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Conquer Writer’s Block The 21-Minute Method
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Writing Tips

Conquer Writer’s Block: The 21-Minute Method

Three steps and three rules to get you writing.

By Gary Kinder

Don’t have hours of uninterrupted writing time to dedicate to your brief or memo? Don’t worry. If you can find 20 to 30 minutes, then you can write the first draft.

Permission to Fail

Our brains have a Creative Side and a Critical Side, and the key to working quickly and still producing a great brief or memorandum is to let each do its job in the proper order. If we’re too critical at the outset, we will get nothing down on paper. If we’re not critical at some point, what we do get down will make no sense. The secret lies in remembering this: Creativity requires … failure.

As soon as we internalize this, we will never again suffer writer’s block. It’s the process itself. We cannot write a brief or memorandum without failing along the way. It’s not supposed to be good the first time. Or the second. Or the third. We try, fail and refine — until we produce the best brief or memorandum we can in the time we have.

Here’s how to do that.

Rule #1: Hide the Research

You free your Creative Side by writing the early drafts from memory. Do the research, know what you’re talking about, then set it aside. After wallowing around in that research for days or weeks, everything you need to know is all there in your head. Having it physically in front of you only distracts. Start writing and your knowledge will follow.

Step #1: Converse

Imagine a conversation between you and a friend, colleague or spouse, a real person in a real setting. That person has just said to you, “So, tell me about this case/deal.” 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.

This is the core of the 21-Minute Method. What spills out of you will not be organized; it will not be good; it will not be pretty. It’s not supposed to be. It’s the first failure along the way.

Rule #2: Don’t Stop Writing

No matter what you hear yourself or your friend say in that imaginary conversation, write it down. It might not be fully formed, it might not make sense, but do not pause, research or question. Just type.

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 Creative Side will tell you when it’s finished.

If you stop, the Critical Side will seize the slightest opportunity to jump in and criticize, and at that point you freeze and writing becomes a painful experience. No matter what comes to mind, write it down. You know you’re finished with this step when the Creative Side can’t think of anything else to say, which is usually about four minutes.

Step #2: Shift to the Critical Side

Now, the Critical Side assesses what the Creative Side has written. The Critical Side knows how to do two things the Creative Side is incapable of doing: seeing relationships between things, and arranging information in logical order. It can’t help itself.

Start by looking for themes; then note and group the related items. Next, arrange the groups of related items in logical order. After two to six minutes, you’ll have a rough outline.

Rule #3 and Step #3: Write and Go All the Way to the End

Referring to your rough outline, write for about 15 minutes. The same rules continue to apply — don’t look at research (save that for Draft 3 or 4) and don’t stop writing. Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar, or making sense. Just get black on white.

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, your first draft has morphed into two or three pages of OK stuff, something you can work with. Now you can set it aside to answer emails or attend a meeting.

Embrace the Interruptions — Revise Later

When you sit down with your draft again, it’s all fresh, and immediately you will see things to fix. Typically, you can hardly write fast enough to refine sentences and fragments and move it all around again for an even better order. Like last time, don’t stop writing. In 30 minutes, you will knock out a second draft much better than the first. When you later write a third draft in 30 to 45 minutes, you won’t believe how much better it reads than the second. Every one of you will have this experience. We promise. If you have more time, you can try to improve it; if you don’t, it’s good already.

Edit, Revise, and Refine at the End

Until you think you have a close-to-ready draft, do not consciously edit. Ask someone you trust to proofread your work or use editing software like WordRake to help you make it clear and concise. Editing software sees things you are too close to see, too tired to notice, or don’t know to look for in the first place.

Why the 21-Minute Method Works

The Critical Side of your brain insists on perfection. Now. It is not creative, but it thinks it is, and it will try to insert itself throughout the creative process. The Creative Side of your brain senses things the Critical Side cannot discern, but it has no sense. The key to getting a brief or memorandum written is to marry the strengths of the two.

The 21-Minute Method is an artificial construct designed to keep the Critical Side out of the creative process until the Creative Side can get something down on paper you can work with. This approach 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 with 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.” 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 21-Minute 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 three to five 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.

Updated February 2020.

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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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