Well, since I’ve already written a fair number of articles about how to deal with writer’s block when you’re writing fiction, I thought that I’d give you some advice about what to do if it strikes when you’re writing non-fiction.
This article is probably a lot more useful if you’re working regularly on lots of smaller non-fiction pieces (like these articles) rather than on one longer non-fiction project (eg: a history book or something like that).
The main reason for this is that the worst part of writer’s block for non-fiction writing isn’t working out what comes next (unlike in fiction/comics writing), it’s working out what to write about.
If you’re working on a longer project, then you probably already know what your project is about. However, if you’re writing lots of shorter non-fiction pieces, then coming up with lots of different topics can be a bit more difficult – especially if all of your non-fiction pieces are about the same subject.
Writer’s block probably tends to strike less often in things like journalism, where writers can draw on current events for inspiration if they don’t know what to write about. Likewise, if you’re writing about a wide variety of topics, then writer’s block is nothing which a bit of random and undirected research can’t solve. Finding article topics when you have lots of things to choose from is a lot easier than finding article topics when you’ve only got one subject to choose from.
So, here are four tips which might come in handy, although I should warn you that this is a fairly long article (it’s over 2000 words in length) and each point on this list is basically a short article in and of it’s own right.
Hmmm… Maybe I should have included splitting longer articles up into shorter articles on this list too? Anyway, I digress….
1) Use your experiences and read widely: If you’re writing about the same subject on a regular basis and you’ve already exhausted all of your good ideas for articles, then there are still plenty more that you can find quite easily by just looking at your everyday life and the things you read. This works best if you’re writing about something which you’re very interested in or something you’re involved with on a regular basis.
All you have to do is to look at interesting (and sometimes annoying) events in your life and think “how can I relate this to what I’m writing about”. This skill is slightly difficult to describe and it’s a very slightly different way of looking at the world, but it can work wonders.
For example, my first article about copyright and the public domain was inspired by the fact that I stumbled across an interesting website about compilng/reselling/re-editing out of copyright things when I was researching whether a reference photo I planned to use for a portrait was out of copyright or not.
The fact that there was a whole website dedicated to the public domain convinced me that it was a worthwhile topic to write about, especially since I’d mentioned using out of copyright stuff in one or two of my earlier posts.
Originally, that article was going to be an article about using public domain stuff to get past writer’s block/artist’s block (which is a technique I’ve used before). However, after I finished writing the original article, I took another look at the site and discovered that it contained an article about a similar topic.
Even though this is a rather widely-known technique for beating writer’s block, I ended up rewriting and changing my article (and adding a link to the article I’d found too) until it ended up being a more general article about creative uses of public domain stuff rather than an article about writer’s block. This was mainly in case anyone (wrongly) accused me of plagiarism. In many ways, these changes actually improved the article quite a bit.
If you’re using topics that you’ve found in things you’ve read, then you have to be aware of this issue. But, as long as you either focus on your personal experiences, your personal thoughts about the topic in question, on things which are widely known about (eg: Hollywood films based on public domain characters and stories) and/or on general things which have been written about many times before, then this is unlikely to be an issue.
Anyway, a bit later the same day, I made a random sketch of a pyramid to test out whether I could create a particular effect on Paint Shop Pro. I liked this drawing, but it wasn’t really good enough to include in any of my “Today’s Art” posts, so I decided to post it separately. Since it was a fairly basic drawing and I’d written an article about the public domain earlier, I decided to release this drawing without copyright. This, of course, inspired an article about whether you should ever release things without copyright.
Another recent example was yesterday’s article about rarity, creativity and the internet which was inspired by my thoughts about rare Iron Maiden records (and rarity in general) after finding a fascinating website which listed pretty much every Iron Maiden album, single and bootleg which has ever been made. In fact, the thought process which went into writing that article also ended up inspiring this one too.
You can probably think of your own examples of this kind of thing, but using your life and the things, people and situations you encounter in it as starting points for your next non-fiction piece is one of the most useful ways of getting past writer’s block.
2) Write a response: If you’re reading widely about the topic you’re writing about, or even if you only read about it occasionally, you’re probably going to find something you disagree with somewhere. If you do, don’t just ignore it or just leave a comment about it if it’s online – use it! Think carefully about why you disagree with what has been said and then turn those thoughts into an article.
