If you’ve read the previous article, you may realize that, by understanding the causes behind your writer’s block, you can begin to figure out methods of curing it. There are many weapons available to you to fight this battle – here is a list of proven writer’s block remedies. For ease of use, they’re divided into “quick” and “long term” strategies. Of course, like most things having to do with writing, there’s no guarantee, and you may have to try several before you find what works for you, but they’ve been successful for many writers, professional and amateur. Try them out and eventually, you’ll figure out your own go-to action plan, rendering writer’s block an inconvenience, rather than a crisis.
The first, most important thing you need to do when you realize the words aren’t coming is to relax. Few people think well in a panicked state. Nothing chemical–that only fogs the brain. Just take a few deep breaths, do a little stretching, and pat your own hand (literally if necessary). Tell yourself that it will be all right, because it will.
Next, make sure you understand the assignment. Read it through, and use it to get an idea of the form your paper should take. If you’re still unclear, contact your professor or e-mail your client/editor to clarify. Ask every question you have; they’re invested in your success, and will usually prove helpful. Chances are, your conversation will give you several ideas on how best to progress.
It’s possible that your writer’s block is due to that fact that you hate, despise, and loathe your topic. If this is true, change it if at all possible. It’s incredibly difficult, though not impossible, to do justice to a subject you dislike. Your block will be persistent, you’ll procrastinate until the last minute, and end up turning in an inferior product. However, if the answer is something like “tough cookies,” then find something, anything, appealing in the material. If all else fails, find pleasure in learning something new. Although this author has no mechanical ability whatsoever, and would much rather write about feelings, dating, and babies, she used this technique to find interest in roof trusses, laboratory fume hoods, and even British van sales. It can be done, and you can do it.
Many “pantsers” (those who like to write as the spirit leads them) won’t like this, but the fact is, an outline can be invaluable, particularly if you’re working in non-fiction. Outlines help you organize your notes–and your thinking. Most papers and articles are persuasive, informative, or instructive. As such, they need to be presented in an orderly fashion, something that’s difficult to do without a plan. Fortunately for the blocked writer, an outline rarely requires any inspiration. Start with your thesis statement (or the reason for your article) and go from there. Physically manipulate your note cards and other research materials as you work. Unless your professor has an outline requirement, don’t fret about Roman numerals, upper-case letters, or any kind of marker; make it as rough or detailed as you wish (for the very blocked, detailed is better). As you outline, you’ll find that the topic begins to write itself in your head. As soon as you start getting those phrases and sentences, intros and conclusions, write them down, although it’s wise to continue your outline until it’s completed. Then, follow the outline as you write, crossing off each point as it’s covered; progress begets progress.
You may find, as you outline or work through portions of your article, that you’re lacking essential information. And there’s a block. There are two ways around this. First, of course, is to do more research; hopefully, you’ve planned your task to allow sufficient time for this. If, for some reason, you can’t do the research immediately, don’t stop working; skip to another section and keep writing. And if your article is due at midnight, or you can’t find the missing information anywhere, refocus your paper so it requires only the research that you do have. One caveat about research, by the way, occasionally, writers get stuck in the stacks, never believing they know enough about their topics to start writing. This is rarely true; most of you will throw out far more notes than you will ever use. Don’t use research as a mode of procrastination, and don’t succumb to the belief that you must be the world’s greatest expert to turn in a solid 500-word article. All of those facts won’t do anyone any good trapped in your head; get writing!
If you’re not a procrastinator, but someone who plans his work well in advance, you may have simply lost touch with your material. Now’s the time to review your notes and the outline. You’ll reacquaint yourself with your subject, and may find the perfect jumping-off place for your introduction. If you’re taking up a novel you’ve long neglected and can’t figure out what to write next, take some time to curl up on the couch and reread your own book. You’ll be surprised to learn that there are character details and plot points you’ve forgotten! By the time you’ve finished, you’ll find your enthusiasm for your work rekindled, and should have a better idea of where the story is going…or where it should go, instead.
