Writer’s block is a problem that every writer will run into at some point during their career. It can be caused by any number of things, from a lack of motivation or inspiration to feeling pressured or stressed.
Ernest Hemingway summed the feeling up quite well when he was asked to recall the most frightening thing he’d ever encountered and responded with “A blank sheet of paper.”
While there’s no sure fix for writing anxiety and sometimes all you can do is wait it out, there are some tried and proven strategies that many other writers employ when they find themselves staring at that dreaded blank sheet of paper (or blinking cursor on an empty screen).
1. Figure out why you’re stuck
If at any point during the writing process you feel completely at a loss, the first step is to try to figure out what is causing your mental block.
Perhaps you’re feeling overwhelmed by the sheer amount of work you have ahead of you, in which case, breaking it down into smaller chunks could be helpful. Maybe you’re worn out and stepping away from everything would clear your mind, or maybe you just need to buckle down and start writing instead of waiting for inspiration to hit you.
Whatever the case, you can’t fix the problem until you know what’s causing it, so be honest with yourself and take a good look at the underlying issue.
2. Write what you can
Often, the best way to beat writer’s block is to just start writing, even if your first attempts are eventually discarded.
“Ten minutes of free writing with no pressure to move the story or characters along does it for me,” says fiction writer Martha Conway. “By the time I'm done I've usually gotten an idea of how I want to proceed on my ‘real’ manuscript,” she says.
The thought of completing 500 pages, or even 1000 words, can be extremely daunting, but the simple act of putting words down on paper can help to clear the blockage and get ideas flowing. If you’re having trouble articulating your main argument, start with the caveat; if you don’t know how to begin your story, but have a clear picture of what happens down the line, start by writing that instead.
Starting with a few practice paragraphs can be another great way to get warmed up, says author, writer and publisher Alan Black.
“My favourite way [to avoid writer’s block] altogether is by simply never quitting a writing session unless my protagonist is in trouble,” he adds. “I sort of cliffhanger myself so I have to get back to writing to get him/her out of trouble.”
3. Do something completely unrelated
If you’ve been toiling away at the keyboard for hours, what you may really need is a complete break from writing. Turn off the computer and switch your attention to something unrelated, whether it’s cooking a meal, taking the dog for a stroll or watching an episode of your favourite TV show.
“Firstly, I get away from the computer and go for a walk, cycle or run – something to get me out of the house,” says editor and writer Adrian D. Roberts.
“If I'm still stuck, I'll read something in a similar vein to what I am writing or watch TV or films. Anything really that might give me some inspiration of where to go next in the book. Often it is the completely unrelated things that can give you the seed of an idea,” he notes.
Freelance writer Robert Gosselin, suggests engaging in an activity that works other parts of your brain.
“I like to paint or do something visual like photography,” he says. “I find that engaging other parts of my brain in creative endeavours tends to wake up the writing parts of my brain.”
4. Change your work environment
It may sound odd, but changing even just one small aspect of your normal routine can be a great way to shake off the cobwebs and get those creative juices flowing.
If you always work from home, try doing some of your writing under a tree in the park, at a local coffee shop or in your car. Sometimes even just moving from your desk to the living room sofa or standing at the kitchen counter can make a huge difference.
On the other hand, if you generally work in a more unstructured way, following a particular routine for a while could prove to be helpful. For instance, you could do all your researching from one desk, and your more creative work from another, so that you start to associate those locations with certain activities.
5. Do something physical
So, if you’re feeling sluggish or just can’t concentrate on the task at hand, try going for a run or brisk walk instead of loading up on caffeine. The change of scenery will also help to stimulate your mind and give you something new to think about.
6. Write about something completely unrelated
As with switching activities, writing something other than the thing you are struggling with can give your mind a much needed break and allow your thoughts to flow more freely.
Content writer Nammie Matthews believes that venturing into another mode of writing can often help to put things in perspective.
“The last time I ‘contracted’ writer's block, I attended a Poetry Slam and was inspired to have a go writing a poem of my own,” she says. “Sometimes, taking on a brand new task makes the problem you're stuck on seem much simpler in comparison.”
7. Try some brainstorming techniques
Sometimes your writer’s block might be down to a lack of ideas, in which case a good old fashioned brainstorming session could be just what you need.
You can go old school with a pen and paper to draw up idea webs, connected circles or lists, but these days there are also plenty of great mind mapping tools and brainstorming apps that can make your life easier.
For example, Text2MindMap allows you to type out your thoughts or words and then turns them into mind maps for you, while Idea Generator gives you combinations of words that are seemingly unrelated, allowing you to create novel lines of thought.
Reading blogs, books and publications related to what you are working on can also help you to come across ideas that can be further developed for your own use.
8. Talk to someone
It’s easy to get lost in your own little world when writing, especially when you’ve been at it for a while, so being able to bounce ideas off someone or even just have a conversation with a real live person can do wonders for your state of mind.Others will also view your ideas and writing more objectively, and will be able to give you a fresh perspective or shed light on something that would have otherwise never crossed your mind.