Stuck? Tips for Overcoming Writer’s Block

Posted: May 16th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Efficient Work Habits | Tags: , , , , , | No Comments »

In the past few posts, we’ve talked about the good work habits that lead to fast, efficient writing. You know that you should work on a big, clean screen and avoid multitasking so that you can find the “flow.”  You know that you should have a plan before you start writing. In this post, let’s talk about techniques for fending off writer’s block.

Create a Routine.

You will write more easily if you have a consistent routine. Do you need morning sun to charge your brain? Set aside morning time for writing. Does a messy desk sap your focus? Clean your desk. Can’t function without caffeine? Pour that coffee. If you have a consistent routine that works for you, use that routine to transition to writing mode quickly.

Think with Your Hands.

Stuck? Try thinking by hand on a blank unlined sheet of paper. (If you are a techie, draw on an iPad or other device.) Working with your hands, rather than on your computer, will force you to think on the right side of your brain. You’ll step outside a linear mode of thinking and see new connections between ideas.

Try to get your project on one page—a “work page” or a mind map. If you can’t get your thoughts down to one page, you have not yet identified your major themes and you don’t understand your project. Think of your work page as a loose master plan for your paper or the top layer of your writing. It should be an overview of your big ideas and a catalyst for the writing process, rather than a linear outline of your paper. And let your work page or mind map evolve as your write. Your goal is to make notes, rather than take notes.

Find a Good Model.

Before you begin writing, find a good form or model to work from. If you are writing for a colleague, find a similar paper written by that person. Working from a form isn’t cheating. It’s efficient and smart. Your firm wants you to build on forms and models that have already been vetted and have an official seal of approval. Indeed, most law offices compile databases of models just for this purpose.

Write in Layers by Working from the Middle Out.

Writer’s block often begins with a misguided effort to write in a linear fashion, beginning at Point A and proceeding in an unbroken line to Point Z. But the process of writing is different than the process of reading. Although we want our readers to zip seamlessly through a paper in an unbroken line, legal argument—like Rome—is built in layers. Therefore, you may want to build your writing in layers, as well.

The “lead” sections of your paper are where you add the most value, but they are also the most difficult sections to write. So take shortcuts by writing the easier middle sections first because they are often straightforward case discussions. Layer on your top layers of thought—your opening, your headings, and your topic sentences—after you have written the easier middle sections.

  • Write pods or cells first. Every topic has a few easy and obvious arguments that require only two or three sentences. Capture those sentences in small pods or cells. These pods or cells are the middle of your paragraphs. And you can write these pods as you research. You may even want to jot down these pods directly on the case before you file it. (But if you do paste in pods from cases, be sure to edit your final paper carefully so that it reads like a deep, thoughtful analysis of the case law, rather than a cut-and-paste exercise.)
  •  Label each pod with a topic sentence. Next, determine the purpose of each pod. Ask yourself why you grouped certain cases together. The answer to that question becomes the opening sentence to your paragraph. Simply “label” each pod—and turn it into a paragraph—by “wrapping” it with your topic sentence.
  •  Organize the paragraphs. Move and group paragraphs to find a coherent order. Work from general to specific, using successive paragraphs to narrow concepts down.
  •  Layer on headings. After you have turned your pods into paragraphs and grouped paragraphs together, “wrap” those paragraph groups with substantive headings that explain why you grouped those paragraphs in one section.
  •  Wrap your paper with your opening. Next, “wrap” the body of the paper with an opening that includes the factual background, the issue (if it’s not clear from the facts), and your conclusion.
  •  Make recommendations. Finally, step back and tell your reader what to do next.

Or Write the Ending First.

Or write your concluding Recommendations section first. It will give you a goal to work toward.

Get Your First Draft on Paper Quickly.

Type your first draft as quickly as possible. Don’t fuss over details yet. Simply aim to create a working document.

Some writers try to write their first draft slowly, aiming for a more finished first product. Although slow drafting is not efficient for professional writing, in which speed and efficiency are so important, common techniques for “slow” writing include writing in longhand or writing with the less dominant hand. Frankly, I don’t recommend either technique.

Talk to Yourself As You Write.

As you write, write notes to yourself to save your ideas for revisions or additions. (Insert your thoughts as comments in Track Changes, but be sure to scrub those comments before finalizing the draft.) If you write your comments directly on text, include a character before the comment so that you can search for and delete the comments from the final paper. (I sometimes use a double bracket, like this [].)

Find the Gold.

If you use your first draft as a tool to “get it all down” or if you find yourself editing windy writing from a colleague, begin by separating the good from the bad. Work quickly through the paper, starring only those “Aha!” concepts that strike you as pivotal. Mark extraneous sentences with an X in the margin. Mark salvageable material with a question mark. Then rework the paper around those few concepts that you have starred.

Write Directly from Your Research Files.

An advocate’s job is to persuade a court that there is precedent for an argument, so precedent is the best place to start. Review your research files as you write. Build on the arguments and language you have already highlighted and labeled in the copied cases. Review the cases for factual analogies and focus on those facts as you write.

Save Deleted Material.

As you write, save deleted material to the clipboard and label it as deleted material. When you have finished writing, copy the deleted material into a separate document. You never know when you may want to retrieve your brilliant, but discarded, sentences.


On your mark! Get set! Write!

P.S. These posts (and more tips) are collected in My Book.

Subscribe in a reader

What do you think?