You Don’t Have Writer’s Block. You Have “Reporter’s Block”
If the words won’t come, stop trying to write — and do more research
Have you ever been working on a piece of nonfiction — an article, a post on Medium, a book — and find yourself blocked? The words won’t come? You spend so many hours (or days) not writing that eventually you begin to dread even opening your file, terrified by your inability?
You probably think you have “writer’s block”.
But you don’t. You likely have a different problem. Nine times out of ten, you’re suffering from what I call “reporter’s block”.
You’re having trouble writing not because you can’t find the right words, but because you don’t know what you’re trying to say. You don’t have the right facts at hand.
So the solution is to gather more facts. You need to step away from the keyboard, stop trying to write, and do some more reporting: Make phone calls to some new sources, consult new experts, read a relevant book or article. Once you have the facts at hand, the words will come.
Or to put it another way, when you’re writing nonfiction, the words flow from the research. If the words aren’t flowing, usually the problem is the research isn’t there. To say something, you have to have something to say.
I should be clear that I’m talking about being blocked while writing nonfiction, not fiction or poetry or drama or personal memoir. If you’re writing in those other genres, writer’s block springs from different psychological and literary mechanics, requiring different solutions. I’m not a novelist, so I wouldn’t presume to tell you how to unblock your novel-writing.
But nonfiction — I’ve written a mountain of that! For three decades I’ve written everything from long-form magazine articles and columns to books and thousands of blog posts. Even after all that experience, I still frequently get blocked. I’ll be at my keyboard, ploughing through my outline, inputting in all the quotes and ideas I got from interviews and material from my reading, when bang — I hit a wall.
Indeed, this happened recently, when I wrote this piece for the New York Times Magazine about “cryptoartists” who sell NFTs of their digital work. I’d written the intro, a long, 1,500-word anecdote of my time visiting with the NFT artist FEWOCiOUS. That part came easily. But then I started writing the second section, where I wanted to quickly describe the pre-history of NFTs.
That’s when I got blocked. I spent hours dithering around, starting a paragraph and then erasing it, until my inability to progress turned into procrastination — I got a snack, checked Twitter, etc. I was avoiding writing.
Then I eventually realized: I had “reporter’s block”.
I was trying to write a few paragraphs on the early history of NFTs, but despite having worked on the story for months — and having spoken to scores of artists, NFT collectors, and cryptocurrency experts — I didn’t really have any good material about early NFTs. I knew generally about the prehistory (including CryptoKitties, CryptoPunks (above), the early NFT of the artist Kevin McCoy and Anil Dash), but I’d only read a few online articles about them. I hadn’t done deep research, and did not possess the rich, telling details and interesting anecdotes that brings nonfiction writing to life.
So I stopped writing. And I did some new reporting: I called up all the folks involved in that prehistory and interviewed six or seven of them. Within a few days I was overflowing with awesomely nuanced stories and details. And at that point I was champing at the bit, and couldn’t wait to get back to the keyboard. I banged out that history section in one short sitting.
This is the thing about reporting: When you’ve gathered great material, it wants to be written. It’s hard not to write it!
So, again: My nonfiction friend, you probably don’t have writer’s block. You have “reporter’s block”. If you’re stuck, stop typing. Go hunt down some new useful facts. Then you’ll come back refreshed.
It makes sense that “reporter’s block” is the real problem for us nonfiction writers, because reporting is, really, the hugest chunk of what we do. If you pie-charted my work over a year, you’d see that “writing” — the time I spend with my fingers on the keyboard, writing or editing — is maybe only 5% of my work hours. The other 95%? It’s reporting, reporting, reporting: Figuring out what to say. I often joke that I’m not really nonfiction writer, I’m a nonfiction researcher. The act of writing is practically a rounding error.
By the way, in nonfiction, there’s a type of writer’s block that feels like “opinion block”. You’re trying to figure out what you think about an issue, and you don’t … quite … know. I’ve found that this, too, is something that resolves itself with more reporting. When I begin work on a Wired column, I sometimes have only a very hazy view or opinion on the subject at hand. But after doing days of serious research — talking to well-informed people, reading up on the subject — I arrive at my own mooring.
You can think of this way: Your own best ideas do not pop into your head out of nowhere. They’re born from immersing yourself in gnarly, complex details — from reading, conversations, note-taking, rereading.
If you’re stuck, go learn more.
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(Also: I’ve done a whole series of “Writing Hacks”, collected here.)
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Clive Thompson is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, a columnist for Wired and Smithsonian magazines, and a regular contributor to Mother Jones. He’s the author of Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World, and Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing our Minds for the Better. He’s @pomeranian99 on Twitter and Instagram.