But let’s say you’re steaming along, making progress, and then suddenly–it all stops. What then?
Why not skip it? Yeah, we said it! Just skip it–for now. If you’re writing a research paper or article, step away from the troublesome section for awhile and move on to the next. Leave your subconscious to puzzle over what’s missing. It’s possible that in writing further, you’ll find what you need to finish. In the case of a novel, try this simple strategy: type the chapter heading, describe what you wish to happen in that chapter, then go on to write the next. You may find the inspiration you need later; or you may just find you don’t need that chapter after all.
When your writing hits a brick wall mid-project, you may just need a mental reboot. There are many ways to do this. One of the most effective is to get up and move. Do some laundry or another small chore. Go get a soda out of the machine. Walk the dog. Don’t go far, and take a pen and paper with you because, usually within minutes, you’ll hear your characters start talking, or your next paragraph beginning. Get back to that computer and go!
Often, just changing your environment can help jump start a dead writing battery. If you’re used to writing to music, try a quiet spot, or change the musical genre. Take your laptop outside, to the library, or the ever-popular coffee shop; a change of scenery can do wonders, particularly if your usual view includes dishes that “will only take a minute.” If you’re using social media or web surfing to avoid the inevitable, turn off your router or find a place where the internet is unavailable. Of course, there are times when it’s not possible to change your environment. In this instance, when you need to concentrate, create your own mental space with headphones (for idea and mood-stimulating music), or earplugs (if you’re the peace and quiet type). If all else fails, go to a bookstore; the perfume of ink and coffee, combined with the knowledge that each of those volumes contains whole worlds, created by people just like you, should send you speeding back home to the keyboard.
Okay, so what if you’re not stuck. What if you can’t even get started?
Try “clustering.” This is a prewriting method in which you use free association to tap into ideas hiding in your subconscious. Clustering is a very free-form, visual method. Start by writing down your topic, then circling it. Write a word you associate with your topic word, then connect the two with an arrow. Keep free-associating, with no censor, and feel yourself relax; you may even start having fun! According to Robert Raymer, it won’t be long before your words evolve into ideas, phrases, sentences, all of which you should write down. By exploring your subject in this relaxed manner, you can figure out a writing angle and build your confidence; you have a great imagination, and you can create! Raymer also suggests that you ask questions about your topic. What do you want to know about the subject? What do you think others should know? Use the answers to help create your outline.
Another simple technique is known as “freewriting.” This is just what it sounds like–writing whatever comes into your head (about your subject or scene). It’s like a brainstorming session, only private, and on paper. For once, don’t worry about how it sounds, or even about spelling and punctuation; there’s plenty of time for that during revisions. Just write. You may start out with garbage at first, but it shouldn’t be long before you find a direction for your article, or your characters regain control of the chapter.
If you’re a more social type, try talking it out. Sometimes, our thoughts and feelings about our writing become so knotted up and confused that it’s hard to even know how to write anything down, free, clustered, or otherwise. If this sounds like you, grab your spouse, friend, roommate, or mother and try telling them what your article or story is about. Why exactly are your characters fighting, what do they say, and what’s the fallout? What do people really need to know about Grover Cleveland? Why should we all recycle? In order to sound halfway coherent, your brain will automatically sort your ideas before it sends them out of your mouth. Your companion may offer some ideas of her own. In this way, you should be able to approach your piece with a clear, unblocked mind.
If you notice, all of these “quick fixes” end with your taking up pen or keyboard. To win the swimming trophy, you eventually have to get into the water. To finish that article, essay, or novel, you have to start writing. Have faith in yourself and in the process. Believe that what you write will, eventually, be good enough.
Of course, once you unblock enough to finish your assignment, hit “send” on that article, or get through your mystery’s tricky scene, you want to make sure you never, ever feel that way again, right? Well, that may be a little much to ask, but if you follow some of these steps you can, most likely, ensure that your next writer’s block episode will be mild, and easily defeated.
