productivity tools

Why a rubber duck is stronger than writer’s block

Writer’s block sucks. Seriously, when you need to put words on the page, there’s no worse feeling than being stuck.

The dreaded block doesn’t care if you’re writing fiction or non-fiction. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing for a personal pet project of if you’re on a deadline. And the block certainly doesn’t object to any particular genre, favour any language over another, or restrict itself to longer works instead of short pieces.

How do you face such an enemy? With what strength must one defend against a foe that is so well designed for this conflict?

How about a rubber duck?

You know, the ones that float in bathtubs? What about those ones?

And what would you say if I said I was telling the truth?

Read on–I promise you it’s an honest recommendation!

Rubber duck debugging

The rubber duck approach comes from software development, where it is used as a tool for debugging.

Often, when proofreading source code, a software author will pair up with another developer to double-check their work. However, sometimes it’s helpful to force yourself to talk through your current understanding of the problem. This works especially well if the other party isn’t an expert.

Many programmers have had the experience of explaining a problem to someone else, possibly even to someone who knows nothing about programming, and then hitting upon the solution in the process of explaining the problem. In describing what the code is supposed to do and observing what it actually does, any incongruity between these two becomes apparent. More generally, teaching a subject forces its evaluation from different perspectives and can provide a deeper understanding. By using an inanimate object, the programmer can try to accomplish this without having to interrupt anyone else.

By forcing oneself to explain to an inanimate object, we are still compelled to explain our ideas, or to know when we are sidestepping what may be a major concern.

Rubber duck brainstorming

So how does this relate to writing? The same ideas apply!

If you’re working on a story and you’re stuck, grab a rubber duck or some other inanimate friend. Perhaps a teddy bear, a picture of your favourite author, or even a sleeping cat? Take a breath, say hi (quietly, if you’ve selected a sleeping cat), and start from the top.

One of two things will probably happen.

First, you might get stuck. You might stumble across a plot line that doesn’t make a lot of sense, or a character who behaves unrealistically. If you find yourself making asides to the rubber duck, or if you find it’s difficult to explain without tripping up in the details, you might have hit a point in the story that needs more background. This might be backstory that only you need to understand more, or character development that belongs in the work.

You might also find you’re telling your story without effort, coursing comfortably through, until landing at the ending. Now reflect on how telling the story to a listener felt. Do you feel excited, and if so, was this a story designed to elicit excitement? Is your heart still swelling for a character who you’d hoped to leave an impact on the reader? How do you think your listener–duck or not–would receive the work? Reading a story to yourself is one way to catch potential issues, but reading it to another listener is a different experience.

Distance can be important

This isn’t the first time we’ve praised the great duck! In a previous article, I mentioned why it’s important to occasionally find help from an external source.

The key here is getting some distance from your own work. By forcing yourself to say the problem out loud to a listener and thinking from their perspective–someone who is not the author of your story–you may find the stumbling blocks that are preventing you from reaching your goal.

If you’re someone who benefits from a closer collaboration, you can–and should!–reach out to somebody you trust. There‚Äôs a good chance that you have somebody in your network of friends and family who would be happy to lend an ear or a pair of eyes. Reach out to someone you trust and see if they have any tips to get you back on the path to success.