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Getting Back to Basics: How I Undo My Writer’s Block

I have a very specific process when I approach a writing project. Using the first three canons of Classical Rhetoric, I first write down every idea I have. This is the Invention stage and includes my research stage. Anything that generates an idea—something I read, a conversation I had, a thought that I contemplate, I dream I have—gets written down however it comes to me. I don’t worry about assessing the quality of the idea or figuring out how I will use it at that point. Often one idea leads to another, and I keep writing them down. Half-formed thoughts, questions I have, contradictory ideas, I don’t judge. I just record them. And depending on the scope of the project, this can be a huge amount of information. I often have notebooks filled with notes.

Eventually a shape starts to emerge and I begin the Arrangement process. I figure out how I want to organize the material and what the basic outline of my argument is going to be; then I sort the ideas. At this point I might also start tossing bad ideas or earlier versions of ideas. So, I am sorting and deleting and organizing. Sometimes at this point I discover that some of my points are weak and I need to go back and work on more invention for a particular section. So the process starts over.

The better job I do in the Arrangement process, the easier the writing is. This is not the time to take any shortcuts. If I have done a really good job, organizing points and sub points and outlining the full argument in its entirety, then the final stage is really just a matter of putting that outline into complete sentences. My outline is usually about the same length as the final draft. That’s how detailed I am making it. When I start typing, I don’t want to be having to generate any ideas or figuring out the best order of presentation, those decisions should have already been made by now.

When I get to the Elocution stage, I just want to focus on the best words and phrases. Sometimes the words flow and I do very little editing. Other times it is more of a struggle, and the revising process is more involved. But that’s the whole thing. That’s my writing process in a nutshell.

The most important thing for me to remember is to keep these stages of writing SEPARATE. Every time I run into trouble on a project; every time I get stuck, it’s because I have combined two of these stages.

This just happened to me this week. I was having a terrible time with a chapter in my upcoming book and I could not figure out what the problem was. So I stepped back and realized that because I knew this material so well, I had cheated the writing process. My basic arrangement was solid. I knew exactly how I wanted my argument to flow, but I had not written all of my ideas down. When I started writing, I was having to Invent at the same time. And it completely bogged me down.

I went back to basics and wrote several pages of ideas for each section. That did it. Suddenly the writing was flowing again. I was not having a writing problem; I was having an Invention problem.

And that is true every time that I get stuck writing. I am never having a writing problem. I am either having an Invention problem, or an Arrangement problem, or an Elocution problem. Understanding that lets me focus on very specific solutions and keeps the process from becoming overwhelming and too abstract.

Sometimes Classical Education gets accused of being unpractical, but in the case of the canons of Rhetoric, I have never found anything more practically useful for my writing. Those canons of Invention, Arrangement, and Elocution are a step-by-step guide to writing. And one that has never failed me.

Maybe my next writing project should be The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Classical Rhetoric. I’m off to work on that Invention stage right now…

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