One of the most important things you can do, as a writer and as a person with friends, family, and perhaps a pet who depends on you, is to take care of yourself! You may believe you live most intensely in your head, but that head is inseparable from a body, and needs good circulation and premium fuel to do what you need it to do. Forget the picture of a writer who creates masterpieces living primarily on caffeine, nicotine, alcohol and the occasional hallucinogen; a short session reading biographies on Wikipedia will tell you how that turns out. Instead, quit smoking, use caffeine in moderation, eat right and, above all, get some exercise. Remember how quickly you were able to dream up the solution to a writing problem just by getting up and moving around? Sacrifice a little time on your rear for time on the treadmill: your writing will thank you.
You know how very fancy restaurants often serve a small dish of sorbet between courses, or Japanese restaurants supply you with an artfully curled bit of pickled ginger root? It’s not because everyone loves a pre-dessert, and the ginger root isn’t just a decoration. They’re both meant to help you cleanse your palate–to get the last course’s taste out of your mouth so you can fully enjoy what’s coming next. Occasionally, to progress on one piece, you need to cleanse your writing palate with something new. You’ve probably read somewhere that you should work on one project until it’s done, saving all of those other bursts of inspiration in a file somewhere. Otherwise, conventional wisdom goes, you’ll end up with a lifetime of unfinished work. For many freelancers and novelists, however, it’s better to have several projects going at once.
Let’s say you’re stuck on a parenting article. It’s due in a few days and you have absolutely no idea where to go with it. You could sit in front of your computer for two days, playing online games and waiting for inspiration, or you could take some time away, and scribble on your screenplay. Dash off a filler piece. Write anything fun, easy, or just different. Then come back to your original topic. Chances are, you’ll find your palate cleansed and ready to tackle the main course. Make it your long-term strategy to have several projects in the hopper; if you don’t sit still, the block can’t stop you!
Remember perfectionism? The primary cause of most writers’ blocks? If your novel hasn’t progressed since 2003, because (pick one), you got married, had kids, went to college, started working, had to mow the lawn…then now’s the time to get real. You may harbor the idea that, at some point, the time will be right to write. The kids will go to school, or they’ll leave the house. You’ll retire. You’ll refit the spare bedroom as an office. Get a beach house or a cabin retreat. Buy a computer. Something better than the life you have now. This. Will. Never. Ever. Happen. If you want to write, you have to do it now.
It may not be easy.
You’ll probably have to steal scraps of time, stay up late, get up early, and more likely than not, give up something you enjoy. You’ll need to learn to live with a dirtier house, and the kids may have to entertain themselves. Learn to shut out the noise and ignore the phone. And forget the whole romantic idea of a “muse,” or “inspiration.” Sometimes, the words will flow, your emotions will thrill, and you’ll feel like you’re only taking dictation from an alternate universe. It’s a wonderful high; it’s real writing! But not really. Real writing is plopping yourself in the chair, grabbing your pencil (or opening your laptop), and getting words down, words that you know, even as you type them, are all wrong. With time and hard work, those wrong words can become the right ones, but this will never happen if you spend years waiting for inspiration, quiet, and that elusive creature, “free time.” And the miracle of it all is, the more you write, the more you can write. Instead of waiting for inspiration, you’ll find it waiting for you, jumping out from behind corners at the grocery store, in that boring office meeting, in the traffic jam on 465, as if it only wanted to know you were serious. So do it. Let go of your image of the “perfect writer,” and be a real one.
