Everyone get writer’s block.
Like all writers, you’ll have days when the writing doesn’t flow, days when you suffer over every sentence, days when you can’t help but write and edit your way back to that unnerving blank screen.
And you’ll probably imagine dozens of ways to avoid the situation, indulging thoughts about taking the afternoon off, about taking a walk, taking a nap, surfing the web, or conducting “research.”
You’ll rationalize, too, telling yourself you need time to recharge your batteries, that you’re taking time to get in the zone.
But it doesn’t really matter what you tell yourself, does it? Avoiding the situation never solves it.
You could walk away, again, waiting for inspiration to return, or you could do something different: roll up your sleeves and get to work.
Let’s take a look at 15 active strategies for beating writer’s block.
If You’re Stuck, Try Free Writing
Set the timer for ten minutes and write. Write down anything that moves through your mind.
And forget about your current project. Write something else.
Remember to write as fast as you can, and don’t stop until the timer winds down.
While you’re at it, forget about making sense for the duration of the exercise. Spill your thoughts onto the page, and don’t worry about making connections or producing quality.
Freewriting can help you uncover ideas, and it’s a great way to nudge the unconscious mind in the right direction.
And remember, even though most of your ten-minute brain dump will end up in the recycling bin, this exercise will help you warm up, moving your attention toward serious, focused writing.
You can always find ten minutes for a free write.
Use a Different Medium to Express Yourself
If you typically type on the computer, try switching to a pencil and paper. Sometimes, the physical sensation of dragging the pencil across the page provides enough tactile engagement to liberate those pent up thoughts and ideas; the words start flowing again.
Keep a little plastic sharpener handy. Smell the graphite.
Make a dirty little pile of shavings on your writing desk. Think back to those childhood days when writing was fun, easy, and messy, a natural extension of play time.
And don’t worry, if pencils aren’t your style, try a gel pen or some other unique variety from an office supply or stationery store. Try white ink on dark paper or a fresh stack of inexpensive index cards.
Any new approach can help spark your creativity.
If you’re worried about losing speed or the accuracy associated with typing, try a new font on your laptop. Increase or decrease the font size. Write in upper or lower case. Write in red or blue type.
Take a break from your usual routine, and give inspiration the opportunity to catch up.
Keep on Writing
How often do you take breaks to celebrate the completion of a difficult chapter, a pivotal scene or passage? Once you’ve completed your main objective, continue writing for another ten minutes. Break into the next chapter or paragraph.
Keep pushing forward.
Taking unnecessary breaks when you’re making progress can stifle your motivation, taking you out of the flow state.
When you take a physical break, the mind soon follows. The extra ten minutes might stimulate another round of progress.
When you’re writing beyond your initial goals, the pressure’s off, and you’re more likely to experience a second (or third) breakthrough. Like a marathon runner, pushing through your normal limits invites the second wind.
Borrow a Character, Idea, or Theme
Keep a collection of short stories nearby.
My favorites include Ernest Hemingway’s Complete Short Stories and J.D. Salinger’s 9 Stories.
If you’re looking for something more contemporary, try The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2007, edited by Dave Eggers, or This is How You Lose Her, a collection by Junot Diaz.
When you find yourself stuck or running out of ideas, open your collection of short stories, and read a random selection.
Think deeply about the setting, the characters, the narrator’s state of mind. Look for parallels to your own writing predicament. Look for commonalities and contrasts.
When you’ve found a parallel, use it to spark a fresh angle. Weave your short story example into your problem area. Use it to stretch, to add depth or variety to your current work in progress.
Even if you’re writing a simple blog post, you can use the setting or action to advance your message.
Draw a Venn diagram and compare/contrast the short story with your current issue.
Ask yourself the following:
- How does the character evolve through the short story?
- Does the character remain stuck, or does he/she experience a transformation?
- How can you guide your reader through a similar experience?
- Is the plot predictable or outrageous?
- What can you use?
- Are there elements you can you dispense with?
- What’s left when you discard everything that doesn’t fit?
Use your imagination to find common attributes and viable solutions.
Write for Your Readers
When you’re feeling stuck, imagine your ideal reader.
Create a quick, single paragraph character analysis of this reader. When you’ve constructed the character, imagine him or her in the seat across from you. What does this reader want, need, or care about?
How can you engage, surprise, and satisfy this reader? What might be the next logical step? What’s the last thing this character would anticipate? How do you remain a step ahead? What’s the best way to get your reader emotionally invested in this scene you’re building?
What themes matter to your reader? Is there something exciting you can you offer at this exact moment? What can you give him or her that will satisfy a hunger?
Abandon Your Outline
Outlines are essential, keeping us on track with our goals. Writing’s hard enough without relying entirely on spontaneous creativity.
However, a rigid outline can dampen your progress, creating more barriers than avenues. When you’ve attacked every portion of your outline, try setting it aside for a while.
Choose a spot, and begin crafting a side trip for your character or article.
Zoom in on a single detail, or back up the camera to reveal a larger perspective. Try changing your perspective.
Ask yourself whether there’s a bigger story within the story. Tease it out, giving it the spotlight. Even if you abandon your tangent after a few paragraphs or pages, your mind will arrive in a better place for focused writing.
Dispense with Grammar Rules
Grammar and spelling rules can drive you crazy when you’re trying to reach your daily word count. There’s no faster path to discouragement.
When you’re working on a first draft, write in any way that makes you comfortable. Dispense with comma rules and expectations of perfect prose. Record your thoughts quickly, without allowing the inner editor to slow you down.
Grammar and punctuation are important, but they can be deadly during the drafting stage.
Toss them aside until you’re ready for revision.
