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Ask Alyssa: Getting Over The Blank Page, Getting Ideas, And Getting It Done

By Alyssa Rosenberg on February 25, 2014 at 9:07 am

"Ask Alyssa: Getting Over The Blank Page, Getting Ideas, And Getting It Done"

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CREDIT: AP Images/Mark Lennihan

I get a fairly constant stream of emails asking for all sorts of advice about the writing life. So periodically, I’ll be answering these questions in column form. Last time, we talked about how to get started. This week, questions about process, generating ideas, and whether my fellow critics and I are a clique. More questions? Submit them here.

How do you get over “the fear of a blank page”, regardless of what you plan to write?

Honestly? I just start writing. I realize that sounds useless, so here is what I actually do. To make the page un-blank, I’ll type all my notes into it, even if it’s just a chronological list of quotations from a movie, show, or book. Then, I’ll start arranging them into a loose outline. If I know what my kicker line is going to be, I’ll write that at the bottom of the page, just so I can remember that I’m capable of stringing words together in a way that’s reasonably clever. If I’m not feeling capable even of that, I’ll go up to the top of the piece and write the paragraph that explains what the work is–who it’s by, what it’s about, who stars in it, etc. It’s like running the first mile of a race: even if I go slow, even if I have to stop and adjust my shoelaces and work out a cramp, the only way to get moving is to start moving.

Not exactly writing advice, but how do you manage to balance your time between consumption and creation? And how do you pick what to consume?

I don’t exactly split them–while I’m writing, I tend to have something playing on a second monitor to which I’ll pay varying levels of attention depending on how carefully I need to take notes, and how much I care about it. I tend to go to the movies once a week or so. And I read compulsively–I’m the kind of person who regularly need to be kept from walking into things because I’m reading. I think I read 12 books in January, although books are more time-consuming to write about than film and television, so I end up writing about them less frequently than I would prefer.

In terms of how I decide what I’m watching, with film and television, I try to stay current, and then plug holes in my back catalogue, created by the fact that I didn’t have much access to television growing up, and learned to watch TV like the rest of you only after I graduated from college. Sometimes, I’ll pick what I’m catching up on because it feels timely, especially if a show’s still airing. Sometimes, I’ll pick for pure pleasure, like I did with Friday Night Lights, which I wanted to save for a time when I could have All The Emotions. With books, it’s a combination of the release schedule, holes in my repertoire, things that are being adapted, things that have relevance to other material I’m examining, and things I will enjoy. I’m re-reading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall right now because it’s one of those books that seems to call to me from the shelf every year, and because I find it new every time.

How do you come up with ideas that haven’t been done before? What’s your research/brainstorming method? And how do you make things flow?

Mostly, I consume a lot of things, across media, and across time, so I’m not stuck in a particular cultural moment. I talk to a lot of other critics constantly and run ideas past them, discarding ones that don’t stand up to the conversations, and chipping away at the flint of the ones that do. I read an enormous amount of culture news, including trade publications, work by other critics, sports news, tech sites, and media critics like my soon-to-be colleague Erik Wemple and David Carr. I keep a large file that’s part budget for the week, part clips I want to come back to, and part list of random thoughts, including, at present:

-Wolf Of Wall Street
-Albus Dumbledore
-Another Writing Advice Column
-Sidekicks
-Beyonce and Sheryl Sandberg
-Matthew Lillard

And I try to trust the ideas that I just can’t get out of my head. If I’m outlining a piece in my head while I fall asleep or while I’m getting in the shower in the morning, and if it’s still there when I wake up or get into the office, it’s worth writing.

Of course, sometimes someone beats me to something, or writes something similar that gets more attention, and it just wrecks me. I’m really fiercely competitive, which is a lot of what drives me to work even when I should be playing or resting.

How do you decide what to write about? Are some topics assigned to you? Also, how do you end up doing posts for Vulture or other sites?

