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Writing your way out of a hole

Creative Blocks

Budding wordsmith or not, few people have escaped the feeling of writing failure.

The written word comes into so many aspects of our lives – academia, the creative piece we want to write, the glowing recommendation we want to give a colleague or service, even the sentiment we scrawl in birthday cards – that we meet the chance to fail at it often. Hence, the common understanding of the term writers’ block.

It happens to the best of us, as this article from the Guardian proves, as a selection of literary greats offer their view on where it all goes wrong. Doubtless they fretted over how to express it just right and perhaps how it would read in context, against what the other writers had said, and maybe they felt they had failed in getting it across. The point is, it’s normal.

Diana Athill offers perhaps the most comforting advice: it is possible to make use of failure and even to forget it. Margaret Atwood sees it as just part of real life, while Anne Enright says she finds it just as hard to handle success.

While these perspectives come down to accepting failure, Colson Whitehead suggests some ways to get past it. Again, though, here is a writer who takes a partly passive approach:

Don’t go searching for a subject, let your subject find you. You can’t rush inspiration.


Writer’s block is a tool — use it. When asked why you haven’t produced anything lately, just say, “I’m blocked.

His other rules are perhaps more practical:

Never use three words when one will do. Be concise.

And finding humour in failure is OK because ultimately, writing is about expression, be it formally in a business document or more casually in an email to a friend. Then there is the ‘writing’ form of writing, the sort you do when you are trying to get a book out, and failure has to crop up along the way. As Will Self puts it:

To attempt to write seriously is always, I feel, to fail…

Failure is part of the refining, drafting, rewriting process. Next time you decide a piece of writing is a failed attempt, don’t delete it. Close the document or fold the piece of paper over and start a new one. Keeping early attempts as points of reference can help jog your memory and track your progress down different paths as your ideas develop. Also, the act of deleting reinforces your feeling of failure. By not deleting and instead storing the attempt, you are accepting it is a work in progress.

Like any invention, prototypes and multiple versions need to be tried out before they can be considered a finished product.

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