On how I overcome writer’s block (every time)

Almost every long-form article I write begins with a blockage. I try writing a few different openers, or some paragraphs to include in the middle somewhere, but I don’t like the tone and I’m not flowing. I re-read and highlight my interview notes and background information. I try to make sense of the mass of information but nothing grabs me. I start to worry: my deadline looms.

Every single time, without fail, I’ve unstopped the flood waters using a mind-map or diagram with arrows to link ideas, splurging haphazardly with a biro, in no particular order, onto a blank page of printer paper. Yesterday I refined my spaghetti diagram with blunt kids’ colouring pencils, each colour representing a common theme or idea. Suddenly themes fit together and I get them down on the page, and in no time at all I’m already on page two and almost halfway there.

I’d been struggling for days to get going on this profile article, but had resisted doing my ‘splurge’ as the assignment didn’t seem so complex, however the themes kept multiplying. Why was I surprised it worked? This is how it works every time!

Writing is somewhere between an art, a craft and a science. Story-shapes are taught at primary school from such a young age now: my daughter learnt the essentials aged just six. She came home from school and gave me the lesson in a nutshell: “Mummy, you need a beginning, a middle and an end.  You need a problem that gets resolved. And you need characters and a place where it all happens.” From the mouths of babes. We had a fun few weeks admiring her illustrated stories and inventing new ones together. For a while we enjoyed playing games of ‘story consequences’, where you write consecutive parts of the story and fold it over before handing it onto the next person.

When you’re telling someone else’s story, it seems to me that the main task is assembling information in an interesting way, and I think that’s where the mind-map helps. I’m a machine with a limited capacity to hold all the information in my consciousness, and the mind-map helps me see all the themes at once. Then I cherry-pick them as I write, keeping the diagram near and weaving themes together with a subconscious awareness of the story’s form as I go.

So this blog post is in praise of mind-maps and crazy scribbled diagrams, and of a blockage unstopped.

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About sophiehebden

Science writer and editor, I mostly write about space and fundamental questions in physics.
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