Three Things To Do When You Have Writer’s Block

Sometimes, the words run dry. Or, everything I write seems stupid. Or, I know the perfect turn-of-phrases are hiding in the recesses of my mind, but I just can’t reach them to get the writing down. Writer’s block is unfortunately pretty common, and it strikes even the most seasoned of writers.

At its mildest, writer’s block feels like rain showers to wait out. Randomly, but eventually, the block dissolves and the words come again. But, at its worst, those rain showers become never-ending torrential downpours. In those moments, I feel trapped, and, rife with hopelessness and disappointment​, I’m tempted to throw my laptop across the room.

No one knows the cause for writer’s block, although it could have neurological or pedagogical roots. For the former, writer’s block is possibly the result of connections in the brain not happening, stopping the creative process. For the latter, writer’s block comes from the misguided way writing is taught: writing from the beginning is something graded, critiqued, and turned into work; and, that fear follows us into adulthood, triggering anxiety and resistance when we try to write.

I think it’s probably a bit of both. And when you think about it as something solvable, writer’s block becomes much more manageable. Over the years, I’ve found a few techniques that work for me — ​warning: they’re far from bulletproof, but they are prods and pokes that’ve helped forge connections and quiet fears.

1. Get out of the rut

I sometimes wonder what people with writer’s block look like to outsiders. Most of the time, if I’m stuck on something, I’m just staring at a blank Google Docs screen, mentally willing, divining, that the words come to me. It must look a bit nuts — ​and Einstein’s usually attributed to having said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.

Do yourself a favor by getting up and doing something, anything else. I think of writer’s block like a car’s wheels stuck in the snow or mud. Just pressing on the gas pedal won’t get me moving. Instead, I need to jolt myself out of being stuck, often physically. I’ll do push-ups. I’ll go for a walk. I’ll have a 6-minute dance break.

The key here is that the action needs to be drastically different than how I write. I can’t stay seated. I can’t still look at a screen. I’m giving my brain a breather, freeing it from any signals around writing. By taking my focus away from how I’m not writing and giving it something new to think about, it’ll usually provide enough traction to get out of the rut.

2. Pretend you’re writing to a friend

Nothing is tougher than writing something that’s going to get judged, whether it’s a wedding speech, an article for a high-profile magazine, or a proposal for a supervisor. The expectations can be overwhelming, and nothing seems good enough.

One trick I’ve used is reframing the audience for the piece. Instead of imagining the response from, say, the snarky Internet masses, I pretend I’m writing for one very specific person, someone who would be genuinely receptive and interested in what I’m writing. Even for this, I’m imagining my friend Jill, who as a very good writer needs no help from me, but I know loves the craft of writing and might be into sharing how to get past writer’s block.

Once you’re done, you have something to work with, and then you can always go back and reposition the draft for the original audience. The expectations are still there, but writing’s a lot easier with something to reference: I always get confidence from knowing I have something down on paper. Suddenly, I shift into wanting to exceed expectations, because I know I’m already on my way.

3. Write anything (seriously, anything) and read everything

Writing requires continual practice: it’s why writing everyday is such common advice. At times, I’ve realized that my writer’s block comes from being badly out of shape: I hadn’t written in weeks and felt flabby. The process is even slower and more grinding than normal. The words monotonous and inexact; the phrases come out stilted and cliche.

To combat this, I remember Anne Lamott’s truth: everyone’s first draft is crap. Since my first draft will be crap anyhow, I might as well put anything down on the page. In fact, very often, I won’t even write about the necessary topic: I’ll write about what I ate, or something funny I saw, or my thoughts on why Happy Endings needs a revival. Usually, I’ll gain enough momentum to get back into the groove.

Another important practice is to keep your belly full of great writing. Many people tell me they want to be writers, and the biggest question mark I have in their succeeding is when they mention that they don’t like to read. It’s a rare person who can deliver quality outputs without quality inputs. And especially if you’re a new writer, you need to voraciously consume all the work from writers you love, because you’ll crib their style, figure out what works for you, and then — as you digest, adapt, and evolve — discover your distinctive voice.

I think I’ll end here for now. Let’s call this part one. In a few days, I’ll come back with three more. For now, let me know if you’ve tried these techniques with luck, and any that you find helpful! Good luck with your writing, and have fun. :)