Blog/Podcast: Conquer Writer’s Block with the 21-Minute Method

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Writer’s block: we’ve all experienced it, usually when we have a deadline looming. Although writer’s block can feel all-consuming, you don’t have to be at its mercy. You can train yourself to write concisely and efficiently, even when it feels like writing won’t come naturally.

Gary Kinder, a New York Times bestselling author, teacher and creator of the editing software WordRake, has developed a proven process that helps his lawyer clients power through briefs, memos and motions. He joined the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst podcast to outline his three steps for conquering writer’s block, each with a corresponding rule for success. Put Gary’s 21-minute method into practice next time you find yourself staring at a blank screen.

Step 1: Converse

Before getting anything down on paper, the first step asks you to tap into your imagination. Pretend you’re having a conversation with a friend, your spouse or a colleague over lunch. This person asks you to describe the case you’re working on, and you start talking as you would in real life. Of course, what you’re saying isn’t linear or polished enough to present to a judge, but you’re telling this imaginary person the facts in an interesting, relaxed way. Meanwhile, as you’re doing this, take notes about the conversation you’re having. The notes don’t have to be in a logical order or in full sentences—just jot down the highlights of what you’re saying.

The Rule: No research. Research creates a black-and-white, correct-or-incorrect mindset that will prevent you from letting your ideas flow. Your ideas don’t have to be perfect at this point—in fact, if they aren’t perfect, you’re doing it right. The point of step one is simply to write down whatever pops into your head. This is a very preliminary draft, so don’t let your research confuse you or crush the seeds of your ideas with self-criticism.

Step 2: Organize

After step one, you’ll probably be left with a few sheets of chicken scratch or a Word document full of typos—and that’s exactly what you’re going for. During step two, you’ll sift through all these notes and organize them in a logical way. You can use whatever organizing strategy makes the most sense for you, whether that’s color coding, labeling with numbers or mind mapping, but don’t overthink it. This step should only take two or three minutes. At the end of it, you should be left with a rough outline that will help guide you when you start writing.

The Rule: Don’t stop. From this point on (and really, throughout this entire process), don’t take any breaks or stop to think about what you’re doing. If you stop writing at any point, your analytical left brain will kick in and start criticizing your work, shutting down your creativity. Let your right brain take over and help you get into a flow of writing. Analyzing and editing can come later.

Step 3: Write

Although you’re far from done, much of the hard work is over. You just have to start writing. Begin writing based on your outline, but don’t stop to fix typos, scrutinize your work or think, “Is any of this even right?” (a refrain that anyone who’s had writer’s block is familiar with). Write as fast as you can, as much as you can, for about 15 minutes. Remove any expectation that what you write has to be finished or perfect, and just write.

The Rule: Go all the way to the end. Start at the beginning of your outline and write all the way through without veering too much from your plan. Don’t go back to edit your work or rethink the direction your writing is taking. If a case you want to talk about pops into your head, write as much as you can about it, but don’t stop to research it. Just keep going until you reach the last sentence.

At the end of this process, you won’t have a completed draft. In fact, your draft will probably be quite messy. But what you will have is the ability to come back to your draft in a day or two with excitement. You’ve tapped into your creativity and gotten past the most difficult part of writing: starting. That means when you’re back at your desk, you’ll feel energized to comb through your writing and make it better.

Bonus Tip: Don’t write like a lawyer

After reading pages and pages of complex writing in law school, most lawyers adopt the mindset that, in order to be taken seriously, they have to write “like a lawyer,” which usually means big words and unnecessary Latin. But the most successful lawyers actually write like non-lawyers would—clearly and concisely in a way that anyone could understand.

To put this tip into action, be mindful of word and page limits. If the court requires a 20-page limit, most lawyers will come in at 19 ¾ pages. This is usually because they (or the other lawyer they’re working with) says, “Well, we have all this room. Let’s fill it up with something.” Contrary to what that lawyer thinks, coming close to the page limit doesn’t impress the judge. In fact, the judge will probably be more impressed by a 16- or 17-page brief, which is a sign that the lawyer is well versed in the case. Don’t write for the sake of filling space or showing off your vocabulary—write to convey your argument.

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