Of course, once you resign yourself to writing amid crunchy floors and fighting kids, you may need to let go of another perfectionist’s attitude and learn to write…badly. Whether you’re a student, freelancer, or novelist, one of your greatest enemies will be the expectations you have of yourself. And the better a writer you are (or were in school), the harder it will be to let yourself down. It’s hard to let go of an image of yourself as “smart,” “talented,” “gifted,” or an otherwise superior individual. But to be a successful writer, you must be willing to court failure. As bestselling author Robert Dugoni puts it, “As writers, we can’t become paralyzed at the thought of rejection. We can’t fear it, or seek to avoid it. Rather, we must confront it head on, charge into it with reckless abandon.” You’ll get a rejection letter, probably more than one; everyone does, accept it now. But, although you’ll feel your gut drop and your heart stop, the cat will meow, the doorbell will ring, your husband will ask where his socks are and life will pretty much be the same.
Later, after the kids are in bed, you’ll sit down to write and rewrite some more, getting better as you grow. It’s hard to realize how much you have to learn, and harder to learn it, but you’re a writer at the core, and writers are tough. What’s the alternative? As Dugoni continues, “I did not want the fear of failure and rejection to dictate my life and how I chose to live it.” Make that your mantra, because he’s right.
Perhaps you realize already that you don’t have to create high art to build a writing career, but you still find yourself reluctant to work every day, and fear you’re verging on burnout. You haven’t had a salable idea in weeks and, what’s more, you’re not sure you care. Well, even if writers don’t get benefits or paid time off, they do get vacations, and you need one, preferably yesterday. No money for a cruise or an island cabana? No worries. Just take a vacation from writing. Spend whole days not thinking about plots, deadlines, or blog promotions. Leave your laptop closed at a friend’s house if you have to. Spend time with your family or your partner, fully present in the real world. Clean house, get dirty in the garden, read books and don’t take notes on how the author “did that.”
If you can’t get away, take a trip through your town. Talk to people, volunteer, people watch; spend time with friends who suspect you might be a hermit. Shop, sleep, get the car fixed, lay on the grass while your toddler jumps on you…just live. If your inner taskmaster accuses you of being lazy, tell him to “shut up.” You’re refueling your tank with the stuff you need to spin life into story. It won’t be long before you’re back at the keyboard, refreshed, happy, and ready to go.
Another way to thwart a crisis of confidence and the writer’s block it heralds is to achieve some success–any success. Even the most determined, self-sufficient person alive needs encouragement; as a writer, often deprived of an collegial environment, you’ll need to seek this out for yourself. First, don’t remain isolated. Join a writing group, even if it’s online, to find people who understand what you’re going through and can offer useful advice and empathetic emoticons. A group has the added benefit of giving you the opportunity to help others, which is, paradoxically, often more encouraging than being the object of consolation yourself. Writing groups typically require a certain amount of new material per meeting, giving you the impetus you need to work, and the positive feedback you require to continue.
If you’re struggling in your freelance career, do what you can to achieve a quick sale: try a small market, a local publication, or spin and re-slant old material for a new magazine. A check or contract should do wonders for your motivation.
Finally, if your writer’s block is exceptionally stubborn, you may need to resort to drastic measures. Write. Use a pen, pencil, crayon, keyboard, or sidewalk chalk, and write something. Anything. Scribble a grocery list, send a memo to your boss, compose the family holiday letter, fill in the blanks on a survey, update your FaceBook status. Write anything, just to prove to your brain that you can. This may feel highly unpleasant, so be prepared. It’s just a feeling, however; you’ll survive it, and it will end. If it helps, tell yourself that you only need to write for fifteen minutes and then you can stop, no guilt required. The next day, do it again, and keep doing it, every day, for as long as it takes. As time goes on, stretch yourself. Start a blog. Write a letter, a real letter, to a friend. Pen a journal entry. Revise that article. Mess around in your novel.
Eventually, your discomfort will fade and you’ll find yourself extending that fifteen minutes to twenty, thirty, and one day you’ll be back to fretting that you don’t have enough time to work! The key is persistence. If a reward system works for you, implement one; soon, however, writing will be its own reward.
Which it always is.