6 Ways to Overcome Writer's Block
Don’t make the mistake of confusing writer’s block with procrastination.
This is quite unfair to those suffering from writer’s block. Procrastination – if we’re completely honest – carries with it an edge of laziness. You could stop messing around on Facebook/angrily tidying your desk/alphabetising your shoe collection or whatever waste-of-time task is preventing you from sitting down and getting on with things, but – for whatever reason – your willpower is lacking. Procrastination can be agonising, and champion procrastinators say that they would much, much sooner just get down to the job they’ve been putting off, but all the same procrastination is usually overcome by a burst of willpower (possibly motivated by an impending deadline), and nothing else.
Writer’s block is nothing of the sort. People with writer’s block can end up procrastinating, but more often writer’s block involves staring at an empty screen, wondering why your brain is suddenly so completely empty of thoughts and ideas. Even worse, it can involve going back and deleting most of a previous day’s work, because even that doesn’t seem up to scratch any more.
So many of the tips for overcoming procrastination (remind yourself of the deadline; incentivise with treats; break down your to-do list into something manageable; create penalties for not working – for example) simply won’t work for writer’s block, because your willpower is just fine. It’s something much less tangible that’s missing; some form of inspiration that needs to be kick-started into action.
Bearing that in mind, whether you’re working on an essay or a novel, here are our tips for figuring out how to get over writer’s block, and get that inspiration flowing again.
1. Work out what you’re actually stuck on
In writing, as in medicine and tech support, a good place to start is by diagnosing the problem.
You’re staring at a blank screen. But what are you actually struggling with? It’s tempting to throw up your hands and cry “everything!” but that’s probably not the case. Is it that you have ideas that you like but they seem weak and unconvincing when you try to put them down on paper? Are the ideas themselves lamentably absent? Do you know exactly what you want to say, and how, but when it comes to expressing it in words, your command of the English language seems to fall apart? Making a diagnosis of where the real difficulty lies gets you halfway towards fixing it.
Sometimes writer’s block comes about because you’re trying to start writing before you’re ready. That might be before you’ve plotted out a chapter sufficiently, or before you’ve done enough research to feel comfortable with your topic. You might be eager to get writing (especially if you’re working to a tight deadline) but time spent researching, planning or any other activity that leaves you with pages of notes but no actual text, is far from wasted. Writing without notes is less like trying to build a house without plans or foundations, and more like trying to cross the Atlantic when you have sails but no ship to put them on.
If that sounds familiar, then the cure is simple: don’t start writing yet. Get back to the planning board. This will feel like a backwards step, but remember that you weren’t progressing towards your deadline by staring at a blank screen, either.
2. Do what you can
Once you’ve figured out where the problem lies, see what you can actually do without coming up against that great big wall of block. Here are a few things you might do as part of the writing process:
- edit previous text
- sketch out the next few paragraphs
- make notes of ideas for future paragraphs, or content for if you have sufficient time or room in your word count
- put some meat on sketched-out paragraphs
- make notes on characters
- make notes on settings
- sort out your bibliography
- look at footnotes
There are, no doubt, plenty more items that you could add to this list as part of your personal writing process. After all, writing is not just a process of sitting down, beginning to type, and stopping when you’re done.
Staring at a blank screen is depressing. By contrast, demonstrating to yourself what you can do, even if some of it feels like procrastination, can be very motivating – and it gives rise to inspiration. If you’re halfway through making a footnote readable and you come up with a great idea for how to express a particular thought, brilliant – abandon the footnote and get that idea down on the paper. If you think of writer’s block as a wall (as many people do), any work you can do, however small, chips away at the foundations of that wall until it all comes crumbling down – while staring at the screen in frustration only builds the wall up higher.
3. Brainstorm with bad ideas
It’s logical that it’s easier to think of bad ideas than good ones. The world is distressingly full of bad ideas, so it shouldn’t be hard for you to come up with a few more. This can be an effective way to get yourself writing again. What would you write if you were trying to do a deliberately bad job? What arguments could you use that are definitely wrong? What would be an awful way to write that scene?
This can help in the straightforward way that a bad idea is sometimes the inverse of a good one, so once you have the bad idea, the good one might not be that hard to think of. More usually, it can help you think about your topic in a low-pressure way. The Alan Coren method of coming up with a good idea (don’t use the first or second idea that comes to mind; use the third as it will be more original) is excellent and will leave you writing something fresh and original, but it’s also extremely hard work to come up with not one, not two, but three good ideas. It can seem impossible when even coming up with the first good idea is a struggle. Coming up with a big pile of bad ideas is much easier, but often involves the same sort of thinking outside of the box, and sometimes you’ll find a good idea in the midst of all of those bad ones, or at least put yourself in a position where thinking about the topic is less stressful.
