Think Small to Avoid Writer’s Block

Today’s post is by Jane Anne Staw

I recently gave a talk at a writers’ conference on thinking small to avoid writer’s block. After the talk, one of the participants approached me, laughing. “I know you’re right about small and writing. I went away for a month to finish my book. I promised myself a drink at the end of each writing day. By the second week, I wasn’t getting any writing done, so I decided that a drink at noon was OK. By the third week, when I still wasn’t writing, I told myself that a mimosa at breakfast was just fine!”

Many writers I’ve worked with have made similar discoveries about leaving too much time to write. By setting aside one month to write all day every day, the writer at the conference was thinking much too large. Very few writers can keep up their writing momentum for a full eight hours, day after day.

Not only can most writers not sustain this grueling momentum, committing themselves to this much writing time each day has a negative effect: it churns up a writer’s anxiety, making it much more difficult to sit down and write. That’s why, by the third week, the writer from the conference had not gotten any writing done.

The optimal amount of time each of us should devote to writing varies. For some writers, four hours a day works well. For others, four hours looms much too large, and they find two hours much more inviting. For yet other writers, an hour a day is best.

Most of us struggle with at least some anxiety about writing—whether we worry that nobody will care about what we’re writing, or that our writing isn’t good enough, that we don’t know enough, or that we have nothing important to say.

While the anxiety hovers around us—consciously or unconsciously—whenever we think about sitting down to write, it often overwhelms with tsunami force when we commit to extended periods of writing.

How to Get Small

Thinking small about how much writing time we should set aside can help keep this anxiety at bay. I worked with one writer who was so anxious about writing, we restricted her writing time to only five minutes a day. While even fifteen minutes felt too long, she was able to sit for five minutes, five days a week, and write.

You’d be surprised how many words can appear in only five minutes a day. One reason for this is the momentum you’re able to gain by repeated writing. Each day when you sit down to write, you can pick up just where you left off the day before. No catching up required. And once you’ve been doing this for a few weeks, you’ll find that your anxiety becomes quiescent, and the dread you might have been aware of has mostly disappeared.

Just Focus on Today’s Pages

Another way to think small about writing is to focus on the pages you are writing that very day. Many writers I’ve worked with use much too large a lens when they write, worrying about the whole novel, the entire story or complete essay they’re currently working on.

When you feel responsible for the entire product, be it a novel, a story, or an essay, you end up thinking about all kinds of issues you don’t really need to be dealing with simultaneously. Writing, after all, is a process of discovery. So why should you be thinking about the thirtieth chapter when you’re on the second chapter of your novel?

How can you know how your story will end when you’ve written only four pages? And if you’re writing an essay, isn’t it too early to predict each moment, from beginning to end? Don’t you plan to make discoveries along the way?

When you sit down to write, keep your lens small. Focus on the chapter you’re currently writing. The scene you’re describing. The tangent you’ve taken. You will have plenty of time later to tackle other concerns like flow and continuity, logic and suspense.

Turn Off the Voices

Another way writers let large creep into their writing is by admitting too many critics into their writing space.

You might not be aware of it, but if you begin to pay attention to the critical voices in your head, you’ll discover that the space is overly crowded with one or two teachers from your past, a college professor or two, along with your father or mother, a sibling or friend—anybody who once made you feel less than competent.

When you write, keep your writing space small, admitting at most two people: you and perhaps an ideal reader. Writing should be an intimate experience between you and the page. Once you open the space up to critics, real or imagined, the stir they create makes it more and more difficult to write.

If you’re aware of who the critics are, find gentle ways to ask them to leave. When I figured out that my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Lauck, was one of my negative voices, I told her I didn’t need her at the moment and suggested she find some elementary school children to help.

One of my clients realized that her mother was always in her writing room with her, harping about this and that. Once she identified the culprit, each morning this writer accompanied her mother to the door of her study, opened the door, and said, “Mom, I know how much you love to shop. I’m busy writing right now, so I suggest you go shopping. I’m sure you’ll have a lovely time.”

If being alone feels too lonely, invite one ideal reader into your writing space. An ideal reader is not a critic, is not your partner or your best friend. An ideal reader is somebody who respects you and is able to give you the benefit of the doubt. And while you’ve invited this reader into your writing world, this doesn’t mean that you’re going to show her what you’re writing.

An ideal reader helps mainly to give us emotional support while we write. If she respects and admires you, her presence will make it easier to disinvite the nasty critics from your writing process.

One Thing at a Time

I was once a very blocked writer, and anytime I wrote anything, I got stuck on the first sentence, which I wanted to be perfect. I would revise it over and over again, changing the punctuation, the word choice, the sentence structure, again and again.

Learning to think small involved being responsible for one element of the writing at a time: first I needed to get my ideas or the general story down on the page. At this stage I wasn’t to worry about anything else—not the word choice, the sentence structure, or the details.

Next I was responsible for fleshing out my ideas for the essay or the plot and scenes for story. Focusing on this, I was to ignore everything else: word choice, punctuation, sentence structure.

