Writer's block is…

Saturday, 12:17pm
Reno, NV
So what?” (Miles Davis)


Okay, I know I’m a few hours late delivering the answer to the very excellent Quiz #8.

I had writer’s block.  Just couldn’t think of what to write…

Kidding!  I’m joshing with you.

I apologize for the delay.  Simple matter of being abducted by friends and whisked off to an enjoyable Friday adventure.  I earned it, and knew you’d forgive me for being a tad late with the solution to the Quiz.  (You know it takes me several hours to concoct these posts, right?)

Let’s get down to it, then.

First: I want to thank, and congratulate, everyone who posted for the Quiz.  The threads on this blog are always energizing mini-riots of good critical thinking…

… along with a smattering of cleverness, sheer brilliance, pontificating idiocy, and (always) one or two utterly outraged comments from folks who wandered into the fray by accident.

I love it all.

As many have noted… the comment threads at this blog rival the actual posts for being fascinating reading.

There’s some smokin’-hot wisdom out there, for anyone paying attention.

Second:  Here is the answer to the Quiz question…

“Writer’s block is…

… a self-induced delusional state of undisciplined focus.

It is merely not knowing what to do next.”

Technically, it is a “real” affliction in the same way that — technically — you perhaps once thought that if only the lovely Susie Q would realize you were meant for each other, and tumble into your arms… then life would be perfect forever after.

It’s not true.  But it feels true to the afflicted.

(Susie Q would, of course, have broken your heart within weeks.)

I am decidedly biased on this issue.

And I’m right.

I’ve never had single moment of “writer’s block” in my life.

I have struggled to write well at times, but that’s not the same thing at all.  (And, later in this post,  I’ll give you a couple of tactics to muscle your way past those moments of struggle.)

If you read the entire thread in the Quiz comments section, you may have noticed that a number of fiction writers chimed in.  And they defended “writer’s block” like a warrior might show you battlefield scars.

“It’s real!  You’re not a real writer if you’ve never suffered from it!”

Now, I’ve lived in both worlds.  Long career in non-fiction writing (as a copywriter, and author of business books like “Kick-Ass Copywriting Secrets of a Marketing Rebel”)…

… and an equal period of time writing fiction.  (I’ve penned 3 novels, and have towering stacks of short stories in storage.)  (I’ve also written several hundred songs.)

And this straddling of professions has given me a very nuanced perspective of how people approach writing.

My last foray into fiction writing pretty much crushed my passion for getting a novel published.  Ten years ago, I took a break from the business world and focused on fiction for a while.

I attended a couple of very prestigious week-long fiction workshops (including the one in Lake Tahoe which produced Amy Tan and Kem Nunn — killer authors — and one of the oldest workshops, in Swanee, Tennessee).

Two things happened at every workshop:  First, as soon as folks learned that I was actually making money as a professional ad writer, I got swarmed.

I never met a writer — including the faculty — at any of these workshops who could support themselves with fiction.  (The best gig they could find was getting hired to teach “writing” in academia.)

A few actually wrote best-selling books.  Flurry of attention and fleeting fame, a couple of nice checks in the mail… and then back to starving.

I quickly realized that my fiction-writing was going to remain a sideline hobby, like playing music and cartooning.

Second:  As an already-successful professional writer, I realized I was a complete outsider amongst the throng of wannabe novelists at these workshops.

And it wasn’t just the fact I was rolling in dough as a freelancer.  (And was living off fat royalties while I dabbled in fiction during a year-long vacation.)


The main reason I didn’t fit in with the other folks at the workshop…

… was my work ethic.

I was used to meeting deadlines.  I took writing seriously, and I studied the essentials of getting my work done (so I could collect those fees that made clients faint).

This is important: The vast majority of wannabe novelists I met didn’t actually want to write.

They wanted to have already written a great novel… so they could enjoy what they thought was the confidence, respect and romantic life of a published author.

I remain stunned at this attitude.

Writers write.  You earn respect — it isn’t bestowed upon you like an award for being a nice person.

