An Effective Technique for Overcoming Writer’s Block

Peter Elbow’s book Writing With Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process is a fantastic resource for those looking to improve their writing skills. In this article we will outline a very effective writing technique, found in Elbow’s book, which can be used to limit the impact of writer’s block.

While many people desire to write, very few produce much, if any, content. For novice writer’s this can often be attributed to their inability to effectively deal with writer’s block. In some case writer’s block can be so frustrating that it leads an aspiring writer to give-up as they interpret it as a sign that they are not cut out to be a writer. But what such people fail to realize is that what differentiates them from a productive writer is not the experience of periods of writer’s block, for virtually all author’s experience this, rather what they lack are techniques for overcoming writer’s block.

Peter Elbow in his book Writing With Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process provides a very useful technique which if utilized will help minimize the impact of writer’s block.

Elbow’s technique is built around the premise that effective writing requires the use of two distinct and often conflicting skills: creating and criticizing. Novice writers, he suggests, all too often attempt to employ both these skills at the same time. In other words, they will write a sentence or a paragraph and then immediately after it is written, critique it. Instead of taking this approach Elbow recommends the following:

“Most of the time it helps to separate the creating and criticizing processes so they don’t interfere with each other: first write freely and uncritically so that you can generate as many words and ideas as possible without worrying whether they are good; then turn around and adopt a critical frame of mind and thoroughly revise what you have written . . .You’ll discover that the two mentalities needed for these two processes—an inventive fecundity and a tough critical-mindedness—flower most when they get a chance to operate separately.” (Writing With Power, Peter Elbow)

The creating phase, according to Elbow, can usually best be approached by using a technique known as freewriting:

“The germ event in writing—perhaps in thinking itself—is being able to make the move between a piece of nonverbal felt meaning and a piece of language. And so we see why freewriting is so important. Freewriting is the act of respecting and putting down the words that come to mind and then continuing to respect and put down the next words that come to mind.” (Writing With Power, Peter Elbow)

In other words, freewriting consists of writing whatever comes to mind, in a continuous manner, without regard for the quality of what is written. For example, if one were writing a topical article, the freewriting process would dictate that after completing sufficient research the next step would be to sit down and write as much as possible on the topic of interest.

If in the freewriting process one reaches a point where they don’t know what to write, they can simply write down something such as “I don’t have any words to say right now”, or if they get stuck in the middle of a sentence they can repeat the last phrase until something new comes to mind. This is a very useful technique to produce ample content for as Elbow explains:

“Freewriting makes writing easier by helping you with the root psychological or existential difficulty in writing: finding words in your head and putting them down on a blank piece of paper. So much writing time and energy is spent not writing: wondering, worrying, crossing out, having second, third, and fourth thoughts.” (Writing With Power, Peter Elbow)

After getting enough words on the page through the act of freewriting, one then shifts to the critic stage of the process. This entails thoroughly revising what has been written – keeping the good parts in tact, discarding the garbage, and re-shaping what is left into a more polished piece of work. For strong pieces of writing the revising stage will undoubtedly be more time consuming than the creative, freewriting stage. Furthermore, often during the revising stage one will be struck by new ideas and inspirations which may lead them back to the creative mindset. This dialectic between the two stages – creating and critiquing – is a very effective technique for producing high-quality writing, for as Elbow explains:

“. . .when you feel a story or an idea in mind but can’t quite get a hold of it, you discover that by just starting to write and forcing yourself to keep on, you eventually find what you are looking for. And you didn’t even know what you were looking for. You discover you can write almost anything you want to write. You get braver. Trying to get it right the first time, on the other hand, often makes people timid—less willing even to try writing things— because it often leads them to the experience of struggling and getting stuck and finally giving up with nothing to show for their efforts. The need to get things right the first time, I suspect, is often the culprit in the case of people who want to write but don’t do so or stop doing so.” (Writing With Power, Peter Elbow)

In addition to going into more detail on the writing approach explained in the article, Writing With Power offers a plethora of tips on many other aspects of the writing process and therefore aspiring writers will find a lot of valuable advice in Elbow’s book.