John McPhee has been writing for about 50 years now, which, even if you ignore his four Pulitzer finalist awards (and one win), is a good deal of writing experience. But getting past writer’s block hasn’t gotten any easier for him.
McPhee wrote about overcoming writer’s block in the Apr. 29, 2013 New Yorker: “Draft No. 4; Replacing the words in boxes”. The full article is behind a paywall, but the excerpted opening includes a great bit of advice for a former student named “Joel”:
Block. It puts some writers down for months. It puts some writers down for life. A not always brief or minor form of it mutes all writers from the outset of every day…
You are writing, say, about a grizzly bear. No words are forthcoming. For six, seven, ten hours no words have been forthcoming. You are blocked, frustrated, in despair. You are nowhere, and that’s where you’ve been getting. What do you do?
You write, “Dear Mother.” And then you tell your mother about the block, the frustration, the ineptitude, the despair. You insist that you are not cut out to do this kind of work. You whine. You whimper. You outline your problem, and you mention that the bear has a fifty-five-inch waist and a neck more than thirty inches around but could run nose-to-nose with Secretariat. You say the bear prefers to lie down and rest. The bear rests fourteen hours a day. And you go on like that as long as you can.
And then you go back and delete the “Dear Mother” and all the whimpering and whining, and just keep the bear.
The rest of the McPhee’s piece is a mine of writing wisdom. He goes on at length about how you must just write anything: “The way to do a piece of writing is three of four times over, never once,” McPhee advises another student. “Blurt out, heave out, babble out something — anything — as a first draft…Until it exists, writing has not really begun”
And a truism worth mentioning, and something that I’ve found applies equally to photography and programming: “The difference between a common writer and an improvisor on a stage is that writing can be revised. Actually, the essence of the process is revision.”
McPhee’s piece reminded me of writing advice from C.S. Lewis to a young fan. Each point in Lewis’s list is excellent advice, but this is my favorite:
In writing. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please will you do my job for me.”
I’ve seen it with non-professional writers including myself: going on a thesaurus hunt for an adjective to fill space when nothing would do just fine. What makes this particularly pernicious is that you never realize how much time you’re wasting on synonyms and, to top it off, the synonym will end up polluting your writing.
I imagine McPhee agrees. In his “bear” example, he doesn’t use a single adjective to describe the bear. He just lists its concrete dimensions.
First drafts, not coincidentally, come a lot faster when you skip the adjectives.