by Dr. Chris Veltsos, CISSP, member of (ISC)² Advisory Council of North America
We’ve all been there, staring at the blank page or the blank screen, frustrated that the words aren’t flowing anymore, if they ever were. For the fortunate, this feeling can be fleeting, quickly replaced by a geyser of ideas and sentences that flow onto the page. For the rest of us, the momentary blockage can take a more serious turn, resulting in days or weeks of “challenged writing” in which you have no choice but to plow through the slow drip-drip of words and ideas. In extreme cases, one might even begin to think that they are experiencing writer’s block, followed by the realization that the thud sound you just heard is that of your morale sinking to new lows.
Writing ebbs and flows. When it flows, the writer enjoys the high of being “in the zone” with all the energy and clarity that comes with it. But what options do we have when writing doesn’t flow, but instead feels like a chore, an exercise in frustration and despair? Even the best and most prolific writers have at some point experienced the downswing of their writing pendulum. One of the key differences between the writing pros and the rest of us is that the pros have learned tricks to help them overcome the times of relative drought.
There’s no magic recipe for those struggling with their writing, but this article outlines a list of options and suggestions to consider and experiment with.
Motivation — The Key to Refilling Your Writing Aqueduct
The Romans built aqueducts to ensure that their cities had access to a continuous source of freshwater. Aqueducts such as the Pont du Gard (in Southern France near Nimes) pictured here could span dozens of miles to bring life-supporting water to far away cities.
How healthy is your own “writing aqueduct?” Does it tap into your creative source, your desire to improve the state of security and privacy in these challenging, interconnected times? What drives you to write? When was the last time you reflected whether your motivation for writing is internally driven, externally driven, or somewhere in between? Motivation is a strong force, one that you can tap into to refill your writing aqueduct, to rekindle that writing flame, as words and ideas want to be shared. Focusing on the value that you bring to your reader can help you once again open the flow of words to reach your audience downstream.
Start With Why
Another way to review your level of motivation is to ask yourself why. Why are you writing? It’s also important to know who are you writing for, and what message you want to share with, but it all begins with why. Side note: Start With Why is also the title of a book worth reading if you’re open to exploring how other fields (like marketing and psychology) can influence what we do in cybersecurity. It wasn’t written with security in mind so you will have to connect the dots yourself, but that’s part of the fun.
Revisiting Your Writing Environment
In a previous article on setting up your writing process, I briefly covered the importance of setting up your writing environment for success, in terms of places where you do your best writing and times of the day that work well for you. But as with other creative endeavors, what previously worked well for us at a given place and time might no longer be effective for our writing process. The magic desk is no longer magic. That magic time of day is just “meh.”
If the regular time and place are no longer conducive to your writing process, it’s time to experiment with a new location or a new time of day. Look for a place that inspires you, where you find yourself thinking deeply. While the shower might come to mind, unless you have an ample supply of waterproof ink and paper, you’ll need to find a more suitable spot.. Similarly, experiment with how well your writing flows at different times of the day. Look for times when you are feeling less stressed, with a reasonable amount of noise and disruptions. Why reasonable? Because we all have different tolerance levels for distractions, although I’m quite sure that most of us would find it very challenging to write while the dog is barking or while your kids are playing video games and talking through their every move.
Revert to “Old School” Tools
Don’t discount the utility of “old school” tools, i.e. pen and paper. You might be a gifted writer who can work directly on a laptop and crank out page after page — or rather screen after screen — of paragraphs. But if you’re reading this, chances are that your writing might not be as profuse as it once was. If the screen no longer inspires you — at least not the way it used to — then it’s time to try going back and generating ideas, outlines, and even portions of paragraphs on paper. Yes, you’ll need to spend some extra time to transfer your chicken scratch into bits and bytes, but that will give you an opportunity for another round of revision, thus continuing the positive feeling of flow of words and ideas — as opposed to waiting for the words to flow.
Another tool that one of my friends suggested is a whiteboard. Part writing and part drawing, the whiteboard might just be what you need to visually connect your left and right hemispheres to reboot the flow of ideas and eventually the flow of words.
Easing Back into Writing … Based on Existing Work
In my previous article, I mentioned two avenues to practicing and developing your writing. I called the two approaches “your words, your ideas” and “your words, their ideas.” The former is often more challenging as the writer must oversee both the creation and ordering of ideas, but also their expression into words. The latter can be part of a let’s-get-back-to-writing approach to rekindle your knack for writing without the extra burden of having to also generate original ideas. This form of writing — creating a summary or analyzing an existing body of work — lends itself well to sentence-level focused writing. Eventually you’ll have written out all the sentences that you felt were necessary to convey meaning, and you can then move on to your revision process to blend those sentences into coherent paragraphs.
The Thirsty Writing Approach
No this isn’t a new drinking game, but it’s the name I gave to a tactic I read about in a Harvard Business Review article: “It’s easier to keep going with a task after you’ve overcome the initial hump of starting it in the first place.” Our brains don’t let go of unfinished work, so use that to your advantage. Start the writing process, then stop. Let your “thirsty” brain keep thinking about that piece of writing while you go about your day but keep watch for moments when you feel a “pull” to get back to the writing. When the pull is strong enough and you know you have enough free time — and the right setup/tools — to engage in the writing process, go for it. I’ve used this approach many times with great success, by starting to write portions of an article, then stopping mid-way. Sometimes I would write two or three paragraphs in a row, while at other times I would just write snippets of sentences representing different paragraphs instead.
Give Up, Then Come Back
If all else fails, and assuming you’re able to do so, give up. Take some time off from your writing. Do other things. Then, when the time is right — in composing this sentence, I initially wrote “when the time is write” — come back to the writing process refreshed. But remember to reflect on your motivation, to review your writing environment, and to double-check that you have the right writing tools nearby.
Writing is a process, and like any process, it can be improved. If you’re frustrated with your current writing process, explore the options mentioned in this article, but most importantly remember to give yourself a break — and the space to reconnect with your writing.