Writer’s Block—and How to Overcome It

Writer’s block is something I’m sure every writer knows about and dreads. It’s something I’ve struggled with myself, something I continue to find myself struggling with, even knowing about a dozen strategies to work through it. I don’t think it’s something that goes away just because you know how these strategies, but it’s knowing how to overcome writer’s block when it does hit you that makes it so much less intimidating.

The most common misconception about writer’s block is in the name, really. Writer’s block. If anyone really had “writer’s block” they wouldn’t be able to write anything, not even about how they have writer’s block. The real problem actually lies in what you’re stuck writing in. Perhaps you’re in the middle of writing a novel and suddenly everything stops. You can’t think of how to move forward.

When that happens, the worst thing you can do is just sit there, staring angrily at your screen. You’ll probably say that’s common sense, as you’ll only get more frustrated and less likely to move past it, but you’d be surprised how often people try to force their way through. Overcoming writer’s block with sheer strength of will is rare—nearly unheard of. It’s possible, but for most of us, it won’t work.

Instead, you should get up and do something else. Take a walk, work on a puzzle, anything to get your mind off of the thing that you’re stuck on. When you come back, if nothing has come to mind during your break, the best course of action is to reread what you already have like you’ve never read it before. Often, you’ll find exactly where you’ve veered off course in your story, and it’s very simple to rewrite a section and continue where you left off. Abandon that half a chapter or so and keep going.

If you’ve reread it and still can’t find where you’d taken the turn down a dead-end, you’re probably not being hard enough on yourself. Remember: you’re stuck. It may not be kind, but being critical is a great way to figure things out. “Why have you stopped?” Blaming a lack of ideas on an external force like writer’s block isn’t getting you anywhere. Push the blame aside and focus on looking for the deeper reason.

So, what is that deeper reason? Has each of your characters gotten what they need? Is what you’re trying to write clashing with the point of view, the setting, the antagonist? What is it that you’re trying to accomplish with what you’re writing, and what is the wrench that’s messing with the cogs?

If that still doesn’t work, it’s perfectly okay to put it aside for a while. You should still be thinking about it, brainstorming the problem and possible solutions. You’re allowed to stop, replot, recalibrate, and then keep going.

On the flip side of that, some people work better with a time crunch. In that case, abandon what isn’t working and just focus on what is. Set that other stuff on a scrap pile. Maybe it’ll fit in somewhere else, or maybe all it’s good for is collecting pixel dust in your computer folder. It may be hard to throw away pieces of work but try not to hold on too tightly. Be open to change, be flexible, and the ideas will flow.

There will always be things in your novel that you know and don’t know. There will, of course, be a lot more things that you don’t, and that’s where the writing part comes in. Neil Gaiman once said that writing a story is like driving through the fog, moving from point to point of things you know about the story, with a lot of things that happen in between. He said you don’t always know where you’re going, but the thing to remember is to always keep moving forward.

I will now present you with two lists. The first is about doing your best to avoid writer’s block in the first place, and the second will be about overcoming it when you eventually do get stuck.

Preventing Writer’s Block—Strategies

1. Enhance your workspace

Your workspace, wherever you’re writing, should be comfortable. If you’re not, it’s less likely for the ideas to flow, and you’ll never get anything done. Maybe you like things in organized chaos, or neat and tidy, or even covered in small potted plants. Whatever setup makes you most relaxed and focused, get to it.

2. Work in short intervals

People are most productive when working in 25-minute intervals. The Pomodoro Technique, developed by Francesco Cirillo, suggests that for maximum productivity, one should set a timer for 25 minutes, focus on whatever task they’ve set for themselves, and focus on it until the timer goes off, then give themselves a checkmark. Take a 5-minute interval break, and repeat. With this method, the breaks help refresh your mind, and the checkmarks give you a sense of accomplishment.

3. Make writing a habit

Working writing into your daily schedule can help boost productivity. Specifically setting aside time for your writing can help train your brain to switch into what I’ll call “writing mode”. This writing doesn’t have to be exactly what you’re working on for the time being. If you have no fresh ideas for that novel you’re working on, write something else. As long as you’re getting something down on paper, you’re being successful. Make notes about other things, make comments to yourself, research and write down something for the book, etc. Commit yourself to being productive and follow through with it.

4. It doesn’t need to be linear

Some people think that you need to write a story from chapter 1 until the end, but that’s not true. You could write the ending first, and work backward to the inciting incident. You could start in the middle and jump around throughout the story (with adherence to comprehension). You could format the book in a linear fashion but write it all over the place.

Of the two types of writers, I’m mostly a Planner, so I like to create an outline for my stories. This is helpful in some ways because I can take a look at the arc of the story and see what doesn’t work, or what needs to happen for the ending to work out. I can look at chapter seven with an idea and write the whole chapter before even getting to five or six. Sometimes, I find it helpful to create a timeline (which is separate from a plot) and write from there.