And if there’s any “romance” to writing… it comes either before or after the actual task of sitting at your desk and working.

Don’t get me wrong.  Being a pro writer is the best gig on the planet.

Well, next to being a rock star guitarist, I suppose.

But in both cases… you’re working your ass off.  Yes, there are rewards.  Yes, it’s a blast to carve out a niche among your peers as a wicked-good producer of the real stuff.

And yes, to outsiders it can look like a cushy, easy job.

Get past that illusion.

You build up your chops through experience and discipline.  The professionals code is simple:  “When there’s money on the line, you show up where you’re supposed to be, when you said you’d be there… having done what you said you’d do.”

For a writer, that means you meet your hard deadlines… with the best stuff you’re capable of producing.  (“Soft” deadlines, which do not impact the client’s project, are different animals… as I’ve frequently discussed.  You should always have multiple soft deadlines prior to every hard deadline.  “Hard” means final… as in meeting printing deadlines, launch schedules, and any other deadline where — if it’s missed — disaster looms.)  (This attitude, of never missing hard deadlines, still separates the rookies from the trusted pro’s in business.)

And you meet your critical deadlines every time.

Writer’s block?

Complete bullshit.

It’s just a matter of not having prepared yourself for the task.

Here’s a clue: The very first step in the Simple Writing System is…

… research.

You learn everything you can about the market you’re writing to.   Who the competition is, what they’re doing right and what they’re doing wrong, what’s new, what’s over and done with, where the opportunities are.

The second step: Get into the head of your prospect.  Research the emotional, physiological, spiritual and psychological needs, wants and world-view of the folks you’re going to persuade.

There are 17 steps, total, in the System.  And every last one of them rest on the practical information you get through research.  (Which is easy, and even enjoyable, once you know what you’re doing.)

So, when you’re finally ready to sit down and “write”… you know where you’re going, who you’re going after…

… and what you need to write to accomplish it all.

Somehow, people get the notion (even at fancy, expensive fiction workshops) that inspiration has something to do with writing.

So they sit down at the keyboard, stare at the blank monitor…

… and despair.

This is beyond dumb.  It’s suicidal, if there’s money on the line.

It is exactly like flying to a strange city… agreeing to meet someone at a restaurant downtown… and then hopping in a car to drive there…

… without an address, or a GPS, or a map, or even advice on where you’re going.

You’ll freeze up at the first cross-street.  Do you go left?  Right?  Straight?

You don’t know.  You have no clue where you’re going.

Preparing to write something means you’ll never sit there staring at the blank screen.

Your research is your address, GPS, and map.

The tactics and tips you learn from guys like me are the advice on getting there.

Want some practical, professional advice right now?

Here’s what pro-level writers do:

1. Take lots of notes. Most of the “real” writers I know (those making a living at it) always carry a pen a notebook around with them.

They take long walks, long showers, long naps… letting all that deep research they’ve done settle and gurgle inside their cerebral cortex…

… where, eventually, it will burble up in the form of “a-HA!” hooks, headline ideas, and overall narration strategies.

This is not inspiration.  This is going deep into a subject, so your brain gets deeply involved.

You don’t sit down to write until your fingers are twitching, desperate to hit the keyboard and start the process of getting all these “cooked notes” written out.

And you work yourself into that state by prepping.  It’s active, not reactive.

2. Don’t even try to write “finished copy” right off the bat.

Your first draft should look like a disaster.  Just disgorge everything haphazardly onto the page.  Don’t sweat adjectives, or grammar, or any of the niceties of a finished piece.

Pro writers know that writing is re-writing.

Get it down.  Go back and edit.  Then edit again.  And again.

Inspiration is great, I suppose.  I’ve never experienced it.  Nor have any of the famous writer’s I’ve met and hung out with.

Writing is just translating a story (or a pitch) into words.  You develop the skills of doing this through experience.

3. Don’t start at the beginning.

The classic notion of “writer’s block” is sitting at your desk, staring hopelessly at a blank page.

Here’s another hint: Most writers don’t start on page one.

