There are very few things as debilitating to a writer as writer’s block. Often, just the thought of those two words is enough to send a shiver down one’s spine. Sometimes, writer’s block is a temporary ailment and can simply be waited out. Other times, though, the answer is not so simple, and trying to wait out a persistent case of writer’s block can lead to days, weeks, or even months of lost productivity.
With that in mind, here are five ways that an afflicted writer can help battle writer’s block.
1) Free Writing Exercises
Sometimes the hardest thing to do as a writer is start. Everyone knows that moment when you sit down at your computer, open up your work in progress, hover your fingers over the home keys and just…nothing. No words come to your brain. It’s frightening, and it can also lead to all kinds of self-esteem issues (“I’m not a real writer!” “I can’t do this!” “I’m nothing but a fraud!”).
But every writer has experienced this, even those “real” writers. (By the way, if you writer, you’re a real writer. That’s just the truth.)
When this happens, all you have to do is break through that dam. Open up an empty document, or flip to a blank page in your notebook, and begin writing whatever comes to your mind. Don’t focus on any one thing, least of all your work in progress, but just start writing. Make like Ron Swanson and write every word you know.
Even if you start off writing “I don’t know what to write,” your brain will automatically make connections to other trains of thought. Then write those down. Do this for about five minutes, until you have a full page, or until you feel motivated to continue your WIP. Free writing can work wonders on a blocked writer.
2) Clear Your Mind
Writer’s block can be a side effect of overwork. And just like with any other type of work, you need to rest. Writers tend to not put in forty hours each week and clock out like many other jobs, and probably most writers have a full-time job on top of their writing. So, writers are often burning the candle at both ends and still beating themselves up when they can’t be productive.
Take a step back to refill your creative energy. Go for a walk. Take a nap. Watch a couple of episodes of your favorite television show. According to Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, a visiting scholar at Stanford University, from his book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, when we focus less on immediate tasks, we allow our subconscious minds to keep working on problems. In his words:
The experience of having the mind slightly relaxed allows it to explore different combinations of ideas, to test out different solutions. And then once it has arrived at one that looks promising, that is what pops into your head as an Aha! moment. The people I looked at are able to construct daily schedules that allow them to draw on that process in little increments.
So the next time you find yourself at your computer struggling for the words, take a deep breath and walk away. Do something else for a while. Something you enjoy doing. And importantly, something that doesn’t require a lot of focus. It could help you find that “AHA!” moment.
3) Write Something Else
Perhaps it’s not the writing itself that’s the problem, but the current scene in your WIP instead. Maybe you’ve set something up, but aren’t sure how to pay it off, and because of that, the words aren’t flowing properly. If so, move on to something else. Work on a scene later in the book/screenplay/whatever or start a different project altogether. If you’re anything like me, you have at least six other ideas that you’re super excited about but don’t want to start until you “finish the one I’m working on.” Instead of continually putting it off, jump into it while your subconscious mind mulls over your issues in the current WIP.
Caveat: You may be tempted to go back and start editing your work in progress instead of writing a different scene, but don’t do that. Writing and editing are two different beasts and require two different mindsets. Writing is a creative flow, while editing is a logical state. If you shift into a logical mindset, you’ll only further block your creativity. Though some writers can shift easily between writing and editing, I’ve no idea how they do it so I just recommend you avoid working like that.
If your block is a result of an exceptionally emotional bout, you can also try journaling. Find a notebook (and again, if you’re anything like me, you have plenty), open to a clean page, and write out your feelings. While this could also be an extension of freewriting that I outlined earlier, journaling can help you analyze your emotions and find a way to break through them. Not only can journaling reconnect you with your creative self, but it can reconnect you with your regular self.
Please be advised, however, that journaling shouldn’t be used as a replacement for professional help. If you feel like you may be seriously depressed, I’d highly recommend reaching out to someone. There are various free outlets to use to talk to a trained professional, such as MentalHealth.gov and the SAMHSA National Helpline and 1-800-662-HELP.
5) Talk It Through
Maybe writing is the issue. Maybe your brain and your fingers had an argument and are giving each other the silent treatment. Maybe you have the ideas, but you’re just struggling to get them onto the page. If that’s the case, try speaking instead. Use a voice recorder on your phone or transcription software and a microphone for your computer and talk instead of writing. Writer’s block is sometimes just that, a block on writing. So, if you’re not writing, you shouldn’t be blocked.
6) Force It
Writing, just like anything else, is work, and sometimes the work has to get done even if you don’t want to do it. You never hear a warehouse worker talk about “Box-Lifting Block” and that they just need some time to themselves to get back in the flow. That’s because they know it’s work that has to get done, so they do it.
Forcing yourself to sit down at your desk for an hour to write without distraction or interruption is sometimes exactly what you need to overcome writer’s block. Sure, what you write may come out in bits and spurts, and not always be the best thing you’ve ever written, but that’s what the editing process is for. And if you’re only able to get 500 words written in that hour, it’s 500 words more than what you started with. It’s far too easy to just give in to writer’s block and go a week or longer without writing, but if you make a determined effort to write something even during a blocked state, you’ll feel more accomplished. Brick by brick isn’t the most efficient way to break down a wall, but it’s effective. If you’ve ever experienced writer’s block, then you know it’s only a temporary ailment. Something will always come along and ignite that creative spark and allow you to get your thoughts on the page. But do you always want to sit around and wait for that to happen? The next time you experience writer’s block (and I’m absolutely not wishing that on anyone), try using one of these methods to overcome it. They may just get you back on that horse that much sooner.