18 ways to beat writer’s block
Blank pages are intimidating—some blank canvas don’t inspire genius, but anxiety. Or boredom. Or a list of ex-lovers (there needed to be a joke about that T-Swift song). Whatever they inspire, it’s never good news for a writer.
Blank pages are a common symptom of a disease that plagues writers each year, known as writer’s block. Writer’s block is simply when a creative cannot produce any new material because of a mental block. Where writer’s block stems from is up to debate by neuroscientists and psychologists, but it’s unwanted by every writer trying to make a living.
Writer’s block comes in many different forms—like boredom, a lack of focus, unable to write what comes next, or an inability to express words properly—but most importantly it goes away. It’s not forever! But you need to work at making sure it stays away. Here’s a comprehensive guide in order to beat writer’s block, for good.
I hate sports metaphors but one applies here quite nicely. Just as athletes warm up before a big game so their muscles do not become tense (and useless), writers must also warm up their brain and creativity. To beat writer’s block, warm up your brain with these easy activities:
- Do something creative, but don’t write. The purpose of this is to open your brain up to creativity, not just writing. Sketch, doodle, sculpt, write a joke, rearrange small furniture, whatever. If you’re not artistic, it doesn’t matter—the point is that you aren’t thinking about writing, but you are thinking creatively. Personally, there’s a keyboard right next to my laptop, so I often scoot my chair over to play the piano. It generally jumpstarts my brain and it also has the same functions as typing.
- Read, but be careful what you read. Now is not the time to go down the internet rabbit hole. In fact, stay away from the internet and the subject/form you are writing about. If you are a novelist, read a news magazine. If you are a copywriter, read a novel. If you’re content marketer, read poetry. If you don’t like to read, then why are you a writer? Cross-reading different subjects and forms can help jumpstart your passion for the subject you are writing about.
- Never start with a blank page. It’s intimidating. Always write something down, even if it’s nonsense.
A bonus warm-up exercise? Turn off the internet. Mute all of your devices from pinging or ponging or making any kind of distractions. If you stay focused, you’ll stay creative.
Writing is hard. Writing is hard. Writing is hard. I repeat, once more, writing is hard. No professional writer sits around waiting for inspiration. This is because they have discipline to write anyway. So make a new writer’s resolution and learn these techniques to strengthen or develop discipline to your craft,
- Start anywhere. Should you write the introduction first if your brain is writing your fourth point? No. Write about whatever is on your mind. Vomit words on the page. (This is a habit I highly endorse; I actually wrote this piece by word vomiting.)
- Free write. “You write your first draft with your heart, and you rewrite with your head,” is advice from Sean Connery playing a curmudgeon writer in Finding Forrester. The point being, of course, that there is no need to edit while you write. Editing will have you tripping over your words and ideas. Stick to writing your heart’s desire. Then destroy those desires with a red pen later.
- Talk it out. If you have a desk job where you’re writing all day, find a cozy spot away from the main floor or office and talk to yourself. Out loud. Record these thoughts, too. Then, you can try and transcribe or at least remember what you were thinking about at an earlier point. It’s later useful for editing purposes.
- Reorganize your research. You may have a meticulous method for structuring your notes, but it may be that very process that’s blocking you. Try writing a simpler outline with two important facts from each source on another sheet. Less information is sometimes more.
- Write without your research. This seems counterproductive, but it forces you to focus on crafting a story, rather than relying on the research. Think about the story first—how it flows, how it works—and write the story. Add in fact-checked details later.
- Use the Pomodoro Technique. Set a timer for 25 minutes. You may only work on your assignment for 25 minutes and do nothing else. Besides pressuring you to write, you can use it as a productivity gage, measuring how long it takes you to complete a task.
- Use mind maps and word association. There’s plenty of software that can help you create mind maps and help you think of new words, but it may just be simpler to use a pen and paper. Write down topic ideas and words and then draw out branches to related ideas and similar words. Visualizing your writing can help bridge interesting connections.
- Set a new deadline. If you are prone to procrastination, this may mean nothing to you (as you thrive under tight deadlines) or everything to you. It all depends on your discipline. If you are a well-disciplined person, bumping up the deadline of an article gives you enough pressure to make a diamond.
Change your environment
Writer’s block is often psychological—the ego of the writer—but don’t discount the role environment plays in tapping into creative genius. Changing up your environment can be instrumental to beating writer’s block.
- Listen to music. Studies show that by listening to music you like, you can focus better at your workstation. It’s a case of trial and error to find what works for you; however, I caution listening to all the music you like. Some lyric-heavy genres like rap or melodic ones like pop can be hard to focus to after a long time. Classical is an easy choice for most, but I spent years playing in orchestras and choirs for me not to hum different parts. Currently, I’m listening to The Social Network soundtrack on loop and then I’ll make my way to the Gone Girl soundtrack.
- Take a walk. A study from Stanford University shows that taking walks boosts creativity. Interestingly, it’s the act of walking—not the indoors/outdoors environment—that improves cognitive functions. So you really can’t use that “it’s raining” excuse.
- Take a shower. Some of your best thinking comes from being in the shower, thanks to the white noise of water pouring down on you.
- Fix your workspace woes. To many, cleaning and organizing your workspace may seem like procrastination (and it is, in a way), but some people can’t work without clutter. (I am not one of these people. I am a master of the mess). Organizing and cleaning your space can be helpful, but why not consider a little redecoration? If you only do one thing to decorate your workspace, invest in a green plant or two.
- Cut down on the caffeine. Caffeine is the miracle drug of choice for many a late night, but it harms more than it benefits. In small doses, caffeine can improve short-term cognitive task performances like memory and attention span, but only because your brain is suffering from a withdrawal without caffeine (if you are a regular user). Caffeine also affects mood, irritability, and productive. Some better alternatives to caffeine to consider are green tea, ice water, power naps, exercise, and frequent breaks.
- Learn to adapt. If you can’t write without absolute silence or without any interruptions, be prepared for this. All the time. By noise-cancelling headphones, turn off all devices, become a hermit. Otherwise, learn that things are out of your control and you still have deadlines to meet.
Exhausted of writer’s block tips yet? Well, hopefully by now you are just exhausted of writer’s block. Put these good tips to use. In the mean time, I leave you with 13 successful writers on how they navigate writer’s block.
How to Be a Writer is a series that is titled exactly as it sounds. In the digital age, writers are facing new issues on top of the old. As publishing continues to shift and change, not only are writers forced to change as well, they’re establishing themselves entirely differently, making breaking into the scene even more challenging. In this series, we offer up tips, tricks, and general commentary on the journey (or slog) that is being a writer.
Image credit: Florian Klauer via Unsplash