4.Type like no-one’s watching
National Novel Writing Month is an annual writing exercise where some hundreds of thousands of people across the world try to write a 50,000-word novel in the month of November. NaNoWriMo novels are seldom much good, but that’s not the point; trying to write at speed is an enjoyable creative exercise anyway.
Successful NaNoWriMo participants talk about the ‘Inner Editor’ – the writing devil on your shoulder who points out that your syntax is dodgy, or that a character’s eye colour has changed between chapters, or that your argument doesn’t hold up to as much scrutiny as you’d like. Your Inner Editor is a useful perfectionist most of the time, but they can be an impediment to producing a first draft. After all, the problems that they point out would be better fixed in a second draft, rather than halting your work before you’ve even written it. The Inner Editor contributes to a whole heap of writer’s block.
The NaNoWriMo strategy for overcoming the Inner Editor is to write quicker, worry less and edit afterwards, and this can be a good way of overcoming writer’s block under normal circumstances as well. You could, say, put on a loud piece of music and type until it’s over – then the blank page will be gone and you’ll have content to fix, which can be less daunting than writing it in the first place.
Another way of doing this is to work in a different medium. The wonder of a word processor is that it’s very easy to go back and edit, but that also helps your Inner Editor get in the way of making progress. We’re not suggesting you go full hipster and work on a typewriter (though go for it, if it works for you) but for some people, writing longhand in a notebook, away from a screen, can make it easier to get words down. Alternatively, speech recognition software has come a long way and is now a standard feature on Google Docs – if typing is hard work, try dictating your thoughts. For some people, hearing the sound of their own voice is inhibiting, but for others, not being limited by their typing speed makes it easier to write. It’s worth trying to see which category you fall into.
5. Check it can actually be done
This is a depressing suggestion, but it’s worth thinking about all the same. Are you stuck on what you’re trying to write not because of some failing in how you’re trying to work, but simply because it can’t be done? It can be hard to recognise when you’re trying to do the impossible in writing, because words seem endlessly malleable, but there are things that straightforwardly can’t be achieved. Are you trying to explain quantum physics in a way comprehensible to people who are innumerate? Are you trying to describe a medieval battle without using the letter e? Are you trying to write a comedy scene in perfect imitation of PG Wodehouse?
Teachers, family and friends are useful here. If you tell them what you’re trying to do and you get raised eyebrows and comments like “brave”, it may be advisable to go for something a little easier. There’s no shame in switching ideas or topics as a result of trying to do something that is just too hard.
It’s easier to tell in academic writing if what you’re trying to do is too tricky than it is in fiction. For instance, if your academic idea of truly ground-breaking and you’re still in school, you’re probably overreaching a little; there are plenty of good ideas that you might need the scope of a PhD thesis to do real justice to. In fiction, it’s much more challenging, because the amount of people writing about something is less strongly correlated with how easy it is to write about. Unfortunately, there’s no secret formula for calculating difficulty, so you may simply have to work out for yourself when it’s time to try a different tack.
6. Give yourself a warm-up
If you were working in an office, nobody would consider it unreasonable if you started your day with the easy jobs – responding to routine emails, say, or processing invoices – before working up to answering the scary email where you have to justify your decisions to the Head of Department. If you went straight to the scary email before the coffee had kicked in, you’d be likely to do a worse job of it without the boost to your confidence of carry out normal tasks well.
But writers often expect of themselves that they will go straight to the scary bit. That they will fire up the laptop and launch right into a dynamic scene, pausing only to roll up their sleeves in anticipation. No doubt some people can do this, and it gets easier with practice. But for most of us, trying to write without a warm-up is like trying to run without a warm-up; you’ll do as much harm as good. So if you’re feeling blocked when it comes to getting going on your Big Scary Writing Project – whether that’s a thesis or a novel – try spending a little time working on something a bit easier until the words are flowing again. If it’s creative writing you’re working on, that might be writing 100 words from a writing prompt, or writing a description of a character that might never show up in the final thing, but that’s a useful reference all the same. If it’s academic writing you’re working on, do you have a smaller project that you can switch to? As we discussed above, it’s motivating to be doing something – so find something small for fifteen minutes or half an hour, then go back to the bigger thing and see if it doesn’t seem less frightening.
What techniques do you use to overcome writer’s block? Let us know in the comments!
Image credits: blank page; shoes; once upon a time; notes; wall; infantile scribbles; editor’s desk; mountaineer; ‘easy’ button.