With sales copy, the headline is seldom the first thing you write.  I usually start out by writing bullets — those nuggets of info and insight that normally don’t appear in an ad until way after page one.

This helps me get hip to the essence of the product I’m writing about.  Often, my headline and opening paragraphs will come from the bullets.

Or I’ll slam out the guarantee first.  Or the close.

Or a few subheads.  It’s okay to ease into the process… as long as you’re actually writing.

A good piece of writing is actually multiple — and very different — sections of thought smoothly connected together…

… in a process.

Not one inspired session of writing, starting with “It was a dark and stormy night…” and moving through each sentence thereafter in a single flow until you triumphantly type out “The End.”

It’s more like a ridiculously-simple jigsaw puzzle.  Imagine one cut into just 17 pieces (instead of the 200 most are).

You know what the final result should look like (more or less), and so each piece you handle has an obvious destination.  You don’t need to start in the upper left corner, and work from there.

You can start anywhere.  You know where you’re going.

(And, yes, you may end up tossing entire chunks, or rewriting so severely that the 3rd edit looks nothing like the 2nd… and, occasionally, you may burn an entire manuscript.  All part of getting to where you need to go.  Don’t panic at ANY stage, as long as you’re moving forward.)


Writer’s block is not a lie.  Not even a myth (one of the most common answers given).

It’s bullshit… but it afflicts people nonetheless.

It is simple a matter of not knowing what to do next.

Easily solved… once you start getting good advice, and maybe get some decent coaching.  (To get your hands on the Simple Writing System — obviously a great choice of training — go here: www.simplewritingsystem.com.)

The winners:

This is good.  After all my efforts to spread the wealth (and the prizes) around…

… the FIRST GUY TO POST won.

So, congrats to Henry Bingaman.  Nice, tidy answer that shows he understands the process of writing.

The second winner… the eleventh to post the right answer… is:

Stephan Erdman.  Entry number 62.

Good job, guys.

My overworked assistant, Diane, will be contacting you about sending over the two prizes — the Power Words compendium, and the “11 Quick Marketing Fixes” checklist.

That was fun, no?

Everybody wins, because engaging your brain in critical thinking — especially when you’re challenging your belief systems and superstitions and flawed ideology — is an essential step in becoming a killer writer.

We’ll have to do this again, soon.

I gotta split now.

Stay frosty,


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"11 Really Stupid Blunders You're Making With Your Biz & Career Right Now."

  • Henry Dicks says:

    Nice insight, thanks!

    Most of the time, I start thinking about one sentence I would use to frame a story about the stuff I want to sell. Rapidly changing words, looking for a better solution, interrupting myself when I found something instantly puts me into a state of “Doubts, shut up, I know what I’m doing.”

    Not that this belief would have any foundation in reality, but it gets me quite well through the first sentences. (Which I throw away, afterwards)

    Btw, you made cartoons? I can has some?

  • Dave Doolin says:

    John, most people can’t get through steps 1 & 2.

    I write at least several thousand words per week, sometimes more (a lot more), and consider myself to be not that productive. Doing all that research is boring for most people, and takes time.

    But I love it!

    (And I am building a neat little audience, too.)

    I do this by getting up every morning and writing writing writing until Ah Cain’t Write No Mo’. Every day. Except when I’m programming, but that’s glorious too.

    On the other, my foray into the world of guitar playing was a disaster. Didn’t want to *learn* to play, just wanted to know how to play the damn thing.

    What I learn the most from you, John, is that every time I read your writing, I feel you’re speaking to me personally. The wannabees in Suwanee should have it so good.

    • John Carlton says:

      Hi Dave.
      There are basically 3 types of writers:
      1. Those who struggle, but do it anyway.
      2. Those who do it well, but don’t love it.
      3. And guys like you, who were born for the gig.

      I’ve written every day of my life. I cannot even imagine being kept from writing stuff down… my head would explode.

      However… this knowledge of the 3 types should definitely NOT discourage anyone. Some of the best marketers out there do their own writing… and just approach it like a necessary part of the job, and do it well (using their training, swipe files, and advice from guys like me).

