Saturday, June 23, 2012

Writer’s block? No problem. You can still make progress on your memoir.

Everybody gets stuck from time to time.  

Writer’s block: You want to write. You know how to write. For some reason, however, you can’t write.

Take heart. Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charlie Schultz, and Mark Twain struggled with writer’s block, too.

Does “writer’s block” describe you today?

If so, don’t despair. For one thing, writer’s block is temporary.

And here’s more good news: You can still make progress—valuable progress—on your memoir.

This is your opportunity to spiff up your already-written rough drafts, those vignettes that will someday—soon, we hope!—be stories in your memoir.

I’m talking about editing, tinkering, rearranging—revising.

Revision is not punishment,

says veteran writer Donald M. Murray in The Craft of Revision. 

“Writing evolves from a sequence of drafts,” he says. “Scientists … experiment.… Actors and musicians rehearse. Retailers test markets, politicians take polls, manufacturers try pilot runs. They all revise, and so do writers. Writing is rewriting.”

Even professional writers know the benefits of revision.

If you’re stuck with writer’s block, or just need a summer break, use this time to revise vignettes you’ve already written.

Revision, Murray says, is “re-seeing the entire piece of writing.” So important.

Revision involves checking punctuation, grammar, spelling, diction (word choice), sentence length, focus (meaning), rhythm, cutting (writing tight), organization, and so on.

I suggest you consider each separately as you evaluate a rough draft.

For now, concentrate on clarity.

Start by reading a vignette you haven’t read for a while because distance and time are your friends: They do wonders for objectivity. The fresher the story is in your memory, the harder it will be to catch things you want and need to change.

Clarity depends … on your ability to put information together so that readers know at every point where they are, where they’ve been, and where they seem to be going,” writes Peter P. Jacobi

“When we read, our minds work in linear fashion. We cannot grasp jumps and jerks or even the sudden shifts of scene.…” Jacobi continues. “We have to be moved carefully, smoothly, through the [story].”

Donald Murray encourages a writer to read a rough draft the first time as the maker of that piece, and then read it again as a stranger.

Put yourself in your readers’ shoes. Does your vignette make sense, or does it cause confusion?

Look for gaps: Did you leave out information your readers need to know? Will they grasp your story’s message?

Remember, it’s not in your story until it’s in black and white on your page.

Do another clarity check on lingo and vocabulary. Search for words readers might not understand—abstract words, academic, foreign, technical, or old fashioned words. If you spot any, change them because your reader probably won’t finish reading if he doesn’t understand your words.  

In future posts we’ll look at other aspects of revision but for today, eschew obfuscation. Strive for clarity.

Always remember Donald Murray’s words: Revision is not punishment.

Revision is your opportunity to polish your manuscript and make it shine.


  1. I love that! "Revision is not punishment"! So true! In the same way that "repentance" isn't a bad word; it means we're coming back to Christ!

    1. Hi, Lia, you've made an interesting observation about both revision and repentance, words many could consider negatives. You're right--repentance is a good thing. It speaks of cleansing and wellness and goodness.

      Similarly, revision brings polish and quality and coherence and clarity. I love it.


  2. Linda, your words "Revision is not punishment" are freeing! I think so many dread revising any piece of writing, and yet practice we're told makes perfect. Isn't that what we're doing -- practicing our craft when we rewrite? Thanks for a worthwhile posting!