You’ve been sitting at your desk, staring at a blank page.
For three hours.
The words won’t come, and you’re ready to hurl something at the wall and rededicate all your spare hours to laying on the couch instead of trying to squeeze words from they abyss that is your creativity.
Hello, writers’ block.
Some authors insist that there’s no such thing as writers’ block, which doesn’t help the teeming mass of us who have been plagued by it at one time or another. You may be having a bad day, or a bad year, but there are always times when writing is harder than it needs to be (and let’s face it, even good writing days aren’t always a picnic).
Before abandoning your pen or pixels and burying your writing dreams forever, here are a few ways to combat writers’ block, get unstuck, and get your flow back.
Top 5 ways to beat writers’ block
1. Try free writing
Just sit down and write, ok? Sit down, breathe, and write. Don’t stop. Don’t read what you’ve read. Don’t delete or cross out or edit anything. Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar. Just set a timer for 2 minutes, or 5 minutes, and keep on writing until the time is up. Then have a pause, drink some water if you want, stretch for a minute, and reset the timer.
Dive back in, another 5 minutes. Build up to ten, if you want.
Don’t think about what you’re going to write. Just listen to the voice in your head. Write whatever it says, uncensored. If it’s screaming ‘This is stupid! I have nothing to write nothing to write this is dumb why is there a purple stain on the table?” then that’s exactly what you write down. Take dictation from the voice (or voices) in your head. The point is to get words down – it doesn’t need to make sense, or have anything to do with anything. Nobody else will ever read it.
If you’re really stuck you might want to start by writing about what’s in front of you. Try to be specific, focus on details:
Tomato sauce bottle standing taller than the others, HP sauce bottle with a peeling-off label, Tabasco bottle is trimmer, neater than the others but deadly stuff, deadly burning stuff, oh and the squat jar of my mother’s home-made marmalade that’s too tart for my three-year old who screws up his nose like the dog has done something bad every time the jar is opened, unlike the honey which I might as well buy by the vat these days the way they dumptruck it over their toast…
Or you can always start with the expression, “I remember…” to get you going:
I remember I remember the trampoline at the Doran’s house, we never jumped on it because it had two rips down the side and rusty springs but we lay on our backs and used to look up through the tree branches overhead at the sky. Looking up looking up blue, light blue then dark. It was prettiest at dusk even though mosquitoes ate our legs for dinner and dessert but the light was pale night and perfect and we could hear traffic from the highway as everyone drove home. I remember Vanessa got shat upon in the eye by a magpie one time. I laughed too hard and fell through the tear in the mat and landed on something worse…
2. Let go of your expectations
Writers’ block is often the result of saddling your creativity with a burden it’s bucking against. Maybe you’ve decided you want to enter a 1500-word short story writing competition about ghosts. You quickly discover that no matter how long you sit there, you can’t come up with anything even vaguely ghost-related.
Or you’ve decided to finally sit down and write the story of your grandmother’s life as a heart surgeon. But the enormity of it all has you paralysed and unable to start.
While it’s great to have a specific writing project in mind, sometimes it’s best not to approach it head on. Instead of trying to write the story you want to write (but currently can’t), dance around it a bit. In the case of the ghost story, do some free writing about ghosts, or try to retell a ghost story you’ve heard. Try writing a conversation between a person and a ghost, or a non-believer in ghosts vs a believer. Stop thinking “I have to write a story” and instead start loosely exploring.
If you’re writers’ block has reared up because you’ve set a very high expectation on yourself – like, “I’m going to write a novel!” – back away and put that notion down for now. Start small. A sentence. A paragraph. A scene. Start with one small part of your vision and write that. It doesn’t have to be the beginning of the story – it could be in the middle, or the end. Just a picture you can see in your head that is somehow related to what you want to write. Start there. Start small. One paragraph. Forget about the novel and focus on what you can do in five minutes, right now.
3. Use writing prompts
Many writers turn to writing prompts or writing exercises when they experience writers’ block. You can find them in books, online, and on this site. A word, a sentence, a situation, a conflict…something that excites you, scares you, or incites a violent reaction in your gut…any combination can trigger something that launches your writing and leaves writers’ block melted on the floor.
It’s often useful to use prompts that tap into our memory, because you’re not using brain power to create something brand new, you’re calling up something you already know and putting it to words. The simplest writing prompt is “I remember…” I’ve used it for years and depending on my surroundings and mood at the time, have found that it brings up the most unexpected and strange things.
Another memory prompt is “Yesterday…” Be aware that it’s not about accuracy – if your memories morph into something that didn’t actually happen and you find yourself writing a new creation, then that’s great. The most important thing is this: you’re writing.
4. Fill your creative well
Sometimes there’s no getting around the fact that you’ve been sitting at your desk for too long. You need to break the spell on a physical level, and you need to do something to replenish your creative well. The mind craves fresh images, voices, conversations…and maybe you’re depleted.
Go for a walk. Get some fresh air. Observe the world. Breathe it in.
Sit in a cafe. Eavesdrop on a conversation.
Catch a bus. Talk to a stranger.
Go to a movie.
Visit a gallery.
Read a book.
Knit a sock.
Do a cartwheel.
Break the monotony, come back refreshed, and then sit straight down and write about your experience in the real world, or whatever else you’ve set loose by moving your body and physically shifting the anxiety of not writing.
5. Be gentle on yourself, and accept imperfection
Berating yourself for not writing only makes you feel worse, and even less like writing.
Be gentle on yourself. Odds are, you are your own worst critic. You are the single thing that’s standing between you and writing. The things you say to yourself about your writing and your abilities as a writer, in your head or out loud, are likely things you would never dream of saying to anyone else. So don’t say them to yourself.
Stop being so critical.
You need to give yourself permission to write badly. Drafts are drafts, and they’re as far from the idea of “perfect” as you can get. The whole point of a first draft is just to get something down on paper, so then you have something to go back and work with, to edit, to rewrite, to fix.
If the reason you’re stuck is because you’re rejecting every little sentence or paragraph you squeeze out – throwing it away and starting over – then you need to stop, and give yourself permission to write VERY BADLY INDEED.
You can always go back and rewrite and edit something hideous.
But it’s pretty hard to edit a blank page.
I think Anne Lamott put it best in her wonderful book on writing, Bird by Bird. She encourages the idea of “shitty first drafts”, and it’s a liberating perspective:
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”
Acknowledging that your own mindset is largely responsible for writers’ block isn’t always easy (it’s always easier to look for external reasons), and if you’re a perfectionist – as many writers are – it can be tough to leave something on the page that we think stinks, even as we’re writing it. But if you spend all your time editing that last sentence you wrote, you’ll never move forward, never tell your story, never finish anything.
So write badly, write horribly, write hideously, and just keep going.
That’s how to beat writers’ block.