Writer’s block – A survival guide

-By Luke Davidson

Writer’s block: some claim to be crippled by it, while others say it doesn’t exist. One thing I know for sure is it’s not something you can afford to struggle with for too long in the world of advertising, where tight deadlines are always looming. So how do you cope with those times when the ideas just won’t come?

Is it really writer’s block?
Sometimes writer’s block is just procrastination under a different name. The main cure for this type of writer’s block is a fast approaching deadline. (I suspect this may be part of the reason why writer’s block is more commonly associated with novelists who often don’t have deadlines set in stone.)

Perfection paralysis
If the ideas aren’t flowing, sometimes it can be something screenwriter John August calls ‘Perfection paralysis’. You’re striving so hard for perfection that you put too much pressure on yourself and can’t even commit the beginnings of an idea to paper in case it’s not good enough. I find one effective way to deal with this is situation is a sprint writing exercise in which I’ll try to write down as many possible ideas in 30 minutes. Then I’ll spend another 30 minutes trying to beat that previous number. The focus is on quantity not quality. This approach can be great for silencing your inner critic and hopefully generates enough ideas that there will hopefully be some good ones in amongst all the bad.

Change the challenge
Sometimes if I’m struggling with one aspect of the challenge (such as the headline) I’ll switch my focus to another aspect (such as the body copy). Often the momentum/confidence you build from completing that task will then spark ideas for the area that you were blocked on.

Bird by bird
I find this to be great advice for when writer’s block is being caused by the overwhelming size of the task in front of you. The name for this technique comes from the Anne Lamott book of the same name. Basically she recalls a time when her brother had left a school assignment on birds until the night before it was due. He was in tears unable to work out how he would ever get it done. That’s when his dad put an arm around his shoulder and told him, “Just take it bird by bird, buddy. Bird by bird.” With writing, the obvious parallel is to tackle it one word at a time.

Random association
Sometimes if I’m really struggling or my ideas just keep circling the same areas, I’ll try random word association. For example, I may open a dictionary and choose a word at random – for example ‘elephant’. I’ll then consider whether that sparks any new ideas, such as, ‘what if the ad was set in a zoo or a jungle?’ It doesn’t always work but it can occasionally jolt you into new areas of thinking.

Quit while ahead
This technique is definitely one that seems more appropriate for other, longer forms of writing than is typical in advertising. Basically, the proponents of this theory suggest that when you’re in the groove with your writing, quit while you’re ahead. This way you’ll come to work the next day excited (and your subconscious will probably have been active overnight thinking about what comes next). The idea here is to never lose momentum.

Write to one person
Sometimes instead of thinking about the massive audience you may be trying to reach and engage, it can be more helpful to just picture one person from your life and write the ad/story that you think would appeal most to them. (Obviously, if we’re talking about advertising, it’s essential that this person be reflective of your target audience.)

If all else fails…
Relax. Take a break. Too much stress can hinder creativity. Often simply taking some time out from the problem with give your subconscious the space it needs to come up with a solution. That’s why people will often say an idea came to them out of the blue while they were going for a walk or taking a shower.

So that’s how I deal with writer’s block, but I’m always on the outlook for new ways to tackle the problem. Be sure to share your techniques in the comments section below!


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