      You don’t have to love it.

      However, there is a subclass of scribe in the population, with DNA designed to write shit down…

      • If more business owners would realize that they know their business & clients/customers better than any copywriter does and that this knowledge is way more valuable to a campaigns success than knowing how to “Write”, they’d be less inclined to sub their marketing out.

        Most people act as their own worst enemy by being way too hard on themselves thinking their writing should be “Shakesphere” profound… staying “busy” doing the idiotic $7.00 an hour tasks like changing ink cartridges and going to Kinko’s… and constantly doubting their gut and the knowledge they already possess.

        To put yourself light years ahead of the majority when writing to sell, all you need is a solid checklist of must-haves to make a sell which you can get in John’s Simple Writing System (awesome program by the way).

        And if you want to step your game up another level… get Dan Kennedy’s “Influential Writing” program. That’s where you get another checklist of all the non-traditional elements of persuading in print/pixel/video that attracts people to you and keep them raving about you over the long haul.

        That’s it.

        Two programs. Two checklists. If business owners would quit looking for the new shiny object and just get their hands on these two resources they be sittin’ pretty.

  • John Carlton says:

    Reply to Henry Dicks’ comment: I was the staff cartoonist for my high school and college newspapers. About 4 years worth of weekly strips.
    I sucked at it, at first, cuz I always drew in pencil, and the strips needed to be done in ink. I actually worked, at first, with a real metal quill and wooden staff, dipping it in an India ink bottle… which was old school even then. (I simply didn’t know what I was doing.)
    By college, I’d bought my first Koh-i-noor mechanical ink-delivering pen — still an amazing piece of engineering. It had a dozen parts, including a needle within the point, which released ink in measured way as you drew. You had to take it apart, often, and clean the separate pieces.
    Those pens remained the professionals choice until just a few years ago. Now, the line you can get with a buck-and-a-half Uni-ball gel pen — right off the rack at the drug store — beats every drawing tool that came before, no contest.
    Wait… how’d you get me off on that tangent?
    Oh, yeah.
    I’ll see if I can’t dig up some old cartoons…

    • John Carlton says:

      More: I also was awarded a “Quill And Scroll” pin, while in high school, for my cartooning. Got a nice note from somebody in the mail, with this little complex lapel pin.

      To this day, I still don’t know what that organization is… how they found me… and what I won for.

      Very few dedicated cartoonists back then. A friend and I actually drew long, complex comic books — they would be called “graphic novels” now — that we passed around the school. It was my first taste of producing something that was consumed by eager readers.

      Man, I haven’t thought about that stuff in a long time…

      Any other cartoonists out there?

      • LoneWolf says:

        I dabbled in it when I was in high school/university (so long ago 8=( but never published anything. I’ve been thinking about reviving some and putting them up on my blog. Why am I just thinking about it? I’ll dig them out and start scanning ….

        • John Carlton says:

          Let us know where your blog’s at, Wolf, so we can see the ‘toons…

        • LoneWolf says:

          Well, I’ve done it! The first ‘toon is scanned and uploaded at Cookie Crumbles [http://blogs.efortunecookie.ca].

          I’ll be posting more in the weeks to come (some are related to golf and will probably go on Howls [http://blogs.wolfpawroad.com] as it is my golf blog).


    • Dave Doolin says:

      Damn… I have two full sets of pens that I used to use for inking of cave maps. One set is a Koh I Noor, the other Rotring (IIRC). Full sets too, 0000 to 4.

      So cave maps aren’t quite cartoons. But the same sort of thing.

      • John Carlton says:

        Dude, you are old school.

        You got any secrets to keeping those bastard pens clean?

        • Dave Doolin says:

          Rubbing alcohol & lots of sucking and blowing through the tips. Yeah, I know how that sounds, but… keeping a 0000 flowing evenly is bitch.

          I used to keep a little bowl of alcohol handy and just drop the tips into the bowl when I was done. That and keep the entire pen as clean as possible. Inking was a ritual, with starting tasks, the actual inking, then stopping tasks. You aren’t done inking until the pens are clean and dry.

