Out Damn Block!

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne


We at TKZ had a mini writing school yesterday for our Sunday post and one of the questions posed was about how to deal with writer’s block. At the moment I’m on the final, final, final edits (that’s when even I am totally sick of the manuscript!) and what I am struggling with is what I call ‘final editor’s block’.

I’m not talking about the big stuff like plot or character – I’m talking about those small, yet irritating things that you start to notice when your on the homeward stretch. For me the things I particularly notice are:

  • Overuse of the em-dash: I used to overuse the ellipse…but now, I’ve gone and got married to the em-dash and – just to interject here – I’m seeing those damn dashes everywhere!
  • Repeated words: It drives me nuts that even after all these iterations I still find myself repeating the same words and images. In my current WIP my writing tics include too many ‘sharp’ or ‘brittle’ replies and dry mouths. I mean there’s only so many times people can swallow, lick their lips or have their mouths feel like glass-paper (the precursor to sand paper in case you were wondering).
  • Boring dialogue tags: I try (I really do!) not to use so many adjectives but ‘said’ and ‘asked’ get really boring and when in edit mode trying I try to balance the boring with the slightly more interesting repertoire of ‘replied’, ‘responded’ or ‘queried’ tags without becoming ridiculous (like having people ‘exploding’ or ‘exclaiming’ all over the place!)
  • Flat writing: When there are still tiny pockets of sagging, flabby writing…shit, why are they still there?!

The problem I find is that when in final edit mode I often experience ‘editor’s block’ – when I’ve lost the ability to know what should be changed and what should not, when I’m afraid I’ll start buggering up the good bits and when I’m down to the last persnickety edits and I can’t think of how to improve the manuscript without someone else’s ‘mouth going dry’.

It drives me a wee bit crazy but as much as I read Dickens (far more inspiring than the thesaurus); listen to tortured 80’s music; and brainstorm ideas, I still feel, well, ‘blocked’.

For me writer’s block per se hardly ever happens and when it does I have lots of strategies (mostly driven by panic) that help me overcome the fear of the blank page. It’s another skill entirely, however, for me to overcome the inner ‘editor’s block’ I get when gazing at the page crowded with words – words that I have already combed and preened over many iterations…

So any ideas on how I can tackle the dreaded ‘editor’s block’? How do you manage the homeward stretch edits and, let’s face it, do you ever know when you are really, well and truly ‘done’?


Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Sandra Brown, Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, Oline Cogdill, James Scott Bell, and more.


9 thoughts on “Out Damn Block!

  1. One thing I’ve done lately is listen to the text via Word’s speech mode. I catch a lot of little things that way.

    Repeated words always happens with me, a different word with each book. My theory is you use one early and it lodges in your brain’s word choice folder, near the top, so it’s easy to snatch throughout the writing. The only cure I know for this is having my wife read my first drafts. She’s great at spotting them.

    I don’t think you’re ever really “done,” which is why I don’t read my books once they’re out. I’m afraid I’ll find stuff I want to change.

  2. Near the end of each manuscript as I’m entering the final edit before submission, I print a hard copy. Then my wife and I devote a whole weekend to reading it aloud. I find that hearing the story rather than silently reading it helps to spot repeated phrases and problems with dialogue tags along with other issues. I know my co-writer uses the same technique with her husband. The time invested over a day or two is well worth it.

    I agree with Jim. I never consider a manuscript to be finished. There’s always something I can find to change. That’s why I also avoid reading my books after they’re published. Once it’s on the shelf, there’s nothing you can do about it so move on.

    Also, I can’t emphasize enough the value of trusted beta readers. As writers, we only see what we want to see, especially rereading something for the hundredth time. Beta readers give us a fresh set of eyes looking at the words for the first time. And I suggest a good mix of beta readers. Don’t limit them to your professional writer buddies but also include people that just like to read for entertainment. They usually don’t zero in on the mechanics of the writing but seem to find those hairline cracks in the plot or character development.

  3. My rule of thumb is, “when in doubt, cut, cut, cut.” I’m merciless on stuff that’s deemed to be annoying. I figure that if it annoys me, it’ll surely annoy the reader!

  4. I used to routinely ask writers at Q&A sessions how they knew when they were “done.” None ever did, so I quit asking.

    I consider myself done when I feel as though I’m just re-arranging the furniture. Do I want the reader to pause here (comma), or to stop (period)? Change it back and forth a few times, then leave it how I found it, since there must have been a reason.

    I consider myself done when the book (story, flash) is as good as I can make it, given my skill set at the moment. I can always name fifty writers who could improve it, but they’re not here when i need them, and several are dead.

  5. Thanks everyone! I’m lucky I have some great beta readers but by now they’re as sick of the manuscript as me:) Sounds like I might have to read aloud to help fin those final edits needed. I might also need to find my ‘final’ reader who is new to the manuscript… Like everyone I’m never done and I refuse to read the books once they’re published because I know I will inevitably find something I wish to change!! Argh!!!

  6. I think there’s a thread of obsessive-compulsive disorder in every writer–maybe in every artist. As a group, we enable each other, and I’m not at all sure that’s a good thing.

    Clare, I’m guilty of the same obsession to detail that you are, especially when I know that I’m taking my last pass at the galleys. “God, if I don’t catch it now, it’ll be wrong forever!” It’s a line of thought that quickly becomes circular, and is, I believe, a chief reason why many authors can never bring themselves to finish their books.

    When I find myself getting sucked in, I force myself to step back and remind myself that I liked the book the last time I read it. In fact, I thought it was pretty damned perfect when I first shipped it off. It can always be “better” (whatever that means on any given day), but it was already really good when I took pen in hand for the final edit.

    My wife–ever the pragmatist–puts it in the clearest terms for me: “John, if the story sucks so badly that reader is noticing the em dashes or the dialogue tags, you’ve got much bigger problems than em dashes and dialogue tags.”

    Maybe, Clare, it’s just time to let your baby leave the nest.

  7. Read aloud works for me. I record myself reading it, making repairs along the way. Then I listen to that recording. Once the audio is edited it goes out as a serialized podcast audio version. And the manuscript is pretty clean.

    There are of course a few more changes once the agent sees it, but the audio recording sure does help with the editing process.

  8. John – think you might be right. As I’m nearly at the end of this final pass I realize most of my quibbles are just that – and the majority of the changes I thought I needed yesterday actually aren’t needed…so yes, baby bird needs to fly out of the nest once and for all!

  9. Clare~

    Be careful of the dialogue tags. As Elmore Leonard said, “it’s the writer injecting herself in the story.” You want the characters to say the line and the reader has his or her own idea of the character and will, if they are anything like me, add their own “tag.” The rough and tough guy speaks differently than the little old lady. The reader – at least this reader – subconsciously injects the difference just by word choice and pace etc.

    One author that I really enjoy uses no tags at all – Charlie Huston. Makes ya pay attention – but once you get in the flow, you know who is talking just by how the characters say things. I’m not that brave yet, but maybe the next WIP?


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