1. Step back. To write well you must be creative and critical – though not at the same time. If writer’s block looms, the critical side has taken control. Remove yourself from the source of conflict – take a cool drink, a hot bath, or a wet and windy walk.
2. Worry less. Any piece of writing is judged on the final version, not on the first draft. You are not a failed human being if you do not get it right first time.
3. Go back to the beginning. It is almost impossible to complete a task well if you do not really know what that task is. Jot down on a scrap of paper what you are trying to write – one idea, as precise as possible. Also jot down for whom you are writing – and why. You may well find you are stuck for a good reasonl, such as not really knowing what you want to say, or to whom.
4. Have another think: Brainstorm. With your revised piece clearly in mind, spend five minutes writing down all the questions that you now need to answer. From this, work out a new plan.
5.Write quickly. Set aside about 20 minutes in a quiet place and, with your brief and plan to hand, start writing. Leave your detailed notes outside. Do not check details such as facts and spellings: you can do this later. When you have finished this draft, put it on one side. When you come back to it you will certainly have to do some revision. But you will have completed the first draft – and will have unblocked the brain.
Different types of writer's block
1. Don’t write too soon. Many people rush to their pen or word processor, and set out on their writing journey without knowing where they are headed. This will almost certainly cause all kinds of problems as you use draft after draft to put your thoughts in order. The secret is to get your thinking done first. Write down, on the back of an envelope or its electronic equivalent, exactly what you are trying to say (preferably in one sentence, with a verb), to whom, and why. Don’t worry about the time this might take: this is the hardest part and once you have done it your problems should start to ease.
2. Don’t set aside large amounts of time to write. Writing is a risk-taking activity, so the more time you make available, the worse the worrying can be. The answer is simple: as soon as you are ready, start writing. Set aside 10 -15 minutes: don’t go back, don’t give up, and don’t cross out. When you have finished you will almost certainly feel that you could have done better, but two important things will have happened. The first draft will now be written and (since you wrote it in one go) it will almost certainly have an easy-to-follow structure
3. Don’t fiddle uncontrollably with your drafts. It is tempting to start fiddling too soon, but there is a way of approaching this systematically. Print out your draft and, without getting involved in the detail, check the major elements: message, market, structure. Once you have sorted these out, print it out again – and this time look for the details – facts, choice of words, length of sentences, and so on.
4. Don’t get things out of perspective. There is more to life than writing. If you produce what you set out to produce, within the time limits you set yourself, then it is a job well done. After all, while writing can be terribly painful, having written is one of life’s great joys.
'Get up very early and get going at once, in fact work first and wash afterwards' - WH Auden
'Don't wait for the muse' - Stephen King
'My prescription for writer's block: write badly. Bad writing is easier. And it must be popular, there's so much of it' - PJ O'Rourke
'Beautifully written ... a rare good autobiography'
A cub on the moor: a short talk on life as a country reporter in the 1970s. Available for Rotary Clubs, Probus, U3A and other groups.
Winning the publications game: the groundbreaking book on writing scientific papers.