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, #sorrynotsorry). 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.

Warm-Up Exercises

I hate sports metaphors but one applies here quite nicely. Just as athletes warm-up before the big game, playoff, whatever 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. A simple sketch, doodle, sculpture, 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 means 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 Techniques

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 forcing pressure on 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 Up 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 redorcation? 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.

13 Writers on Writer's Block

By Emily E. Steck

The psychological condition was first coined in 1947 by Edmund Bergler to describe a dry well of creativity, usually from writers who have developed insecurities. Here are thirteen successful writers on what they believe writer's block is. 

  • Neil Gaiman

    By Emily E. Steck

    “Suggestions? Put it aside for a few days, or longer, do other things, try not to think about it. Then sit down and read it (printouts are best I find, but that’s just me) as if you’ve never seen it before. Start at the beginning. Scribble on the manuscript as you go if you see anything you want to change. And often, when you get to the end you’ll be both enthusiastic about it and know what the next few words are. And you do it all one word at a time.” 

  • Mark Twain

    By Emily E. Steck

    “The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.”

  • Ernest Hemingway

    By Emily E. Steck

    “The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day … you will never be stuck. Always stop while you are going good and don’t think about it or worry about it until you start to write the next day. That way your subconscious will work on it all the time. But if you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start.”

  • Charles Bukowski

    By Emily E. Steck

    “Writing is something that you don't know how to do. You sit down and it's something that happens, or it may not happen. So, how can you teach anybody how to write? It's beyond me, because you yourself don't even know if you're going to be able to. I'm always worried, well, you know, every time I go upstairs with my wine bottle. Sometimes I'll sit at that typewriter for fifteen minutes, you know. I don't go up there to write. The typewriter's up there. If it doesn't start moving, I say, well this could be the night that I hit the dust.” 

  • Hilary Mantel

    By Emily E. Steck

    “If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to ­music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.”

  • Terry Pratchett

    By Emily E. Steck

    “There's no such thing as writer's block. That was invented by people in California who couldn't write.” 

  • Megan Spooner

    By Emily E. Steck

    “Writer's block' is just a fancy way of saying 'I don't feel like doing any work today.” 

  • Barry Lyga

    By Emily E. Steck

    “I don't believe in writer's block. Writer's block is when you're running down an ally and all of a sudden you're trapped by a brick wall. You can't go under, over, or through it. You're stuck. But the problem isn't that you can't pass the brick wall. You see, the problem is that you went down the wrong ally.” 

  • Elmore Leonard

    By Emily E. Steck

    "You hear of writers having such a tough time. They say, 'I can't make it work', and I always think, 'Why not?' I don't believe in writer's block. I've only been stuck briefly but then something will interrupt my day. I'll focus on that and when I go back to my work, I'm not stuck any more.When I started out, I found a writer I liked and learned from him. I liked Hemingway because he didn't use too many words. He'd leave out descriptions of people so the reader could visualise what the characters looked like. When I saw he did that, I thought to myself: 'Hey, I can do this.'"

  • Alexander McCall Smith

    By Emily E. Steck

    “Writer’s block is a load of nonsense – I’ve always been a bit suspicious of it. It’s more likely to be a symptom of depression or maybe they’ve just got nothing interesting to say. Using your imagination to create a work of fiction involves exercising the mind and the more you do it, the more adept you become. I go to Botswana for a couple of weeks a year and I just open my eyes to the opportunities in everyday life. Most of my writing is what I have in the bank of memories I’ve accumulated.”

  • Charlaine Harris

    By Emily E. Steck

    “I think writer’s block is a way the brain has of telling you you’ve taken a false step. I think you need to wait a day or two, then start reading your work from the beginning, and the false step should become apparent.”

  • Norman Mailer

    By Emily E. Steck

    “Writer’s block is only a failure of the ego.”

  • Anne Lamott

    By Emily E. Steck

    “The problem is acceptance, which is something we’re taught not to do. We’re taught to improve uncomfortable situations, to change things, alleviate unpleasant feelings. But if you accept the reality that you have been given – that you are not in a productive creative period- you free yourself to begin filling up again.”

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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

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