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Productivity Tips

Conquer Writer’s Block: The 21-Minute Method

By Gary Kinder

You will never “find” time to write, says Gary Kinder. “Unless you practice law on Walden Pond, carving hours out of your media-riddled day to focus on the substance for a brief or memorandum is nearly impossible.” What’s his best advice for overcoming writer’s block? Don’t waste more precious time, try Gary’s 21-Minute Method” and see what happens.

Prepare to Fail

First, meet the two sides of your brain: LEFT and RIGHT. The left brain is the CRITICAL side of your brain that insists on perfection. Now. It is not creative, but it thinks it is, and that’s the problem. It tries to insinuate itself throughout the creative process. Think of the left brain as the producer who handles all money and logistics, but cannot stop herself from peering over the director’s shoulder and telling him how to set up every shot. On the CREATIVE side of your head dwells the right brain. It senses things the left brain cannot discern, but it has not one lick of common sense. Think of the right brain as the director who creates and coordinates all of the nuances of mood to fashion a brilliant film, but can’t balance his checkbook. The key to getting the brief written (or the movie made) is to marry the strengths of the two.

Many years ago, I was standing in front of a roomful of lawyers, talking about the 21-Minute Method, when I had a flash of insight, three words that should become your mantra: Creativity … requires … failure.

You cannot create a substantive piece of writing without failing along the way. It’s the process itself. Michelangelo failed and refined, failed and refined as he created David, so it should work for you. It’s not supposed to be good the first time. Or the second. Or the third. Acknowledging this frees you to fail, which you will, as you move forward. Creating any legal document requires this process of getting something down, and then improving it with as much time as your client is willing to finance.

Back to You and Your Blank Screen

So here you are. You’ve finished your research. You stare at a blank screen. Now what?

Invariably, the right brain begins, and the left brain instantly challenges, “Are you sure you want to open like that?” So the right brain departs with the Muse, and you’re stuck in your office with your left brain, trying to write this memorandum, and nothing’s happening. That’s called Writer’s Block. To conquer it, over several years, I created the 21-Minute Method using “Three Steps and Three Rules.”

The First Rule: Hide the research. Do the research, know what you’re talking about, then set it aside. Write your first draft or two from memory. After wallowing around in that research for days or weeks, everything you need to know is all there in your right brain. Having it physically in front of you only distracts.

Now Step One: Converse. This is the core of the Method. When you have completed your research, imagine a conversation between you and another person, a real person  friend, spouse, client, partner, judge  in a real setting  office, home, chambers, over a glass of wine. That person has just said to you, “So, tell me about this case/deal/issue/problem.” Think about the dynamic here: You would never walk away; you would never sit there, mute, and stare out the window. You would say something to that real person. Type what you would say. It will not be organized; it will not be good; it’s not supposed to be good. It’s the first failure along the road to creating that document.

Here, you will also encounter the Second Rule: You can’t stop writing. The left brain will seize the slightest opportunity to jump in and criticize, and at that point you freeze and writing becomes the painful experience it does not have to be. No matter what pops into your right brain, it goes down on paper. Do not pause, do not look up, do not question. Remember this: In the early stages, it is far more important that you write than it is what you write. The momentum alone will carry you in and out of brilliant and not-so-brilliant insights. If you don’t stop. The right brain will tell you when it’s finished. It’s like popping popcorn in the microwave. You get a flurry of pops (ideas), then the pops slow, then you get a pop every two or three seconds, and you know the rest is done. Roughly the same as the popcorn, this conversation usually lasts four to five minutes.

Then comes Step Two: Organize. Now, you not only allow the left brain into the process, you invite it, because it knows how to do two things the right brain is incapable of doing: note and group related items, then arrange the groups in logical order. You need only about two minutes to organize. After six or so minutes, you now have a rough outline.

On to Step Three: Write. Referring to your rough outline, write for about 15 minutes, expounding upon each point, still working from memory, and still not stopping. Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar, or making sense. Just get black on white.

During Step Three, you follow the Third Rule: You must go all the way to the end. It’s tempting to perfect the first paragraph. Although some paragraphs will develop faster than others, expound upon each thought in your rough outline without stopping to think or pausing to refine. Taking many light passes is far preferable to wrestling one paragraph to perfection.

At the end of about 21 minutes, you now have a two- to three-page draft. Set it aside to answer emails or race to a client meeting, knowing you have something you can work with when you have time to return. Each time, improve what you have written, fail some more, then make it tighter in the next draft.

When I write articles like the one you are reading now, or the writing tips for WordRake, I usually have eight to 10 “drafts,” each noticeably improved over the previous one.

You will naturally edit as you go, but do not consciously edit until you think you have a close-to-ready draft. Then have someone you trust proofread your work. If you can’t find a human, use (insert shameless advertisement) WordRake, the editing software I created to be the non-judgmental, always available collaborator we need to give us the confidence that what we have written is as clear and concise as we can make it before we let anyone else see it. It’s fast (10 pages in 30 seconds), and will help you remove the unnecessary words while keeping up your fast pace.

The 21-minute method is an artificial construct designed to keep the left brain out of the creative process until the right brain can get something down on paper you can work with. It will help you “break the block,” so you can use those small pockets of time to create the substantive documents your practice demands.

Now for the Writing Tips

  • Research tip. One of our biggest problems in trying to meet deadlines is spending too much time on research. Compared to the writing, the research is easy, and for that reason, it’s difficult for us to say, “That’s enough.” Our fear is, “Somewhere out there might be something that could maybe have a slight bearing on what I’m trying to say, and I would hate to begin without that little piece of information.” (I’ve been there, many times; ask my editor.) Understand the issue, acquaint yourself with the area of law, and about the time you start wondering if there might be something else out there, drop the research, and start the Method. If you have gaps in your research (or in your thinking), the writing will reveal them.
  • Multiple deadlines tip. If you have three deadlines this week, 21-minute the last project. Do a fast second draft, and a fast third draft. That’s maybe two hours total. Set it aside. Now 21-minute the second project the same way. Set it aside. Now tackle the most immediate deadline. When you pull out the 3-5 pages you sketched out for the later deadlines, you will amaze yourself at the quality of those drafts, and you will see immediately what you need to do to improve them.

Gary Kinder has taught over 1,000 writing programs to law firms like Jones Day, Sidley, Latham & Watkins, and WilmerHale. A lawyer, Gary is also the author of the critically acclaimed New York Times best-seller Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea. For the American Bar Association, he has created writing webinars and the online CLE series “Advanced Writing for Lawyers.” Recently he founded the software company WordRake, the first editing software for lawyers. Email him at garyk@wordrake.com.

Illustration ©ImageZoo.

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Gary Kinder

Gary Kinder has taught over 1,000 writing programs to law firms, and is also the author of the critically acclaimed New York Times best-seller Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea. For the ABA, he has created writing webinars and the online CLE series “Advanced Writing for Lawyers.” In 2012, Gary founded WordRake, the first editing software for lawyers. Email him at garyk@wordrake.com.

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