          The results are *sweet,* much, much more attractive than the mathematical perfection of CAD.

          I could talk about vellum too, and all the little fibers that clog the tip if you’re not careful and end up scoring the vellum. But that’s enough for now. And I was just an amateur anyway.

        • John Carlton says:

          Heavenly drawing surface. Caresses the ink, keeps it crisp and sharply defined, glides along like you’re drawing inside a dream.
          My job, back in the Silicon Valley art department of that computer supply catalog in the late 70s, included cleaning the pens. We had a little chamber filled with alcohol and water that reverberated with sonic waves.
          Whatever happened to those obscure tools, I wonder…
          Last memory: I got so good with a #10 Exacto blade (doing paste-up) that I could cut clean through a single Yellow Pages page, without scoring the page underneath.
          Surgeon’s deftness… all from working with the tool for 8 hours a day.
          Obsolete skills…

  • ken says:

    I like your analogy of a jigsaw puzzle; what I find interesting in writing my copy is that it’s often very product specific, the order in which I do things. Sometimes (for new products particularly), I find I really want to hammer out the first set of 30-40 headline drafts first… helps me decide on the product’s core USP, which then drives bullets.

    For redoing letters of current products, or split test alternates to run against a control, I may start with bullets. When I’m in a time crunch, I begin with the offer/bonuses, and then work from the middle out. Like you say, as long as one’s moving forward, that’s what counts. Personally hot showers and strong coffee, working early in the morning and late at night seem to work best to get things going, and when I’m in a low energy funk I run down to barnes & noble/borders/starbucks with pad and pen in hand to work on bullets.

    Great dialogue you got started, and congrats to all for participating; it’s interesting to read others’ approaches.


    • John Carlton says:

      Hi Ken.
      Yeah, finding your groove — time and place and working style — is essential for a long career writing.
      But you find that groove by actually writing, and testing stuff out. Can’t guess what it will be.
      (Side note: I, too, am mostly a night owl writer. However, as a pro, I learned long ago how to unleash my Inner Writer at any time, under any circumstances, writing as well as I can write even under duress and chaos. Again — waiting for inspiration is a waste of time. You CAN train yourself to write, minus a Muse…)

  • Matt Bisogno says:

    Carlton, nice work!
    Demystifying the myth: demythtifying, if you will.
    Fact is most people are in love with the dream, and conveniently overlook the reality.
    However…. one of the major reasons for this is that we copywriters (actually, I research horse racing statistics to create plausible systems, but I also write the copy that sells them out) are obliged to sell the dream.
    It’s what Kern says you told him, part two: what it’ll do for you…
    Not ‘what you need to do for it to do that for you’, but ‘what the result you’ll get is’.
    I don’t have a problem with that per se, because anyone who thinks that by some form of ethereal osmosis they will become the person from whom they’ve just bought, deserves to donate money to the grafters.
    But… I wonder where it’s going now. Markets are increasingly cynical, ever harder to persuade about good stuff and – having bought products that didn’t instantly make them millionaires before – ever more impatient and self-fulfilling in the belief that what they just bought wasn’t the panacea they craved.
    Man, I have to say, in the three years (I know, newbie – reality bites) I’ve been doing this, I’m at my lowest ebb.
    I’m still selling out, but expectations have become preposterous, and my copy makes no false promises.

    • Dave Doolin says:

      Matt, being “underemployed” (mostly by choice) myself, I’m using this downtime to create tons and tons of product. Stuff I can ship. I’ve been at it 7/12 since Burning Man, no shit. Everyone else I know is either “What? Me Worry?” because they haven’t been laid off (yet), or crying in their beer.

      John, you have the start of little community here on the blog as well…

  • Simon Ashari says:

    Nicely done.

    As soon as you spoke about ‘work ethic’ a light bulb went off inside my head. I knew that what you were saying (that writers block is b.s.) was true.

    I have to admit that I’ve been there before with ‘writers block.’ (Staring at a blank piece of paper, waiting for the answers to appear by magic.)

    Good post.


