8 Quick Tips for Battling Writer’s Block
What to do when the well runs dry.
Some days, the words seem to come unbidden from the magical land of sentences, and you feel like nothing more than a vessel, whose role is to simply transcribe these messages from the ether.
Most days, it’s not like that. At all.
I’m a big believer in the butt-in-chair philosophy of creative work, meaning that the work won’t get done unless you are working. But what do you do when you’re staring at a blinking cursor or a blank page, and just… nothing is coming? If you’ve reached a point in your novel or your story or your essay and you just cannot figure out what the next words are? If you’re crippled by self-doubt and you can’t summon up the chutzpah to keep going? (Because let’s face it — it takes some serious confidence-bordering-on-arrogance to think you have anything worthwhile to say.) We’ve all been there. Here are some practical, tactical ideas for getting the pipes unclogged.
- Free-write. If your internal censors are the problem, try free-writing to simply get words flowing out of your brain again. You can start with a prompt, or just start brain-dumping. The idea is to keep your pen/pencil/keyboard in constant forward motion — no deletions, no re-reading, just write write write any old garbage for a set amount of time. (Start low: two minutes. This is harder than it sounds.) Occasionally, some really gorgeous stuff comes out of free-writing sessions. Most times, it’s nonsensical trash, but it can help get the kinks out so you can return to your work-in-progress fresh.
- Write something in a different genre. If you’re stuck on your novel, work on a personal essay. Stuck on an academic essay — try some flash fiction. Write something completely unrelated to what is holding you up. This engages different parts of your brain, keeps your sentence-building chops honed, and may yield some fun experimentation with forms you haven’t really worked in before.
- Write a scene from a different point-of-view. This really only applies to fiction writing, but try looking at your story through the eyes of someone other than the narrator. Is there a minor character in the scene you’re trying to write? How would they see the events unfold? What does their voice sound like? Or if the scene is in first-person, try writing it in third. How is it different? What things might an omniscient narrator notice that your character does not, and vice versa? You might find a new angle that you end up wanting to incorporate, or you might find what’s blocking you about this narrator’s view of the scene.
- Write something tangentially related to your work-in-progress. Say you’re working on a novel. Write a letter from one of the characters to his mother. Write a journal entry one of the characters might have penned ten years before the story starts. Write a resume, or a shopping list, or an obituary for a character. These things are not intended to ever be somehow woven in to the finished work, but they might reveal something about a character, or their voice, that you couldn’t get at any other way. If you’re working on an essay and struggling with the structure, make a list of what you ultimately want the reader to take away from the work, or write out your own definitions of the terms most crucial to its understanding.
- Try a different composition method. If you usually write by hand and type it up later, try composing directly on the computer. Or if none of the usual methods are working, try dictating into the voice recorder app on your phone. This can be exceptionally awkward at first, but if you get past the weirdness, it can be freeing to just talk. You can try talking through the problem you’re stuck on, or just tell yourself a story. There will likely be a lot of “um” and “uh” but if you hang in there, there might be a gem of a phrase you can use somewhere.
- Take a walk. Get some fresh air, move your body, change the scenery. Let your mind wander. Try walking in silence, if you can, or use headphones to listen to music. Let yourself take in your surroundings. Try to be an active audience for the world around you. You might find a pattern in the trees that gives you an image for a scene, or overhear a snippet of a stranger’s conversation that unlocks something for a character.
- Meditate. Okay, maybe this sounds hippy-dippy, but hear me out. Meditation involves trying to quiet the noise in your mind. If you’ve ever participated in a yoga class that included meditation, or tried to do some guided meditation on your own, you may have found that this can be tricky for writers. As soon as the noise of day-to-day life gets shushed, your own imaginative voice comes barging in. Use this to your advantage. Sit comfortably, close your eyes, and bring your awareness to your breathing. Try to imagine your mind filled with the silence of a concert hall right before the conductor raises her baton. Now, listen as your characters and story problems start coughing and shuffling their programs. It never fails! Give them space and silence, and listen to what they have to say.
- Read. This can be counter-intuitive, because some people swear they can’t read while they’re actively writing or else the voices of other writers seep into their own work. I did find that when I was working on the first draft of my novel, I avoided reading fiction for a few months because of this very concern. But I was still reading every day — nonfiction, essays, craft books. And when you’re in revision mode, reading within your genre can be incredibly helpful, as you notice sentence-craft and structure and metaphor. It doesn’t mean you’re going to steal those same devices, but reading something expertly composed can shake things loose in your own work. All of us were readers first. Even if it’s just to remember what you love about the written word, keep reading.
As always, your results may vary. These are just some things I go to when I’m stuck and trying to remember how to word. The over-arching theme here is to mix it up, and not keep bashing your head against the same keyboard. Get up, stretch, remind yourself why you do this thing, and then get your butt back in the chair.