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Overcoming Writer's Block

Writer's block is one of the archenemies of writers near and far. It's a serious condition (for writers anyway) that stops the words from coming out and thus takes the very purpose of a writer away. Here are some techniques to fight this cruel impediment.

Since writer's block has some similarities with its bad sibling procrastination, you might also be interested in some tips on how to overcome procrastination.

Write Regularly

If you are not bound to specific times, it's much easier to delay your writing. Try getting into the habit of writing very regularly, at fixed days of the week and at fixed times if your schedule allows it. This will get you into a better position to write, because in those time slots, nothing else should occupy you, they are for your writing and nothing else. So when you sit down for your writing time, there is just nothing else to do than to write.

Exercise

Writing is a strenuous activity, because you have to sit for prolonged periods in a relatively fixed position and repeat a set of small motions with your hands and arms over and over. Additionally the mental effort is physically exhausting too and can cause stress after a while.

This exhaustion can manifest itself as writer's block, because the body's reserves become drained to the point where there's just nothing left to pour into your creativity.

It's therefore a good idea to occasionally break away from your writing sessions to do some fitness exercises. You don't have to climb mountains or lift elephants to get a boost to your wellbeing either. Doing just a couple of minutes of light fitness routines now and then already goes a long way towards keeping your body and mind in good shape.

The timeless classic for a quick energy recharge is probably the simple walk. Get your coat, if necessary, and go outside. Take it slow and enjoy the sight of your neighborhood, you aren't really going anywhere after all. When you get back to your desk, you will have a better posture (temporarily at least) and a better body feeling overall.

If you want to do some exercises without leaving your home, you can do a little bodyweight training. Crunches, push-ups, planks and squats can be done anywhere at anytime and don't require any equipment. Doing just 10 minutes of careful exercises is already better for your body than getting no fitness at all. The exercises will help your mind to focus much better when you are done. Sometimes new ideas might even appear while you are doing your workout, feel free to get up and take some quick notes in that case, before the idea fades away.

Reduce the Scope

If you are planning to write something big, an epic magnum opus or a really long blog article, you might be stuck because the whole project just seems too large and you have only a really vague idea of where to begin or how to continue. Try to reduce the scope of your piece for the time being. If you set out to write something that is a bit more manageable, you will have much less trouble to get into a good writing flow. You want to write a book, but writer's block is decidedly in the way? Make it a short story instead!

Don't hold back to hit your new lower target, just keep in mind that it might not necessarily end up being the big thing you originally had envisioned.

You might end up with something that really is a lot smaller, if you still see room for additions then, you can still take a shot at the bigger goal if you wish. Or maybe you are content with the outcome and decide to keep it that way after all. If you are writing with a fixed size target, this approach can still help by creating a solid base upon which you can build the larger work later.

Write Pulp

Writer's block often stems from the author's fear to write something that isn't outright brilliant or the assumption that every sentence should come out in its final form at the first try. This can lead to a total blockade for the writer.

To deal with this particular impediment throw out all aspirations of perfect writing and dare to write pulp. You don't have to intentionally dumb down your thoughts, the idea is to just let everything flow out just as it comes and get it on the page before you even have a chance to over analyze it. If you are writing on the computer it's advisable to turn off automatic spell checking and even to ignore typing errors if you spot them yourself. Pay no attention to style or good form either. Write cheesy and cliché loaded it that's what's rushing through your head at the moment. Just get it out, write trash. Be boring or zealous, be a jackass or too conventional, it doesn't matter as long as you are writing.

Remember that whatever you are writing doesn't have to be the final version, in reality it rarely ever is. You can and probably will recheck and rewrite everything you have written at least once, maybe a more often. This is true for any longer piece of writing. You can safely assume that the overwhelming majority of all books didn't make it into print without being severely overhauled between the first draft and the final product.

So, go and write some trash if those perfect words are simply stuck inside you. Allow yourself to be the pulp author for once. It doesn't matter and nobody is going to judge you, unless you decide that trash should be published as-is.

Talk About Your Work

It can help enormously to get some input from other people from time to time. Even if they are not really knowledgeable about the topic of your article or have only a vague impression of the story you are writing, they can give you new ideas and a different perspective of your work. Even if they don't contribute anything valuable themselves, just talking about your work can inspire new and better ideas, because it forces you to put your fluid thoughts into concrete words and concepts. This alone can help to escape a blockade and to go on with your writing.

You can either talk to friends and family members or seek out an internet forum for writers if you wish. Strangers on a forum have the big advantage that they are usually more willing to give you an honest an open opinion. A scathing critique is often worth more than a thousand kind words from your family. Don't be afraid to reject critics though, stick to your plan if you are convinced it is a good one.

