Writer's Block and Rough Drafts

I do a lot of writing, so I’m familiar with the most terrifying of sights: A blank page.

You’re in the middle or beginning of writing and you’re stuck about what to do next. You just look at that page and look at it and look at it until you suddenly wake up in a mental hospital.

About ten years ago, I read a book called Untechnical Writing, by Michael Bremer. It’s for beginning Tech Writers, so you probably don’t need the book, but he spends a couple of hundred words talking about writer’s block.

In short, he says that writer’s block is just a failure to make a decision. (He credits Milt Rosen with giving him this advice in a screenwriting class.) In other words, no matter what happened before in the story or article (even if you haven’t started), you just have to decide what’s next, or what angle to take, or what’s the best way to describe the scene or action.

Writer’s block is paralyzation caused by fear of making a bad decision. You can’t decide what happens next (or first) because everything you think of seems to suck, or cause problems, or be imperfect.

To kill writer’s block, you have to make that decision, allow it to be bad, and move on. Which brings me to something that Bremer didn’t mention, but really should have when advising people to make a bad decision.

Here it is: Your first draft is allowed to be bad, is supposed to be bad, and almost definitely will be bad.

It’s often more important to make a decision than it is to make the RIGHT decision. You’ve just got to get it down on paper. Later, you can change it. If that means rewriting whole sections, then so be it. That’s the writer’s cross to bear. It’s a lot better to have something to rewrite than it is to have that white page forever.

To recap:

1. Writer’s block? Just make a decision, good or bad, and move on.
2. Having anything on paper is better than having nothing.
3. First drafts are supposed to be bad.


“People have writer’s block not because they can’t write, but because they despair of writing eloquently.” Anna Quindlen

“If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.” Margaret Atwood

“Don’t get it right, just get it written.” James Thurber

“I think writer’s block is simply the dread that you are going to write something horrible.” Roy Blount, Jr.

“Lower your standards and keep writing.” William Stafford

And here’s a post by by Neil Cross all about first drafts.

One Response to Writer's Block and Rough Drafts

  1. BruceS February 25, 2010 at 10:14 am #

    This resonates with me. Being in software development involves “block” as well, for much the same reasons. Someone (Brooks?) wrote about “the one to throw away”, the idea that developers should expect to build a bad solution as part of the process of learning what’s needed to build a good solution. One of the tragedies of IT is that the business generally calls the bad solution “good enough” and ships it. Imagine a publisher who took your first rough draft, published it, and told you to move on to the next project. Another problem is that most developers lower their standards, keep writing, and fail to raise them again. We also have our bad poets, going out of their way to write something clever and elegant in their own view, that nobody else wants to read. Others abuse the grammar, either out of ignorance or an attempt to be cute. I recently ran into something like
    sprintf(var1, “AB %s”, var1);
    Hah! At its best, that invokes UB!
    (but that’s really only funny to computer geeks)

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