Writing in a non-linear fashion is especially helpful for setting up clues and hints that’ll come together later in the story (I always love a good reveal in fiction!). Clues don’t just exist in mysteries.

5. Don’t give it power

The worst thing you can do as a writer is justify your lack of writing. If you tell yourself “I can’t write; I have writer’s block!” then you’ll never write anything. It’ll just be that much harder to get yourself out of the rut because you’ve given it a name. You’ve given it power, and as such, you’ve placed blame on it instead of yourself. While you should be kind to yourself, also be critical. Something is stopping you. Figure it out. The best thing you can do is to sit down and prove it wrong.

Overcoming Writer’s Block—Strategies

1. Try a writing prompt

Sometimes you get stuck in the middle of a big project, and you have no idea where you’re going to go next. I’ve been there, and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in thinking that because I’m stuck here, I can’t write anything. That’s simply not true. A great strategy for overcoming this thought is to write something else—most commonly from a prompt. Writing and completing a short story helps you feel accomplished as well.

The prompt can lead you to write something entirely different, or, as I’ve found helpful, something from the story itself.

This involves taking the character you’ve already been working with (or perhaps even a new character you’d like to introduce!) and writing something about them. Ask yourself, “What would this character do in this situation?” and go from there. Maybe you have two characters who show p together. How did they meet? What was the antagonist’s childhood like? What if they were in a relationship? What if the one thing that happened that sparked their descent into darkness didn’t happen? There are so many different options for writing prompts—make yourself a list. I’ve created a downloadable list below to get you started.

(PS. The stories you get out of these exercises are great bonus material for fans!)

2. Take a hike

Literally. Get outside. Get some fresh air. It could just be going for a short walk or sitting outside on your front porch or balcony. A walk or hike is exercise, which is good for you at the same time as it helps with your writing.

(My high school math teacher always had a rule that if you needed help, you had to get up and go to her desk. This is because the act of getting up got the blood flowing, and often, students would figure out the solution before they even got to her desk. The same concept applies here.)

3. Read a book

Something I’ve always found helpful in my writing is to take a break to read a chapter of a book I’m reading. Reading something similar to what you’re writing, or just reading in general, gets the creative juices flowing.

4. Accept your flaws

Oftentimes, writers want the story to be perfect the first time around. This is a fairly common wish, but it’s not very realistic. Perfection is something to strive for, a shining light on the horizon, but it’s not achievable in any sense. Things can always be improved, and you need to accept that. Your first draft is going to be messy. Maybe your second draft is messy. Maybe you’ve given it to beta readers and have feedback and your revision process is messy. It’s all fine.

Failure in writing doesn’t exist because you’ve never failed to write something. Every little step is a success, and even if you go back later and trash something you’ve written, you’ve written it. Neil Gaiman says that you can always fix a short story—a chapter—a book, but you can’t fix a blank piece of paper.

5. Ask a friend

Sometimes, all you need to do when you’re stuck is ask a friend for help. Sometimes, you don’t even need to ask for help, you just need to brainstorm out loud to them. If they’re willing to listen, tell them about the story. They’ll most likely tell you if anything doesn’t make sense (be sure to ask that!).

6. Sleep on it

Sleep is the best thing for the brain. A sleep-deprived writer most likely won’t be able to string lines together like they want. Spending a little extra time on sleeping will both refresh your brain and subconsciously help your creativity. While the brain is asleep at night, it compiles everything that happened during the day and categorizes it. Even while you’re asleep, your subconscious mind will continue working through the problem you went to sleep with.

7. Be kind to yourself

The most important thing to remember: Even though you’re being critical of yourself, don’t forget to be kind. You’re human, and humans make mistakes. Humans get stuck. It’s natural. Don’t justify your lack of creativity, but don’t bully yourself into writing.

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4 responses to “Writer’s Block—and How to Overcome It”

  1. […] Actually getting down to writing the draft can be a messy process. Sometimes you don’t know where you’re going to go. Skip that scene. Pick up the story from where you want it to get to and remind yourself to come back later. Chapter 3 not working? Put it on hold. Maybe call a friend. Written your characters into a rut? Take a break, then reread the story to figure out where things started to go off-track. Find out where your tires hit the nail and avoid it, so your car doesn’t end up in the ditch. [For more advice on Overcoming Writer’s Block, click here.] […]

  2. […] Actually getting down to writing the draft can be a messy process. Sometimes you don’t know where you’re going to go. Skip that scene. Pick up the story from where you want it to get to and remind yourself to come back later. Chapter 3 not working? Put it on hold. Maybe call a friend. Written your characters into a rut? Take a break, then reread the story to figure out where things started to go off-track. Find out where your tires hit the nail and avoid it, so your car doesn’t end up in the ditch. [For more advice on Overcoming Writer’s Block, click here.] […]

  3. […] always that you can get the full first draft on paper. Sometimes, writer’s block kicks in [click here to learn how to deal with it!] or you get stuck on some portion of the story or another. This is […]

  4. […] Writer’s Block & Overcoming It […]

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