Change Your Tools

Pen & Paper

Nowadays the computer is the undisputed king of writing tools for most authors, but staring at a blank screen with your fingers hovering over the keyboard can sometimes remove you from the actual writing process. If you are stuck, try going back to pen and paper for a while. A simple notepad and a ballpen or pencil are all you need to write the old way that has served many authors well.

Writing on paper is a much more mechanical task than the typing on a keyboard. Although the motor automatisms we have all learned when we started to write do most of the work, there is still a stronger requirement to consciously know what you want to write down when you are using a pen. This can help your thoughts to focus better on the next words instead of straying to far ahead.

Additionally paper removes practically all the tools that we have come to expect from a modern writing program. While very useful at the right time, they can also stand between you and your written words. On your notepad no squiggly red lines will alert you to your mistakes. No word counter will smugly show you how little you have written yet. This is a good thing! When you want to write down your narrative in a first draft, spelling mistakes and the exact volume don't matter at all. Cross out mistakes, scribble doodads if it helps, make a mess of the page before you, it's all part of a creative process that a computer fails to faithfully recreate.

The important part is to get your thoughts sorted and formulated. You will in all likelihood later type out your paper writing on the computer anyway, your word processor will have more than enough opportunity to rub its superiority in your face then.

There is also something very relaxing about sitting laid back in a comfortable chair with a pen in your hand. It changes the attitude, because sitting at a desk and having your hands fixed at the keyboard inevitably induces a certain amount of stiffness into the whole writing process. Try it, you will feel different about the whole endeavor before you.

Tablets

Tablets have become quite popular in the last few years and if you own an Android tablet or an iPad you have thousands upon thousands of apps at your disposal, some of them even help to get actual work done.

Writing on a tablet is somewhere in the gray area between the pen and the keyboard, but it certainly has its good sides. Many virtual keyboards offer some kind of predictive typing and automatic corrections of your clumsy mistakes. In the best case these helpers know what you are going to write before you have laid a finger on the screen, but don't count on it, your future best seller still won't write itself. Like the tools of full fledged word processors this can be more distracting than helpful. On the other hand it helps to overcome some of the disadvantages of touch screens, chiefly among them the lack of mechanical feedback.

A big plus of tablets is that they allow you to sit comfortably, much like the pen and paper way. If writing larger amounts of text on a tablet works for you, by all means go for it. Consider saving all your work in the cloud, especially if you take more than just a few notes on your device. That way, if you tablet gets lost, you will at least still have your creative output.

Dictate

Dictating is not everybody's cup of tea, it's really quite different from writing, even if it leads to the same written output in the end. If fragments of sentences are tumbling through your head, but you feel unable to put anything concrete on the page, try dictating for a change. You can either use a dedicated device, or use your phone to record yourself. While you are dictating you can skip over all formalities, like punctuation and line breaks, just keep the words flowing. Depending on your thought process, your recordings might end up being a jumble of sentence fragments and ideas. Don't let that stop you, if it helps you to craft something clear from it later.

Create Outlines

Creating outlines is a good approach to writing, not only when you are struggling with writer's block. The general idea is to write a very terse version of your final creation that can range in detail anywhere between a table of contents and a play-by-play version of every scene.

You can start with a very rough outline that basically just mentions major milestones and phases of your story or article and then progressively go into more detail.

For non-fiction writing it makes sense to outline the included topics you want to cover. This is also a good time to lay down in which order you want to introduce them, which will have a great impact on the narrative flow of the final article. If you discover that certain topics in the article warrant a more in-depth exploration, you can add subtopics.

For fiction writing it's a good idea to at least have a vague idea where the story is heading from the beginning. You could start your outline with the major plot twists or incidents in your story and then fill the gaps with more and more details. You can go so far as to prepare every scene with a rough description of what is going on. While an outline of such great detail takes a lot of time to create in itself, it can also be a major help for good writing. Not only won't you be stuck in a situation where you don't know what's going to happen next, because you have the basic script already, it's also a very good way to spot problems in the narrative before you have wasted too much time writing your characters into dead corners. Changing an outline takes much less time and effort than completely rewriting parts of a book and a sufficiently detailed outline lets you explore the story almost as good as a polished book, in terms of story flow and overall perspective at least.

You don't even have to strictly stick to outlining while you are writing down the arcs of your ideas. If you have any good ideas for descriptions, names, quips or whole passages, by all means write them down immediately. If you are going through a scene and already know what exactly a character could say there, write it down right then. It might end up in the final product, or maybe you decide later on that it wasn't that good after all, the point is to keep writing. When you have taken note of some details and don't know how it could go on, just switch back to the higher outline perspective and continue there.