Writing and evaluating are separate skills, requiring separate approaches. Don’t waste another minute trying to write clean, perfect sentences. That’s a task for another time.
Go Out on a Limb
When you’re feeling uninspired, under-confident, or hyper-critical, try maximizing.
Think in extremes. Crank up the action. Push your characters over every ledge and boundary possible. Write as if you couldn’t lose.
The truth is that you can’t lose. These are just words on paper, so go for it—for now.
In little time, these extremes will open doors. You’ll feel empowered, finding yourself blasting away at pre-conceived limitations.
Often, writer’s block comes down to worrying about details, worrying about playing it safe, worrying about what your critics might have to say.
Give yourself permission to make everything bigger, bolder, crazier.
What would happen if you intensified every scene? How far could you go?
Begin in the Middle
How many times have you found yourself frozen before a new chapter or paragraph?
Shuffle the deck, and start somewhere new. Often, I find the best place to begin is in the middle, where the action is happening.
Go straight to the action, to the punchline, to the most important place in the chapter or piece. When you know your destination, it’s easier to construct the path.
We trust linear movement, going from point A to B in a logical, orderly fashion.
Life doesn’t often work this way, so why should our writing? Creativity thrives in a non-linear environment. When blocked, structure your scene in reverse.We trust linear movement, going from point A to B in a logical, orderly fashion. Life doesn’t often work this way, so why should our writing? Creativity thrives in a non-linear environment. When blocked, structure your scene in reverse. Click To Tweet
Start in the middle, and move outward.
Revisit Your Previous Works
If you’re feeling pressured, disorganized, or low in confidence, spend some time reading your previous work.
Keep a copy of your favorite pieces nearby.
It’s important to remind yourself that you’ve made progress before, that you’ve completed quality work in the past. When you’re immersed in a new project, it’s easy to forget how far you’ve come.
It’s natural to forget our capabilities, to forget that the same person who wrote those wonderful things in the past is still in there.
Remember that your best work lies ahead.
When you find yourself stuck, unsure about where to go next, borrow or adapt an element from somewhere else. You can do this without plagiarizing. Take the spirit of an idea, and make it your own.
Pablo Picasso said it best:
“Good artists copy; great artists steal!”
Trying to be original all of the time guarantees frustration. At first glance, the idea of “stealing” might seem unsettling, but if you think about it, everything new is simply a remix of well-worn elements.
It worked for Shakespeare and just about every famous writer since.
Take a plot element from another story, and adapt it to your story.
Give your perfect protagonist a fatal flaw from a famous villain. Complete your top-ten-list article with a solution borrowed from a different genre.
Grab a few elements from disparate sources, and reassemble them into new forms. There’s no reason to write everything from scratch.
Commit to 100 Words
While healthy at times, pressure can also breed procrastination. Too often, we set our goals so high that we quickly become overwhelmed, making satisfactory progress impossible.
Commit to a mere 100 words at a time. It only takes three to ten minutes to crank out 100 words of intelligible prose. When you’ve reached a hundred, commit to a hundred more.
Over time, this method yields results. Rather than pantsing everything, start with a detailed outline, and work with a 100 words at a time. It’s my go-to strategy.
I think it’s a matter of dialing down the pressure, making everything easy and achievable.
Experts might call it chunking. In any case, it always works.
Ask Your Unconscious Mind
Your subconscious mind is always in motion, even when you’re sleeping.
Sometimes, when you’re stuck on an idea, change your writing time to 60 minutes before bed time.
Think about the chapter or passage you’re writing as you drift off to sleep. Keep a pen and paper next to the bed. When you wake up the next morning, you’ll often find solutions waiting for you to record them.Your subconscious mind is always in motion, even when you're sleeping. Sometimes, when you're stuck on an idea, change your writing time to 60 minutes before bed time. Think about the chapter or passage you're writing as you drift off to sleep. Click To Tweet
You could find your answers while dreaming or in those hazy moments when you’re regaining consciousness.
Albert Einstein used similar methods to solve complex problems.
Ask Yourself Why
How many times have you heard a toddler badger a parent with why?
- Why do I have to go to sleep?
- Why do I have to wear a coat?
- Why do I have to eat my breakfast?
Curiosity leads us to understanding, to important discoveries. Imagine life without why, a life limited by the status quo.
Why leads us to more
The next time you find yourself blocked, spend a minute or two asking yourself why.
Better yet, try the Five Whys approach to problem solving. When you encounter a problem or block, ask yourself why five times to discover the root cause.
Often, you won’t have to take it this far. After a few quick why questions, you could discover that you don’t believe in your character, in your article, or in your current approach. A second why will lead you to the reason:
- My character’s an a–hole.
- My article needs more data.
- I need to conduct more research…
Other times, asking yourself “why is this important” points you toward the correct path for discovery and resolution.
Still struggling? After exhausting the whys, ask yourself how…?
Visualize Your Problem
When you find yourself stuck, try drawing your problem.
If you can sketch basic shapes on paper, you’re on your way. Use stick figures to flesh out your article sequence or story. Plot out a scene visually.
Draw pictures onto index cards or post-it notes. Create diagrams with arrows, flow charts, or outlines. Pictures help us process information holistically, often faster than text.
Author, blogger, and entrepreneur Pat Flynn likes to draft his books using post it notes:
Whether using text, pictures, or a combination of both, visuals provide fresh ways for getting to the core of your message.
The next time you’re feeling blocked, skip the walk, the nap, or the mind-numbing round of Minecraft, and commit to working your way through writer’s block. You’ll find yourself days, months–even years ahead in your progress.
So what about you? What’s your go-to strategy for beating writer’s block?
Share it in the comments section below.