Each successive time I revised, I was responsible for one more element of my writing, the last being the copyediting, which at times waited until the eighth revision.

When writers think too large and try to account for all aspects of their writing at once—content, logic, flow, word choice, syntax, punctuation—they often go round and round and round, worrying each sentence to death and becoming frustrated and anxious in the process.

In college I struggled with terrible writer’s block, wringing my hands over each and every term paper, staying up the night before every single paper was due. It was only once I learned how to think small about my writing that I was finally able to express my ideas clearly and convincingly. By thinking small, writing became a larger and larger part of my life.

How might you think small to help you overcome writer’s block? What have you tried that works for you?

Jane Anne Staw has taught at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Stanford University, and The University of California at Berkeley Extension. She has been a Bay Area writing coach for the past fifteen years. Her books include: Small: The Little We Need for Happiness and Unstuck: A Supportive and Practical Guide to Working through Writer’s Block. Visit Jane at her website.

Other helpful posts on writer’s block:

7 Ways to Counteract Writer’s Block

5 Simple Practices to Eliminate Writer’s Block

9 Ways to Overcome Writer’s Block

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  1. One thing I’ve been trying with my current work-in-progress (a novel) is when I get stuck to just write down how the character is feeling, and then move on. I can go back and turn “he felt sad” into action and dialogue later.

    A helpful post, thanks.

    1. Thanks for this insight, Priscilla. It’s always a good idea to keep writing and not to let an unknown stop you. You don’t want to lose momentum, and by noting quickly–and in a small way– how a character is feeling at a particular moment, you don’t interfere with the flow of your chapter.

    2. Your strategy is spot on, Priscilla. By making a small note about the character’s feelings, you can continue writing and not break your momentum. Flow is one of the most important ingredients in writing, and the way you’re thinking small will support that.

  2. Thank you for this enlightening post. Your depictions describe me to a t. I’m working on a novel and worrying about whether I can get it published, and I’m on chapter one of the overhaul I’m doing. Last night, I decided that I can finish the book in one year if I write 250 words a day. That feels comfortable at the moment. I sometimes write email messages of 600 words. I’m also trying to remember that I will write more than 250 words on some days and I will write fewer on other days. I’m a big fan of honoring what comes naturally for me, giving myself a break, and doing what empowers me.

    1. Your plan sounds spot on, Billie. If you follow through with this small commitment, you’ll almost certainly finish this draft “on time.” I too am a fan of what comes naturally, as long as I make an authentic commitment to my writing.

  3. Dear Ms. Staw, I’m smiling as I read this blog post, because I’ve discovered each point for myself (stumbled upon, I should say) by trial and error. Seeing your words makes me feel oh so validated! Two months ago I rented a private office so I could make a big push to finish my novel manuscript. I wrote four hours a day the first month and never even went to the office the second month! The reason, I can see now, was that I had simply exhausted myself. Now I’m giving my permission to write only one hour a day if that feels right.
    In the past I’ve sought critiques of my short stories from journal editors, only to be mightily discouraged by pages and pages of negative comments. When I provide critiques to colleagues, I focus on only three or four aspects of the work. More than that is overwhelming to the writer.

    1. And now we’re both smiling, Ramona. It’s wonderful to encounter a writer who believes as I do, since so many writers let outrageous expectations block them.

      Good luck finishing your novel. In an hour a day, you’ll be surprised at how much progress you make!

  4. thank you for sharing this, Jane Anne!! i don’t have sustaining stamina, and have oft thought it hindered my writing – your post relieves that disappointment from me, knowing i’m not doing it wrong after all!

  5. Thank you for the most welcome post Jane Ann Staw. Although I have completed 3 short stories, not published, I find myself caught up in my new novel and don’t seem to get my timing right. Each time I sit down to carry on my brain becomes entwined in a tsunami of how and what to write or do. I am definitely going to think small but my only problem is I tend to start from the first paragraph. I am relieved hear i am not alone.

  6. Thank you Jane Anne. Much needed advice. Glad to know I am not alone in the Tsunami of worms that cloud the mind.

    1. Those worms, Michael, are all the other people form your past, who want to get in the way of your writing. Writing paragraph by paragraph can work, by the way. As long as you make a deal with yourself to write a full paragraph before you do any revising. Then you have permission to write a second paragraph and this time you can go over the two completed paragraphs only once. Etc. This is the contract I had to make with myself when I first started really writing. Otherwise, I too would spend my entire time on the first paragraph–or the first sentence!

  7. Great post and reminder.

    I use to work for an Army General who would always say, “Focus. Focus. Focus.” I’ve pasted these words on my computer lamp to remind me of the immediate task. The others can wait.

  8. That’s a really insightful article. I also find that breaking the writing process down into small steps really helps. I like to create an outline first and collect some good data. Then I put it in order and just start writing like there’s no tomorrow. Then I’ll throw out a lot of what I’ve written but the overall piece will start to take shape. Let’s not make it more painful than it needs to be 😉

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