  • Sandy B. says:

    What you say is quite right; it’s not a myth as many do suffers from it. So it’s like a symptom of a real hidden problem.
    A friend of mine IM me one day asking me if the email he’d received that told him he won a lottery from Bill Gates could be for real.
    My answer to him was: ‘did you play the lottery?’
    He hadn’t played any lottery but he wanted to win one.
    It’s the same problem in my opinion that lies behind writer block; Doing research is actually work but we’d rather just produce great piece without doing that work. And if we stare at the screen long enough, who knows, Bill Gates might send us some money, I mean great copy 🙂

  • Joel Helfer says:

    It seems like my best writing comes when I recall and tell the funniest stories of my life. I am usually the major butt end of the tale and family and friends
    burst out in laughter and cannot stop ribbing my bones off.
    Is there some major breakthrough here? Is it an
    Aha moment, or just a haha moment? Most people have had ridiculously funny things happen to them, at the most inconvenient times, and this type of story-telling is riveting and produces the effect I am looking for in my sales copy.
    I need some advice on how to get the same effect
    when I write to people who never heard of me.
    Joel Helfer

  • patricia says:

    Thanks John for making it PLAIN. There is no substitute for preparation and just sitting down and doin’ it. I’ve gotten into the habit of keeping notes on different subjects related to my site and it’s wonderful to have them handy when I go to write. Right now I’m a beginner in the article marketing arena and the prep is wonderful to refer to when I start to write. I don’t write the headlines first, I write as if I’m having a conversation with my audience of one (x 100) and it works. I’ve gotten an awful lot from you including the “tell a story”. That had me stymied at first then your “tell a story in three sentences..” that you did with Frank Kern finally clicked and made sense for me. I’m really looking forward to when I’ll be able to take your course The Simple Writing System. You’re my writing “hero”!!

  • Glenn says:

    John, you have a wonderful mind. Thank you for continually sharing your knowledge. It lends a refreshing measure of clarification to one’s intelligent address of problem-solving. Having validated the truths of such through your own successes and failures, what you offer is the leverage of your experience and wisdom – for those who would avail themselves thereof. Thanks again.

  • LoneWolf says:

    I find it hard to just sit down and write as you describe, although I’ve been doing more of it lately and it really does help.

    I’ve also started carrying around a notebook (a suggestion that I’ve heard many times in the past) and writing ideas and making notes. I’m still learning how to use it effectively, but just the act of writing stuff down makes it stick in the brain and “simmer” there.

    Thanks for keeping the interesting stuff flowing. By the way, where does your “Stay Frosty” salutation come from? Living in Northern Ontario, that won’t be too hard for the next few months 8=)

    • John Carlton says:

      I’ve told the “Stay Frosty” tale a lot.
      One more time: My favorite sci-fi movies include the first 2 “Alien” flicks… the second of which (Aliens) has the Space Marine corporal (Michael Biehn) saying “stay frosty” to his comrades as the aliens approach (in the duct work).
      I just started using it, years ago, cuz I liked the imagery of being coolly alert.
      Later, I learned that current US Marines also occasionally use the term. It just hasn’t seeped into the mainstream culture…

  • Hey John, can’t believe I won! (alright I thought I got it right, but I didn’t count!)
    And being such a newbie to copy writing I have to say it’s a privilege to learn from everyone’s thoughts and to feel that real passion for writing that permeates this whole blog!
    Thanks, Stephan

  • Dave Doolin says:

    Since the reply queue is full on that thread…

    Pen cleaning.

    I still have, somewhere in my garage, a _denture cleaner_. Same damn machine, but a helluva lot cheaper than the one’s sold at the engineering & blueprint supply stores in that day. Back then, $75 was *real* money.

  • James Woods says:

    Thank god I chose acting. This writing stuff is crazy!

  • […] most ripped off writer on the web,” has a point when he says there’s no such thing as writer’s block. Sitting down to write should come just before your brain explodes from all your gathered knowledge […]

  • Ben says:

    I love this blog man!

    Resource I love: tim ferriss interviews Paulo Coelho about his writing process

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