At ThinkProgress, no one assigns me anything, though my colleagues often have many excellent suggestions, and catch news stories I don’t. Mostly I write about topics where I get a flare–it’s hard to describe, but on some issues, I have an idea that I know is good, and that I badly want to write before anyone else can get to it. I try to stay abreast of things I know that will be popular, but I don’t write on things that are popular just because they’ll get readership if I don’t have something very specific to say. That’s why I’ve cut down on recapping, some. I dislike being repetitive.

As for other sites, Vulture has approached me with assignments for recaps, and I generally pitch other subjects directly to specific editors.

What’s the best way to get *faster* at writing? The best way to get so I can churn out an articulate 500 word blog in just an hour or two?

Write. I know that’s so frustrating, but it’s really the only way to get faster or better. Just write constantly. The best training I ever had was at Government Executive where, by the time I left, I was writing a couple of news stories a day, a couple of blog posts a day, a column every week, and a feature story every month. It was great training in being really clear with myself about what needed to be in a story to get it over the threshhold to publication, and when a story was done, or as done as it was going to get, and had to be sent out into the world to fend for its poor little self.

One thing that will help you, if you’re not already using it, is the inverted pyramid, a tool to structure stories. It shows up most frequently in news reporting, but it’s incredibly useful for criticism and any other kind of blogging you might want to do. Figuring out what’s essential, getting it out at the top, and then how to support the core point you want the reader to understand, is a useful exercise no matter what you’re writing. Think of it as the skeleton. Once you’ve learned to build good scaffolds for your post, you’ll get through that part of writing much more quickly, and have more time to experiment with how you want the meat you’re putting on it to look, to mix semi-gross metaphors. Get the facts and ideas clear, and you can play with language, video, images, etc.

Is writing a ritual where you complete a series of smaller tasks over and over again (research, pre-writing, drafting, revising)? Or is it less structured for you? I know there isn’t one “right” way but it’s just so hard to come up with a rhythm!

The one really formal ritual I have when I get into the office every morning (okay, other than getting coffee in the kitchen with my desk-mate and occasional guest-blogger around these parts, Zack Beauchamp) is reading through my RSS feeds to pull the posts I’m going to include in Intermission roundup, and to find things I might want to respond to. I usually come into the office with far more things I want to write than I actually have time to write, so the other main ritual is despair at the enormity of the task before me.

Do you think professional TV critics are an insiderish clique? How difficult is it to get attention if you’re a blogger who doesn’t yet have a professional outlet for TV writing?

Let me answer your first question two ways. Of all the pools of critics I belong to, I think TV critics speak with each other most often, and engage in public conversation at the highest volume, though film critics are a clear second, and YA authors and people invested in YA literature come in third. I feel exceptionally close to many TV critics, and I am extremely fortunate to have them as a professional community. That said, I really don’t think it’s an extremely closed community, even though I could understand why it appears that way. When any large group of people speaks with each other on such familiar terms in public–a product of spending events like the Television Critics Association press tour together, and the fact that we’re all spending a lot of time with the same material over years and years–it risks being seen like showing off. But when I was a n00b, I found TV critics on social media to be extremely kind and extremely open to having new people jump in on their conversations. I regularly see TV critics talk to non-professionals all the time, and be kind to folks, and boost their signals. Not everyone is like this, of course. But I think many of us find it a really valuable and wonderful experience.

That said, I’d refer you to my advice on how to jump into social media conversations from a previous installment of this column. A lot of folks on the internet think that they need to be belligerent to be heard, which is precisely the wrong strategy, but you don’t need to kiss up, either. Have something to add to the conversation. Ask good questions. If someone doesn’t respond to you immediately, or even at all on a first attempt, don’t assume they’re a jerk: assume they have a hugely crowded stream, and a life, both of which mean they’ll miss some, or even a lot of things. And if, after a while, you’re not getting into the discussion, look at what you’re doing dispassionately and see if you might need a different approach.

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