When you’re a newspaper writer and your job is to produce stories every week, you learn to build defenses against writer’s block. A few days ago, a friend asked me how I dealt with writer’s block, and I wanted to tell her that I didn’t have writer’s block anymore. It was an honest answer, but it was too arrogant to admit.
So I told her something else, which was also true, but I wasn’t as satisfied with my answer, so now I’m here writing this entry. I want to tell everyone what I mean when I say I don’t have writer’s block, and what are the things I’ve realized and the measures that I’ve set in place to ensure that I keep that nasty writer’s block at bay.
So, really, I never have writer’s block?
It’s weird that when my friend asked me about writer’s block, I felt like it didn’t exist. I mean there are days when I have trouble writing, but it’s becoming more and more rare. Also, when it happens, I know what to do in order to quickly recover from it. Why?
Well, I’ve been an art reporter for a Philippine newspaper for three years. For my job as an art reporter, I had to submit four stories and an edited calendar of events every week. Even if I experience the struggle, I still have to pass the number of articles to meet my quota, and I have to do that every week. I can’t tell my boss, “Sorry boss, wala kang diyaryo bukas, writer’s block kasi“.
There were also weeks when I would submit more articles than my quota, but if the quota were the basis, then I have probably published 576 articles on visual art, theater, ballet, classical music, culture, and other topics.
Each article had to be a minimum of 500 words, but I’d often go over that and do 1,000 words or even 2,000. Why? Because I’m bibo. Once a month, I had to submit a longer piece that was 1,500 words or more. There were at least two times when I submitted a 5,000-word story. Why? Because I’m bibo.
Out of the 144 times that I had to fulfill my quota, I probably only failed 5 to 10 times. When I say failed, I mean I only passed 3 articles out of 4. There was one time I had dengue, so I wasn’t able to pass any articles. There were also many weeks when I’d pass more articles than my quota, so I think I fully made up for all those few times I failed.
My experience of writer’s block is more like for 30 minutes before I start, I can’t write anything, or instead of the 2 hours that it usually takes to write an article, it takes 5 hours. But, in the end, I produce something, so I don’t consider those experiences as writer’s block.
So what do I do to cope with my weekly production schedule?
I have to admit that when I was starting, it was so hard to meet the quota. I would work 16 or more hours per day just to finish my tasks. That is, until I learned how to manage my time. So what saved me is a ritual:
What I do is I plan my entire week. The first step is to input into my schedule all of the interviews and press conferences that I have to go to. I try to not plan anything on Mondays and the mornings of Tuesday and Wednesday. I aim to finish one or two articles on Monday, then one or two on Tuesday morning and one or two on Wednesday morning. Tuesday and Wednesday were my deadline days, and I had to pass two articles per deadline day.
Add the math of anticipating difficulties
There’s also a mathematical way to deal with writer’s block. Since I know that it takes me two hours to write an easy article (500 to 1,000 words) and four or more hours to complete a difficult one (1000 to 2000 words), I simply compute: [insert number of articles I need to finish] X [insert number of hours needed for the article, depends of level of difficulty]. Then, I find out how many hours I need to devote to writing. So if I need 8 hours of writing that week, then I’ll carve out that 8 hours into my schedule.
If I anticipate that an article is going to be hard to write (because the topic is challenging, because the interview was messy so I have to sort things out, because I have to write a longer article, because I really love the art exhibit that I’m writing about so I feel so scared to screw things up), then I devote more time for writing and also allot time for procrastination.
My usual procrastination schedule is to allot 30 minutes of start up time or time to make your brain wake up and adjust to working time. For example, when I begin my 9a.m. to 12nn shift, I procrastinate from 9a.m. to 9:30a.m. I usually check e-mail during that time. When I allot time to procrastinate, I don’t feel frustrated because I know I’m still right on schedule. After procrastinating for some time, I also get bored so I end up working. If I allot enough time to write and procrastinate, then I win against writer’s block.
Minimize distractions with a to-do list
If I’m already working, and my mind is like, omg I have to fix my room or do some other task, I placate those distracting desires by writing them down in my highly systematized to do list. It acts like Dumbledore’s pensieve. It takes the thought out of my brain, but I can revisit it at a more convenient time.
