Writing Here To Avoid Writing
January 5, 2007 10:34 AM   Subscribe

How can I unblock and get to work? I took on a freelance writing job that came to me from a friend/colleague with whom I've worked very successfully in the past. He pitched me to his team, we had some meetings, I got a retainer and ... was offered a different full-time, demanding job which I could not turn down. I thought I could bang out Freelance Job during my weeks before starting Real Job and now I'm stuck ...

I'm supposed to be the expert, so when I submitted a first draft and my friend told me it was 'the wrong direction' I was shocked into being blocked (I've never come up against such a wholesale No on a project).

I'm over deadline, clueless as to how to jump start a new plan of attack, not-so-motivated anymore, and also, legitimately busy at my new gig. My friend is no expert (I'm supposed to be) and he is very busy and isn't sure what direction I should take anyway -- just thinks the one I've submitted is wrong. Of course, it would suck to have to return the retainer. Help.
posted by thinkpiece to Work & Money (12 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I understand, man, I struggle to balance Real Job and freelancing and it's brutal, leaves me seriously drained sometimes.

Do you have someone else to brainstorm with who's not involved with the project? If I get stuck I usually convene a committee of some kind, even if it's just letting my girlfriend read the piece and then talking about it with her. I have a number of friends I consider extremely good readers and talking things out with them really helps sometimes. Adding new brains to the mix can spark new ideas.
posted by The Straightener at 10:42 AM on January 5, 2007

My trick is this. I sit down with the pen and decide that it won't matter what kind of crap I produce, I've got to produce something. So, I write some crap.

Later, I go back over it. Either I see what the fool who wrote it missed, or I recognize the genius...
posted by ewkpates at 11:03 AM on January 5, 2007

I don't know the terms of your contract, but is it not the client's job to provide some direction? I think there needs to be some push back on your part here.
posted by sid at 11:08 AM on January 5, 2007

ewkpates' process is the right direction. Just start writing, even if you know it's poor. When I'm stuck writing it's usually because I'm trying to construct the full sentences as perfectly as possible in my head - which results in a lot of blank paper. With something actually there, no matter how bad, it acts like an outline and allows you to go back over and punch it up.
posted by NationalKato at 11:11 AM on January 5, 2007

Talk to the client/friend guy. Even though he doesn't know what the "right" direction is, you can tease out a lot more information than just "no". Find other examples of things that are somewhat comparable to your project, and ask him, "something like this?" I'm sure he can tell you more specifically what he objects to. It might be that he has a few particular things that he doesn't like and is therefore characterizing it as the "wrong direction".

I have had clients that told me stuff like what you're saying, and was able to tease out of them that what they really didn't like was the title or the section heads or something simple like that. You need to probe your friend or you will never get anywhere.

Also, I don't know what your usual procedure is, nor even what kind of project this is, but this is a really great example of why it pays to proceed step-wise in these matters. I assume you delivered your friend/colleague a manuscript, yes? Try to get his feedback (and buy-in) at earlier develomental stages. Give him a creative brief or a treatment - what you call this depends on what field you're in - that will express the tone and the objectives of the piece. Get his feedback, incorporate it, and move on. Then give him a content outline or something like that (again, depends on what kind of writing this is). Then finally, you give him a draft.

This process need not take long, and it saves you time in the long run (not having to re-write a MS from scratch, for instance). Also, this protects you from fickle clients who want you to change everything at the eleventh hour. Because, of course they can do that, but if you have their OK on a creative brief or what have you, and then they say "the direction is wrong", you can point back to the brief, outline, etc., and (diplomatically, natch) explain that you will rewrite as desired, but you'll need to charge them (a lot) more, as you did what was agreed upon per the brief. Then, wonder of wonders, the client suddenly remembers exactly what it was he/she didn't like (in many cases, the client has not thoroughly read the piece when they issue sweeping, off-the-cuff condemnations like "wrong direction"), and you make the revisions, and are back on track. Or else, you do re-write it, and you charge them more because the scope of the project has changed. Also, when you take a job, specify how many rounds of review are included so that they don't get away with 10 rounds of revisions without incurring additional charges.

In your present situation, I would advise you to get more info, as I said, and go ahead and give your friend a brief once you've found out all you can, if (s)he still insists on a complete re-write.
posted by Mister_A at 11:19 AM on January 5, 2007

A general guide to getting through a block is Peter Elbow's excellent book Writing Without Teachers. May not help here, since you're in a time bind, but it's worth reading. As suggested, the answer is to write freely without criticism a draft, read it over to find what (if anything) is good. Then write another with the good stuff in mind, read it over, etc.
posted by LeisureGuy at 11:28 AM on January 5, 2007

Mister_A's advice is excellent. I would only add, as a technique to ferreting out what this "wrong direction" is all about:

If your friend/client can't tell you what direction to take things in, ask him to explain in more detail what parts he's not satisfied with. You may find that he (the non-expert) doesn't understand something that you've assumed, that makes the whole thing seem wrong to him. Figuring out exactly what parts are causing problems will give you specific things to edit, rather then something as undefinable as "wrong direction".

You've provided them with a draft and they have not provided you with enough information to revise that draft. I see no reason why you should have to return your retainer unless they ask you for some specific changes that you are unable to provide.
posted by carmen at 11:57 AM on January 5, 2007

Like others have said, turn your brain off for a bit and start writing in the raw. Lots of potential can spring from things you didn't even intend on writing. TS Eliot said something like, "One hardly knows what he wants to say until he's said it."

If you have time, get a copy of The Artist's Way.
posted by deern the headlice at 12:00 PM on January 5, 2007

Thank you all. What resonates most is the "push back and get more direction" -- I've sort of blithely assured that I can produce something new without really knowing what I would do, and now can come up with nothing. And it's a friend who thought I could magically produce something wonderful, and now I can't, which complicates things.
posted by thinkpiece at 12:47 PM on January 5, 2007

thinkpiece: You're a writer. You can magically produce something wonderful. You've just gotten locked into your head and forgotten how.

When I get blocked on a column, I always sit down with a martini and churn something out, then look at it in the morning to see what I've got. That's not necessarily the best advice, but you need to let your brain rest a little and just ... go.

If you can't do it that way, outline. Outline everything, until your outlining turns into writing.

I have also found that having rock-solid deadlines -- even just for submitting something to a friend for pre-reading -- can help. What I mean is this: People who don't have a proven track record, people who are poor and hungry and desperate to prove themselves, don't get writer's block nearly as often. You may need to force yourself to be hungry.
posted by brina at 3:40 PM on January 5, 2007

LSD or Mushrooms, either one will clear that mental road block in an afternoon
posted by nintendo at 10:23 PM on January 5, 2007

If you're a professional writer, you can't be "blocked." It's not your colon we're talking about here -- it's your job. (Accountants and surgeons don't get blocked, either.)

This has only happened to me once. (Out of millions of words published.) It's scary. But here's the deal: It's the client's fault. They're either not paying attention to what you're turning in, or they're dopes. (Or both.) Basically, they don't know what they want -- and they will use you to triangulate their thinking. The "wholesale no/wrong direction" comment gives it away.

Unfortunately, there's no way to fix it, since the problem lies with the people involved. Obviously, I don't know the specifics of your situation, but if I were to predict an outcome, it would be this: after countless drafts, much self-doubt and recrimination, you end up turning in something remarkably similar to your first draft, and they exasperatedly ask you what the hell took so long to figure out such a simple assignment. (And, when all is said and done, you end up making about $.04 an hour.)

Save your sanity, and possibly your friendship. Take the kill fee and walk away.
posted by turducken at 10:06 PM on January 6, 2007

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