You stare at a blank screen and nothing comes to you. You write a sentence and cross it out. You replace it with another sentence—a not-very-good one. Then you get up and pace around. Maybe you just need a coffee. "I'm going to run out and grab a coffee," you decide. As you pull on your coat and stuff your phone into its side-pocket you sneak a glimpse at the time. Ugh, already!?
It's really too bad that in the age of the word processor, we're denied the satisfaction of angrily tearing a mostly-empty sheet of paper from a typewriter, crumpling it loudly, and lobbing it into a waste bin. Unlike the blocked writers of old, after an hour of staring down at that blank screen, you don’t even have a graveyard of balled-up paper to show for yourself.
Deadlines, of course, often make the paralysis worse. But if you're under the gun, that added anxiety can actually help you pull it together and write something passable—on time. Here's how you can use an ugly deadline to your advantage when you're struggling just to get started.
Researchers who've studied the psychology of choking under pressure believe that when we feel stressed, we pay closer attention to our own performance. That helps explain why golfers and tennis players have trouble playing in high-stakes tournaments. They start thinking about the movements they have to make for their swing, and that disrupts their natural rhythm.
There are many domains where our subconscious minds tend to perform better than when our conscious minds take the reins. When writers start paying too much attention to their writing, the words often stop flowing. That's because, to a large degree, our ability to use language involves tacit knowledge and abilities.
You may not know the rules of grammar explicitly, or how you retrieve just the right word in the right situation. As soon as you start paying conscious attention to these aspects of language—things your subconscious mind typically takes care of more or less automatically—you get in your own way. Suddenly you realize you don't know what to do to find the right phrase.
Instead, you need to give your subconscious back some of the control, so start writing stream-of-consciousness. Just get something—anything—written down. The best way to do that is to write things as fast as you can, without really paying attention to the structure of the document you're writing or whether you've captured it exactly the right way. You just need to have something to work from. And the anxiety you feel from that looming deadline can be great fuel to get something out speedily.
Sometimes even the act of typing gets in the way of trying to write on a deadline, though—you start to correct all the typos you make as you type. (The little red squiggly lines that your computer feeds you don't exactly help you breeze past your mistakes.) So you get caught up in the minutiae of typing individual words rather than trying to get a semi-coherent thought down on the page.
When typing itself freezes you, skip it altogether. Talk it out. Invest in a decent speech-to-text program so that some of what you say makes it into your document. Or just pull open the voice memos app on your phone (you can transcribe the best bits later). Whatever you do, just don’t look at the document as you’re talking. This way you aren’t thinking about whether the program has gotten your words right.
Speaking is often better than typing, because researchers have found that the most natural setting for language is in face-to-face communication. Humans learned to speak to each other long before we invented alphabets. Writing is a process that sits on top of the rest of our linguistic abilities. It typically makes us think more structurally—we tend to focus on the overall organization of the document we're trying to create. That makes sense; after all, you want to end up with something well-crafted. But to start, you just need to have some material to craft. And talking through the document is a great way to generate that.
The thing that paralyzes writers most is that the sentences that emerge from their fingers often don't feel fully formed. You may want to sit at the computer and unleash your inner Hemingway, but what comes out is your inner third-grader—especially when you've got a deadline hanging over you.
The fact is that if you look at the earliest drafts of work by a good or great writer, they're often poor. The ideas don't always connect. The sentences are clunky. Words get repeated. There's an old joke that I read as a kid:
Q: How do you make a statue of an elephant?
A: Find a block of marble and cut away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant.
Great writers are actually great editors. They throw out an initial block of marble by writing as much as they can. Then they edit what they wrote—repeatedly—until they find the inner elephant in that hunk of messy prose.
When you're under the gun, it's often a lot easier to edit quickly than to write quickly. So the key is getting to the editing stage faster. When you worry that your first draft isn’t good, then you stop writing. When you realize that almost nobody’s first drafts are very good, then you're liberated to write things that are merely good, or even mediocre. And "mediocre" is at least something you can work with—which is what you need most when the clock is ticking.