composition, I used Elbow’s writing heuristics to get my students over their worries about having nothing to say or not knowing how to say what they wanted to.

But to me, the most valuable thing Elbow proclaimed was the need to get rid of the perfect. In his studies of writing among students, Elbow took a long hard look at writers block. He suggested that one sure way to become blocked was to expect your first draft to be perfect, or even to expect it to be very good. First drafts are just that: the first version. There will be (and should be) several versions after that. Get rid of your expectations of perfection, and get to work.

I thought of this the other day when I was closing in on the end of my Work In Progress (WIP). Because I wanted to quit. All of a sudden, I became convinced that what I’d written—all sixty thousand plus words of it—was crap. And though I could see the end, I wasn’t sure it was worth pursuing. The thing is, though, I often feel this way about something I’m working on. And as a result, I often feel like just chucking it in. But for the most part I don’t. I know it’s a temporary feeling, and that I’ll change my mind once I start working the manuscript over. Moreover, my work ethic won’t let me throw something away unless I absolutely have to.

I’m guessing most writers feel this way at some time or another. Part of it is that your WIP is always better in your head than it is on the page. You come up with all these clever turns of phrase and interesting plot twists, but when it comes time to write them down, there’s nothing clever about them. And what had seemed so exciting in your head now seems like pure drudgery.

But that’s where Peter Elbow comes in. Forget perfect. Just get it down. It isn’t like you have to have a perfectly written draft this time. You just need a written draft, period. Like Nora Roberts says, “I can always fix a bad page. I can’t fix a blank one.”

Whatever problems you may find (and usually you find quite a few), you can solve them once you’re finished. Multiple drafts mean multiple chances to get it right. And if you just give yourself time and space you can do it. We all can.

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I used to be a writing teacher in my other life. I never taught creative writing but I did teach freshman composition, technical writing, and writing for the Web. One of the most useful things I picked up in my years on the front lines was an introduction to the writing process.

A little background here: back in the old days (i.e., before 1970), nobody ever talked about how people actually wrote. They just told you what to come up with—for example, a “description essay” (and how many people outside of freshman comp classes ever write essays that do nothing but describe?). Then some composition researchers started looking at the way people actually went about writing. They found that the process went in phases that they divided into, roughly, prewriting, drafting, and revising.

Prewriting involves all the things you go through before you actually start writing—if you’re a planner like me, it means brainstorming, charting, maybe using the kind of question and answer structure you get in a software program like Dramatica, and so on. If you’re a pantser, it probably means doing a lot of thinking, both conscious and un-, about what you’re going to do and how it’s going to work.

The drafting phase is pretty straightforward—it’s getting the words on the page. And revising means going back and making those words say what you really want them to say. It’s those last two phases I want to talk about. I think a lot of beginning writers run into grief because they get these two phases confused.

Let me give you an example. I know a writer, a very talented writer, who can never seem to finish any of her manuscripts. She writes a couple of chapters, takes them to her critique group, lets the others in the group look at what she’s written, and then goes home and tries to make it perfect. And that’s where she freezes up. It’s not perfect and she can’t go on writing that particular book.

Now my finished stuff is far from perfect, I know. But believe me when I’m drafting it’s even more imperfect than the finished version! That’s because when I’m drafting, I’m drafting. I spend all my time getting words down on the page—not always the right words, or the words I’ll ultimately end up with, but words nonetheless. And I don’t really go over them from one day to the next. I’ll read what I wrote yesterday, and maybe I’ll fiddle with it a little, but for the most part I’ll move pretty quickly on to the next scene I’m going to work with. It usually takes me a couple of months to do a complete draft because I write longer books (around 90,000 words), but I don’t stop moving forward during those months unless something seems catastrophically off. Whenever I’m tempted to go back and clean things up, I end up muttering “Just get it down, just get it down.”

And that’s the point I’d make here. In writing more than in some other pursuits, the perfect can be the enemy of the good. Nobody starts off with a perfect draft, trust me. Some writers, like Edgar Allan Poe, have claimed that their masterpieces came to them fully formed. They’re lying. The first time through, the words in the dialogue won’t be quite right for everybody. You may not have enough detail in the descriptions. The action may seem too abrupt or too drawn-out. But here’s the point: IT DOESN’T MATTER.

Think of your writing as a party (maybe that will make it less painful!). You get the house set up before the guests arrive, but once the guests are there you just let ‘er rip. Maybe you’ve got a few things planned, like a meal or a TV marathon you want to watch. Or maybe you’re somebody who just likes to let the party develop the way it’s going to develop. Anyway, as long as the party’s going, you’re going with it, just letting the whole thing flow along. You wouldn’t stop a good party to run the vacuum sweeper just because somebody spilled a little popcorn on the rug. You might gather up some dirty glasses, and you’d probably refill the chip and dip bowls, but you’ll save the major clean-up until after the party’s over.

The main thing here is, don’t let yourself get hung up on revising before you’re ready. Don’t keep rewriting that paragraph to get it absolutely right. Get it good enough and then keep going. The great thing about the writing process is that you’ve always got a chance to clean it up later. Let the guests go home, let yourself put your feet up and take a rest, let your brain relax.

And then get out that vacuum sweeper and go to work.

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