Break That Writer's Block: Ten Tips To Tap Into Your Creative Muse
Many genealogists know all the tricks to successfully track their ancestors in online databases and paper records and have thoroughly documented their research in their software programs, complete with source citations. But when it comes time to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, sometimes even the best researcher can feel paralyzed. If you find yourself asking: "Where do I start?" or "How do I turn all of these facts into an interesting story my family will want to read?"--you are not alone. This article will show you ten tips to help you break through the writer's block and tap into the creativity you need to get started.
- Begin. Don't just sit there staring at the blank page or the blinking cursor on your computer screen. Write something--anything. Notes, an outline, a sentence. Even just a few thoughts could be enough to stimulate the brain and get your creative juices flowing enough to get a good start.
- Mind Map. A mind map is a diagram used to represent words, ideas, tasks, or other items linked to and arranged around a central key word or idea--in simple terms, a graphical way of taking notes. Mind maps are used to generate, visualize, structure, and classify ideas, and as genealogists we can use them to solve our brick wall research problems or to sketch out a family history. Mind maps can be drawn by hand, or by using software, or even notetaking apps on a tablet or iPad. You can view a mind map I created for a writing project I've started about my father's days as a basketball player in Western Pennsylvania.
- Implement a writing schedule and stick to it. Carve out time to write and then ignore the writer's block. Put this on your schedule and then make sure to show up at your, laptop, iPad or tablet to write, even if nothing comes right away. Take account of when you feel at your creative best, or when you can write with the least interruption (early morning, late at night, or middle of the afternoon).
- Use writing prompts or exercises. Writing exercises can loosen up the mind and get you to write about topics you would never think about otherwise. If you like to Blog, there are many Blogging prompts developed by many fellow genealogists. For example: Amy Coffin's 52 Weeks of Abundant Genealogy, Thomas MacEntee's Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories, and my own Fearless Females series that runs in March to celebrate Women's History Month. See the Geneabloggers website for more Blogging prompt series. At the very minimum, they'll help you to get words on the page, and if you do enough of that, you might find something you can actually use.
- Set deadlines. Whether self-imposed, or set by someone else, nothing jumpstarts a stalled writing project like a deadline! Knowing that someone else is expecting results often helps many writers produce material. Blog carnivals, like those often hosted at the Creative Gene Blog, can be great for this (find them listed at Geneabloggers). Writing groups or classes are another good way to prompt you into a writing routine. To push yourself even further, sign up for the "Family History Writing Challenge" run by Lynn Palermo (during the month of February) over at The Armchair Genealogist blog, or the National Novel Writing Month (NanoWriMo) that takes place each November. Not quite ready to share your prose with the world? Set up a private Blog and make yourself write a post every day or a minimum number of times per week.
- Pretend you're telling the story to a favorite aunt. Imagine sitting at the kitchen table having a cup of coffee or tea with your favorite aunt and telling her about all the exciting things you learned about your family. Then, continue the conversation by explaining the key elements of the topic you're writing about. Because you're telling a story, you'll start with the most interesting material, give detail where it belongs and end by reinforcing the point you want to make. The natural progression makes this technique quite effective. You can use technology to help you speak your story such as dictation tools, or apps, a digital recorder, Livescribe pen, the voice recording feature in Evernote, or that comes built-in with your smartphone.
- Remember why you are writing. A common piece of writing advice is to write what you know, but you should also write what you are passionate about. Think about what inspired you to write the story in the first place. Are you trying to honor an ancestor who showed courage in a time of distress or a bad situation? Have a tale of a Blacksheep ancestor that is just too good to resist? Sometimes just jotting down key words about what you want to write about also helps.
- Read. Have a folder at the ready for great pieces of family history writing, such as Blog posts or brief magazine pieces you can read whenever you need some inspiration. If you use Evernote or Microsoft OneNote, it's easy to clip online articles and save them. You can also read books by genealogists to get ideas about how to tell your story. For extra reinforcement, you can even re-read some of your own writing--even if it isn't the best thing you've penned, knowing that you actually wrote something before could be just the push you need to get going again.
- Utilize technology. While there's no app I'm aware of yet that can automatically transmit my brainwaves to my computer or electronic device while I sleep (although that would certainly come in handy), there a number of apps to help with brainstorming ideas, taking notes, and the writing process. One of my favorites is the Writing Your Family History App by the Professional Writing Academy. It costs just $5.99, but this app takes you through eight stages of the writing process from Getting Started all the way to Publishing your work. Writers looking for an application that packs a bigger punch, may want to pick up a copy of Scrivener (available for PC $40 and Mac $45) which has a ton of features including the ability to set up your projects in storyboard format (using a virtual corkboard). You can try it free for 30 days.
- Take a hike. Writer's block could be a sign that your ideas need time to develop. Take a walk, see a movie, or enjoy another activity besides genealogy or writing to let your mind rest and gather new experiences and new ideas before you dive back in. This is especially helpful after you finish one writing project and before you start another one.
Writer's block can hit anyone at any time. You may have a great story to tell, but for a myriad of reasons--fear, anxiety, the end of a project, the beginning of a project, too much information to sort through--you may find yourself frustrated with the writing process. Hopefully, the above suggestions can help you break through whatever is stopping you and you can finally write that family history!
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