If there is one tool that has helped me (or saved me, if you prefer) as a writer throughout my life, it’s placeholders.
When working on the draft version of a masterpiece, who hasn’t stopped and stared off into the distance, asking themselves, “What’s that word I’m looking for?”
It could be a more impactful word, a name, a place or a date. Sometimes it’s deciding what to name a new character that suddenly shows up like an unexpected guest while the story is being written.
The problem is when that process of pausing and staring off into the distance and going through the mental Rolodex doesn’t yield immediate answers. In particular, it’s when a few seconds turns into a few minutes or longer.
The challenge is when that little pause turns into a longer pause and the rest of the ideas stop flowing, becoming into a full-fledged shutdown.
…Writer’s block. It happens.
Having been in that situation often enough over the years, I had to figure out a solution, especially when there was an assistant at the door to my cubicle, tapping their toe waiting for a last-minute re-write of a response to an email that started with “Sorry for the short notice on this but…”
I was never scared off by literary emergencies like that. I actually thrived in them. I just needed to find a solution that maximized my output of ideas, maintained my flow and deferred any perceived obstacles.
Time has taught me that when more of the masterpiece has been created, with more context, my mental Rolodex kicks in just a little later with the perfect word. So if that’s how my mind works, why not work with that instead of against it?
To me, the answer is to only allow that moment of idling to last a few seconds.
The answer is to keep going, move on and continue as if I didn’t get stuck.
Moments of inspiration are very precious and can be easily sidetracked by any number of distractions. Word choice should not be one of them, otherwise many first drafts would never see the light of day as a final product.
However, dear friends, the danger is to forget to go back and to fill in the gap. For that reason, I leave a placeholder.
The placeholder can be whatever the writer wants it to be. It can be three dots. It can be the word “placeholder” itself. It could be TBD (“to be determined”). It could even be the word “pineapple” (Note: only applicable in a story not involving pineapples).
The point is to choose a placeholder completely out of context to the story to ensure that it stands out during the review and editing process.
In using placeholders, I have been able to keep drawing from the well of inspiration to keep tackling the other “knowns” of the story, and worrying later about the unknowns.
The first draft is about getting the ideas down. Word choice does not have to be perfect in round 1.
Later, with more of the story written and more context established, the perfect word usually finds me without as much struggle and without dwelling on that one word to the point of creating a dam of ideas.
It may sound simple, but in some of the collaborative writing assignments over the years, it drove me absolutely bonkers (sometimes to the point of exasperation) to see brilliant colleagues stuck on one word and production grinding to a standstill. Sometimes the suggestion of a placeholder worked, and sometimes it didn’t… human nature is what it is.
Placeholders have helped me to get out of my own way and to maintain my cadence, dealing with the easy words and ideas first, tackling the more challenging ones and the final polish later.
In doing so, placeholders have helped me to speed up production, to maintain confidence and to reach the finish line of written projects more expediently.
I guess those pressure cooker moments at the office paid off after all, in helping me find a solution to occasional writer’s block and in keeping the ideas flowing.
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Have a great day,