Be sure to refer to (if it’s a printed article or book) or link to (if it’s on the internet) the thing you’re disagreeing with at the beginning of your article, so that your readers can check it out for themselves and make up their own minds about it. Then, after thinking about it carefully, politely and respectfully state your reasons for why you disagree with it and offer evidence and/or reasoned arguments to back up your position.
The reason I emphasised politeness and respect in the previous paragraph was because you should think of writing a response article as being part of a debate rather than part of an argument. In a debate, two people with opposing ideas set out their views in a formal manner to persuade each other and/or to persuade an audience. In an argument, two people who are angry with each other shout at each other and hurl insults and/or ridicule at each other until one party gives in. There’s a big difference.
Whilst dramatic internet arguments (especially about politics) might be interesting to read occasionally, they’re probably not that much fun to participate in. Plus, at the end of it, neither party will really learn anything new or really gain anything from the experience. And, if you debate with someone online, then you might end up making a new friend. If you argue with someone online, you might end up making a new enemy.
Plus, starting an online debate – especially if you respond to each other with articles rather than comments – can also lead to you writing more articles than you expected to write. This, again, is a good thing if you have writer’s block.
However, if you’re writing about something which someone famous has said (unless you are someone famous), then it’s unlikely to result in a debate with the person in question since they probably don’t have the time, energy or inclination to read everything that everyone says about them. However, if you’re disagreeing with a blogger or an online journalist, then it’s probably going to lead to a debate.
The only recent example from my own work I can think of when it comes to using this technique was my article about writing fiction series where I disagreed slightly with something that Lee Child said in an article in an old copy of Writing Magazine which I’d found earlier that day.
3) Filler: I’ve written about writing filler before, but creating interesting and/or carefully-disguised filler content can be a good way of getting past writer’s block if you’re writing non-fiction regularly. At the very least, it’s a good way to buy yourself some time until you can think of some better ideas.
So, what can you use for filler? One obvious choice is to write a review of something you’ve already used/read/watched etc… which is related to the subject you’re writing about. This might not always be an appropriate choice of filler, depending on where you publish your work – but if you’re writing something like a blog, then it can be an almost endless source of interesting filler material.
You could also write an account of something you’ve done recently (as long as it’s related to your subject) or write a report about an event you’ve attended recently. This is fairly similar to writing a review, but it doesn’t look that much like a review and you might be able to publish it in venues that don’t accept ordinary reviews.
Likewise, coming up with interesting lists can be a good way to create filler articles. For example, I wrote a list of Halloween-themed music for my post on Halloween because I couldn’t think of an idea for proper article at the time.
If you’re writing in a blog with a large readership, then you could just pose a relatively short question to your readers and wait for them to reply in the comments. This, is a good way of “writing” an article without actually doing much writing. Since, although your readers will have a lot of things to read – most of those things will be comments from other readers rather than anything you’ve written.
Now, here’s the clever part – for your next article, you could either compose a list of the most interesting comments (with proper citations, of course) or you could write a response to any prominent or commonly-used ideas, opinons or thoughts in the comments to your previous article.
4) Revisiting: If you do this too often, then people might start to notice it. But, if you’ve written a non-fiction piece quite a while ago, then it can be an idea to re-visit it and to either write an article about any new thoughts you’ve had about what you’ve written or to write an article about whether or not you still agree with it.
Plus, if you have a suitably old article which your readers enjoyed, then re-writing it and publishing the new and improved version of it might be a good way to at least stave off writer’s block until your next article. If you’re really short of ideas, then you can just reword enough of the article to make it look like a new article – but at least a couple of your readers will probably see through this rather cynical trick.
A better thing to do is to include some “added value” in your new version of the article. In other words, you need to add at least a small amount of new stuff to it so that people who have read the original version of your article won’t just think “hey, I’ve read this before” and stop reading.
This doesn’t have to be a huge amount of stuff, and you can even include things like experiences you’ve had since you wrote the original article (as long as they’re relevant), but it needs to be something new.
I mean, Hollywood does this kind of thing with films all of the time (eg: “unrated” versions of films which include a few seconds of extra footage, “director’s cuts” of films which only include small changes and, of course, “special edition” DVDs and Blu-Ray discs). So, if they can get away with it, why can’t you?
However, it probably isn’t a good idea to revisit your previous articles too often, since it can be sometimes be considered (to put it very politely) as an act of intellectual or literary onanism if it’s done badly and/or repeatedly.
Sorry that this article was so long, but I hope that it was useful 🙂
Good luck 🙂