What Do You Do When the Words Won’t Come?

What Do You Do When the Words Won’t Come?

There are nights so long that I wonder if I can reach out and touch the infinite, and there are days that linger until the things that once tethered them to the earth are nothing but ash and bone.  None of this can even begin to compete with the excruciatingly long time between each beat of the cursor of your word processor when you have a deadline.

No matter what level you’re at now, there is going to be a day — possibly even soon — when the words won’t come.  Or they do, but what you’ve got on your hands is a thin, sort of misshapen bit of written debris. Don’t even try to fix that thing.  Just throw it away.

Writer’s Block (aka Waiting on My Muse)

There are two things that are completely untrue.  Don’t everybody come with pitchforks and torches at once.  These two untrue things are that there’s a thing called Writer’s Block and that if you just sit around long enough, your Muse will come.

On Muses

There’s not going to be any lady clothed in gauze coming to help you, unless you happen to cohabitate with such a woman.  Even then, with these temperatures, chances are better that she’s wearing a parka than a super-thin gauze dress.

There’s no Fairy Godmother of Writing.  Writing is a skill. Writing is the same as fixing a car or being a really good chess player.  Sure, you need a little bit of the right wiring, but even that can be overcome. Writing is for everyone.  No mythical helpers required.

Writer’s Block?  Really?

Writer’s Block is the opposite of the Muse (aka Fairy Godmother), but it’s also not a thing.  Because writing is a skill, there’s also a way to get motivated and moving, excessive executive dysfunction aside.

Writer’s Block is generally caused by anxiety.  You don’t think that you’re good enough, or that your writing is good enough or that you have good ideas.  Basically, you don’t think you’re any good. And if you don’t write when you feel this way, you probably aren’t writing because you’re refusing to stare the problem in the eyes and deal with it.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started blogs, both for clients and for myself, and stopped a few paragraphs in to completely scrub them and begin again.  Then maybe I repeat that dance a few times, who knows. It might be an easy day.

Karoshi, However, Is FOR REAL

Even though Muses and Writer’s Block belong to the realm of writers’ fairy tales, there is something that’s very real and affects the copywriting population disproportionately.  In Japan, it’s called “karoshi.”  The very literal and very serious translation says it all: “death by overwork.”

It often affects younger writers who are low on the ladder at work and striving to prove themselves.  But it can also happen to copywriters who are struggling so hard to find the right words to the point that it becomes an obsession (and thus, the process gets increasingly difficult).  

I’m certain there are fields where this kind of thing can’t happen.  Mattress testers, for example, or possibly bunny snugglers. I hear they have pretty low stress and mortality rates.

But, sadly, not everyone can be a professional bunny snuggler, though I know a few who would jump at the chance to try.  I digress.

A Personal Note on Karoshi

Karoshi is an affliction I’ve been trying to raise awareness about through blogging and whatnot because it’s not just the marketing copywriter who ends up exhaling their last at their place of employment.  Small-business owners are also notoriously bad about overwork, cutting themselves short on sleep and pushing themselves way over the line just to meet a deadline.

I’m sure this doesn’t remind you of anybody you know.

Circling back around, karoshi and these times when every keystroke feels like a mental kidney stone are inexplicably tied.  I fully admit that I am the worst about bulldogging it and not letting go when I am going to do The Thing (™). I can’t accept that now may be the wrong time, that I need to clear my head or work on something else first.

I’m getting better.  But only with great effort and after having read enough about karoshi that I can easily see myself finding the same end.  

It will be on a night when the words don’t come and I refuse to let go.  Unless maybe I can take my own advice on the subject.

Write Like the Wind, My Friends

This is where I give you the happy ending.  I’m sorry we had to journey through that scary dark forest of sadness and raisins, though they’re kind of the same thing.  Now, I give you the helpful advice! (If you’ve not come from the blog I maintained at WaterworthWrites.com, that raisin thing may be kind of confusing.  I have just two words: sadness grapes.)

Now, let’s talk about what we can do to get on with our work without beckoning forth any thinly clothed Greek women who will probably suffer some pretty severe frostbite, even here in Texas.  Get that girl a heavy coat and some shoes!

Essentially, not being able to push the words out comes down to two things (ymmv, #NotADoctor, etc.): anxiety or lack of a thorough understanding of the question at hand.  Because, really, that’s all a blog or a report or a memo is. It’s an answer to a question, even if that question hasn’t been asked yet.

Writing Around Anxiety

A great number of people have crippling anxiety when they feel they’re put in the spotlight.  For some folks, that’s on a literal stage with a literal spotlight; for others, it’s when they consider what people might say about their writing, were it to ever see the light of day.  Suddenly they freeze, stare off into the middle distance and remain as still as statues until the self-ridicule train bowls them over.

It’s easy to be anxious about your writing.  You’re putting a bit of your soul out there into the world.  There’s no two ways about it. This blog, all its good bits and all the bad ones, are things I pulled out of my head and plopped down for you all to see.  They’re a part of me, like yours are a part of you. You learn to cut the cord, and you even learn how to let other people kill your darlings (also known as editing your work) without crying too much.

So, if you dig down deep and conclude that your problem is anxiety — either a fear of failure or, more confusing, a fear of success — work on that anxiety. For shorter-term anxiety, these tips from Bill Bailey might come in handy.  I frequently find myself eating an orange and thinking of good friends and inside jokes.

Those less than inclined to go with advice from The Little Book of Calm might want to:

  • Take a walk.  Seriously.  Exercise can fill you with endorphins, it helps you feel better all over and, hey, the sun is good, right?
  • Visit with a friend.  It’s easy to get wrapped up in our own stuff, even if that stuff is the battle with the blank page.  Step outside of that bubble and see what else is going on in the world. Sometimes that’s plenty to help you recalibrate your compass.
  • Do anything else.  Failing at the writing in the moment?  Walk away. Don’t keep throwing yourself against it like so many waves on the rocks.  You’ll just break yourself and possibly your computer.

Learning More About Your Subject

It’s ok to admit that you don’t know everything there is to know on a subject.  You don’t even have to know almost everything — you need enough information that you understand how the thing works and where to go to find more trustworthy details should you need them to complete your piece.  

Do you really think I knew how a siphon jet on a toilet worked when I wrote this timeless piece for eHow (now Hunker) in the early 2010s?  Of course not. But with my background, I knew where to look to learn all about it.  There were some really interesting toilet articles that winter, I’ll tell you what. If THAT is my legacy, I can die happy. #SarcasmFont

If your confidence issue is because you feel like you need more information, go out into the internet and read on, my reader!  Read on! Learn more and come back swinging.

You can do it.  I believe in you.

When the Words Won’t Come… Don’t Give Up

Sometimes all the tricks of the trade won’t help yank those words out of your brain.  This is when you find someone to tag-team into the ring with that nasty sheet of lignin.  For copywriters like me and the people on my team, we reach out to one another. For a business that can’t stay ahead of its digital content, they might reach out to a copywriting agency like In The Cloud Copy.

This isn’t a sales message, I’m not going to call you to a grand action.  It’s simply an offer. If you’re in trouble, if you need someone to lend a hand, we’ll be here to help.