Know your productivity time
I work during the time periods 9am to 12nn or 2pm to 6pm, so I only schedule writing time during those times. When I work, I use the Pomodoro Technique (work for 25 minutes then take a five minute break. After four rounds of this, one takes a 20 minute break).
Research, questions, and article information
Before I interview someone, I do some research. In the past, I did it in a very unsystematic way so I wasted a lot of my time. I would do the research pretty early, then I’d read it, then days later, I’d forget what I read, so I had to read it all over again. Then I’ll think of questions and I have to reread the research again. Then, I’ll write the article, and I have to reread the research again. To avoid this, I came up with my own system.
I start with searching the internet. I copy and paste each article into a note in Evernote. I don’t read anything first. I just copy and paste the articles. When I think I have enough, I copy the contents of that note and paste it into another note. The second note is labeled “art info” which is short for article information. I begin reading what I copied and pasted and I delete stuff, leaving only the pertinent information that I want to ask the interviewee about or basic background that I need to use in my article.
While I am doing this, questions will come into my mind, and I’ll write them down in another note that’s labeled “questions”.
When I write the article, I copy and paste the text from “art info”, and from there, I edit, paraphrase, and cite my sources (unless they are super basic information so citing a source isn’t necessary anymore. Ex: Lea Salonga played Kim in Miss Saigon. Seriously, you don’t have to cite a source just to repeat that well-known information. But it speeds things up if you collate all of these basic information from different articles so that you’re not merely relying your memory. Plus, copy and pasting “Lea Salonga…Kim…Miss Saigon” saves time rather than typing up each word, and all you need to do is add words in between them to transform the information into a sentence.). I also add the information I got from my interview, and then I edit.
List of questions mimic the structure of the article
I attended a feature writing workshop by Ruel de Vera and this was his most valuable advice. In the past, I would just write questions that pop into my mind and then I’d ask those questions in that disordered manner. Then I’d type up the answers and then copy and paste things into a more coherent order. I never thought of listing my questions in the order of how I wanted the information to appear in my article. But ever since Mr. de Vera suggested that, things became easier.
Write shitty drafts and then revise
When I can’t write, I tell myself “write something shitty”. Once that shit is on the page, then I can fix it with revision. I cannot do anything with a blank page.
Another strategy is I start with the easy stuff thereby building stamina when I reach the harder stuff. I type up the information at the end of my articles (which is usually the date of the exhibit run, the address of the gallery, etc), type up the interesting information from my interview notes, make sentences out of that information, pick the quotes, move paragraphs around by cutting and pasting sections, write an introduction (usually an interesting description of an artwork in the exhibit or the overall impact of the show), write the ending, smoothen everything out, and put a title.
Also, whenever I take out any paragraph, I don’t delete it. Instead, I transfer the paragraph to a draft file, so that if ever I change my mind and want to put it back, I can just go to the draft file and paste it back.
I’ve also accepted the fact that I will write shitty stuff. I write so often and there will be bad days, but even on those bad days, I still have to write, and I’d want to. I have committed myself to writing even during the bad days, well, maybe except if I’m like hospitalized or something. But I have decided that I will continue to write despite whatever threats that pesky writer’s block throws at me.
Ensure that your mind is emotionally and physically healthy
One way to make sure that you don’t have bad days is to take care of yourself. Eat healthy, sleep 8 hours a day, exercise. It makes a difference. I also don’t write an hour after eating.
Also, take care of your relationships and find a way to solve your personal issues. Sometimes writer’s block may just be insecurity. You’re not giving yourself permission to write because you think you’re not good enough, and you mislabel that experience as writer’s block. I still have insecurities but I’m proud to say that I’ve made a lot of progress in dealing with them. Reading self help books actually worked for me, but, more than that, what helped me the most is simply deciding. I’ve decided to be kinder to myself. I’ve decided to fight my shyness. I’ve decided to pursue happiness. I’ve decided to be free.
More Writing Exercises and Adventures:
- Answering Questions about My Notebooks and My Writing Process
- To Shift or Not to Shift
- Writing Exercise: The Morning Pages
- Writing Tip: Make a Pact with the Universe
- Click here for more Writing Exercises and Adventures.
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