This post is, in a way, the inverse of my previous post, which argued that it was necessary to act (to write) in the face of unavoidable uncertainty. In this post, I’m going to argue in favor of a specific kind of action in the face of uncertainty: experimentation. Developing a practice of experimentation can help reduce anxiety that triggers anxiety-related writing blocks.
Experimentation is, when speaking of research, a process of gathering data that will give insight into some unanswered question. In this sense, it is explicitly a step into the unknown: the experimenter doesn’t know with certainty what the outcome will be. In science and research, experiments are commonly used to gather empirical data from which to draw conclusions. But a researcher can also benefit from experimentation in writing.
There are two kinds of experimentation that can serve a scholar: thought experiments and writing experiments. Both kinds of experimentation produce material (whether ideas or words on the page) that may or may not be directly or obviously useful. Because experimentation does not guarantee a positive result, many writers avoid it as inefficient—“It takes me so long to write, that I can’t spend time experimenting with something I’ll never use. I need to get it right quickly.”
Trying to get it right
For a lot of writers who are struggling with anxiety-related writing blocks, there’s a feedback loop in which low productivity and high anxiety about results lead a writer slow down their writing process to ensure that the product of their writing efforts is immediately useful, and that sense of needing to get it right can trigger anxiety and slow the pace of working, while also drawing attention to lesser details and away from the main ideas. This slow pace of working (often coupled with anxiety) then loops back to the continued experience of low productivity, high anxiety writing. Ironically, this focus on getting things right does not ensure good writing, but rather inhibits the learning process of the writer.
There are times when every writer should be concerned with getting it right—the last review of a draft before sending it off—but most of the time, it’s best for a writer to be thinking about the ideas they want to communicate (rather than on details of presentation). One of the main values of experimentation as a writer—writing quickly to see what you get rather than trying to “get it right”—is that it can reduce anxiety about “getting it right” (since you’re no longer trying to “get it right”), as well as anxiety about low productivity (since you’re putting a lot of words on the page).
In philosophy, there is a long tradition of what are called “thought experiments.” As their name suggests, these “experiments” are purely intellectual: they are a process of imagination, of asking “what if…” They are a crucial tool for any researcher or scholar, on levels both theoretical and practical. Theoretically, the imagination of a thought experiment precedes the development of any hypothesis: “what if the world worked this way,” leads to “then we would see this response, and we could test it this way…”
A famous example of a thought experiment was Einstein’s imagining what it would be like to ride on a beam of light. That imaginative exercise aided the development of theories that continue to be used to this day.
Thought experiments require the imagination to consider different possibilities—even possibilities that seem unlikely or impossible.
Exercise 1: Thought experiment
[The key dimension in this exercise it to build your imagination, so it doesn’t need to be written out, but if you write out your thought experiment, you will also build your skill as a writer.]
1. Setting aside all the stuff you have read on your subject, what is your particular subject of study, and how do you think it all works (with respect to the specifics? If you study human behavior, why do humans behave in the way that interests you? If you study, historical processes, why did the history turn out the way it did? If you analyze texts, what do you expect the analysis to show?
2. Come up with some alternatives for the explanation you produced in step one. What’s an alternative that you have seen in the literature? What is an absurd alternative (use your imagination: is rain caused by a god washing her car? Is depression caused by watching Gilligan’s Island? Does Dickens’s Hard Times celebrate the beauty of capitalism)? Come up with as many different absurd explanations as you can.
The harder writing seems, the easier it is to get attached to the words that you do get onto the page. If you struggle for an hour to produce one sentence, it’s a lot harder to give up on that sentence than if you only spent one minute. Being committed to what you have already written—“I can’t get rid of this; I worked so hard on it!”—inhibits learning in the process, or at least inhibits the willingness to use what has been learned. “I’m not sure it’s right, but I have to keep it because I worked so hard on it.” But writing usually involves learning, so a tension builds between the old writing (and the old ideas) and what has been learned. This tension can trigger anxiety, in addition to anxiety about “getting it right.”
If you think of the practice of writing as involving a strong commitment to keep what you have already written, that can lead to putting emphasis on getting each new sentence right on the first try, which might lead to struggling over a single for an hour, which reinforces the commitment to keeping what has been written, and to a sense that writing is a very slow, high-stakes process. The higher the stakes of writing anything, the greater the anxiety involved, and the greater the chance of triggering a writing block.
Approaching some (most) writing as an experiment helps reduce the importance placed on “getting it right.” Instead of trying to get it right, an experiment tries something just to see what results. It’s a process of trying and comparing ideas. Instead of just writing one version of a sentence (or paragraph), you write multiples versions and compare them. This kind of experimentation is obviously easiest with a small amount of text—a title, an abstract, a cover letter—because it’s easy and fast to create multiple versions. If I’m experimenting with a title, I can try out many different versions in only a few minutes. If I spend an hour trying to come up with a title, I can generate dozens of alternatives. This is more difficult with longer pieces. If I need to write a section of an article or chapter, it may take several hours to write one version, which makes it harder to casually write another version, but if that perspective places a lot of importance on keeping what you’ve written, it raises the emotional stakes and corresponding anxiety.
If you’re experimenting—just writing to see what something looks like—you’re not committed to the outcome; you’re willing to throw it away and try again. That attitude can reduce anxiety and increase the quantity of words written. It may sacrifice quality, but that’s only a short-term drawback. If you can shift from writing one really strong sentence an hour to writing 500 words an hour, you are, in the long run, going to produce a lot more strong sentences, even if you also write a lot of lousy sentences along the way. (Remember, experimenting does not preclude a later stage of trying to refine and polish your work.) And, in the long run, if you write 500 words an hour, your skill as a writer will increase, and you will be able to craft good sentences and paragraphs more quickly.
Write several different versions of a single sentence, title, section header, or definition of some concept. Experiment with different structures and word choices.
(For example, I could rephrase this exercise in the following ways:
- Write many variations on one sentence or other short piece of writing by altering word choice and sentence structure.
- Pick one idea and try to express that idea in a single sentence. Repeat, writing a new sentence with different structure and word choice.
- Generate several distinct versions of a title for your current work or a single single sentence. Experiment with different vocabulary, structure, and style.)
Slight changes in wording and structure can alter meaning, but that alteration of meaning can often give insight into both the issue you want to express and the ways you express it to your audience.
Spend 10 minutes on this, or generate four (4) alternatives, which ever takes less time.
One aspect of writing that is stressful and unpleasant for many is the worry about “getting it right,” from spelling to punctuation to grammar, and beyond. But a lot of writing is better done without such concerns. Writing isn’t a matter of following rules of spelling or grammar—those rules (and all the exceptions to them) are tools to help the writer—it’s a matter of exploring and developing ideas; it’s a matter of experimenting different modes of expression. Practicing the experimental side of writing—the willingness to throw some words onto the page quickly and without hesitation—can help bring the positive dimensions of writing into focus and help reduce anxiety.
3 thoughts on “Dealing with writer’s block, tip 8: Experiment”
This is simply fantastic, Dave! Courage creates momentum. And ease. The experimental dimension of writing is so often overlooked. I’m glad you’re bringing it back. P.S. Are some words missing in the last sentence? Can you double check?
Natalya, it was an experiment to see if anyone would notice! Just kidding. It was an error that I have now fixed. Thank you! Your comment demonstrates how it is possible for a writer (in this case, me) to make a mistake, and not have any awful outcome as a result. Also: not only does courage does create momentum, but momentum helps build courage. It’s a positive feedback loop.
Beautiful! Absolutely true! I love it – a positive feedback loop!
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