When you are done and happy with your outline you will already have a pretty good idea of how your final writing is going to end up. When you start writing the actual story/article just go from one outlined point to the next. If you discover that one or the other planned point doesn't work as well as you thought, either put it on the back burner or remove it right away. Don't be shy about changing your outline freely at any time, it's not set in stone.

Write Nonlinear

You might be stuck with your writing right at the start or maybe you are somewhere in the middle and just don't know how to get to the end. Remember that you don't have to write in the order the final writing is going to be. If you already have a good idea about the structure of your piece, just skip to another section and write it down in all its glory. If you already exactly know what the end of your story is going to be, just write the ending and take care of the rest later.

This of course implies that you don't change your script too much later on, otherwise you might end up writing a lot of material that you will have to rewrite or even discard as the earlier parts of your work are changing. It might be a good idea to already have a complete outline of your piece before you start writing in this fashion, see Create Outlines.

Keep Notes

Whenever you have an idea write it down immediately. Even those really good ideas can get hazy after a while, don't assume you will be able to recall it perfectly days or even hours later. If you are a writer, it's good practice to keep a pen and piece of paper with you at all times (or use your phone if you want), to capture brilliancy when it suddenly strikes.

All the notes you will have collected after a while will be your repository of kick-off ideas when you are stuck with your writing efforts. Pull them out and use them to defeat your writer's block at the appropriate time. Some of the ideas you have written down will maybe look much less brilliant later on, just put those on a separate heap for now, but don't throw them away just yet, you never know if they become better again. Those that still seem fresh can be put to good use right away. Use them as seeds to build your writing around. This can go hand in hand with the idea to introduce random elements into your writing (see section Introduce Randomness).

Brainstorm

When you can't get anything solid written, do a brainstorming for a change. Just shout out and/or write down any bizarre idea you can come up with. It can be directly related to the piece you are working on, or you can explore other topics you are currently toying with. In any case, nothing can be to outrageous or too far-fetched. Build upon every crazy thought, if you come up with weird story idea, top it with an even weirder one. Almost everything your brainstorming produces might turn out be a really bad idea, but if just one good idea comes out of it, it was time well invested.

Introduce Randomness

When you are stuck it's often helpful to introduce elements of randomness to your thinking and writing process. These random pieces can be words that you try to incorporate into upcoming sentences, ideas that you weave into the narrative, or set pieces that you integrate into your story. This stimulates the creative process, because it forces you to use something very concrete and solid, when the writer's block is often marked by a vast void of nothing.

When you don't know what to write, you either have no tangible elements to work with or the whole narrative is still so variable in your mind, that there seems to be no way forward at all. A couple of selected words or ideas are something that doesn't have much wiggle room and your thoughts are forced to form more words around them to accommodate their meaning inside your writing. In a poetic sense these random elements are like seeds in a desert, your own words are growing around them, because they have something to attach to where there was only a flowing nothingness before.

This method, for all the obvious reasons, works better with fiction writing, because you usually can bend a piece of fiction freely to your will while you have to adhere to more rigid paths, namely the truth, in non-fiction writing.

When you are already in a block, you might have trouble coming up with truly random ideas by yourself. Since generating randomness isn't something the human brain is very good at to begin with, it's a good idea to employ the help of outside sources for this attempt.

For example, to introduce random words, you can flip open a book on an arbitrary page, point your finger blindly somewhere and use the closest verb, subjective or adjective that you see. To raise the difficulty (and the creative effect of the method) pick three of four random words at once (from different pages) and integrate them all. They don't have to be all in the same sentence or be central to your writing, just make them appear occasionally. You are doing it right, when an outsider doesn't recognize them for what they are later on, they should look like they naturally belong in the text.

There are also a lot of random generators on the internet that serve the explicit purpose to help writers getting into “the flow” of their trade. Take a look at Seventh Sanctum, which features a lot of random plot generators and writing challenges. They can get pretty wild, but that is exactly their beauty. The more outrageous they are, the better they will be at helping you to get creative again.

Get out of Your Comfort Zone

To get back on the writing horse, try to write something that is completely different form what you are usually writing. This forces your creative skills to move on unknown paths and can get you back on track with what you actually want to write. For example if you are a prolific writer of horror stories who is currently plagued by a major writing block, try writing a romance short story for a change. You might cringe at the thought, because you hate Jane Austen and get sick from sugar coated romance verbiage. That's exactly why it might help you overcome your writer's block. It will force you to write something that is completely different form your usual style and you will by necessity formulate one or the other pristine idea and get the creative juices flowing again. Just be sure to put another name on that potential romance best seller, you have a reputation to lose.

Writing


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