Beating Writer’s Block

A few months ago, I wrote a post on advice for beginning writers which has been getting fairly consistent views every week. What’s that, internet? You want me to write more? Okay…

Nothing is more soul-crushing than writer’s block. You are a writer who cannot write – it is the ultimate existential crisis. You find any excuse to procrastinate, from doing housework to catching up with friends. And no matter what you do, the very fact that you’re not writing seems to compound the problem. But what is writer’s block, exactly? And why is it so crippling?

Writer’s block seems to be several different types of creative impedimenta that are grouped together under one title. Treating it as a specific condition that afflicts all sufferers equally would be a mistake, because it fails to recognize that writer’s block has numerous iterations. Some writers have difficulty conceiving an idea. Sometimes they have an excellent idea, but it runs out of steam a few chapters later. Other writers feel intimidated by the pressure to live up to their previous successes. And yet others – and I can put myself into this category – will often have trouble finding the right beginning to their story.

There have been several studies that have attempted to unravel to mystery of writer’s block. A block can be formed by any number of factors – lack of inspiration, depression, adverse changes in one’s life, a feeling of pressure. But I think the vast majority of instances of writer’s block originate within the author’s work itself. And that means that writer’s block – in most cases – is completely treatable.

So what are some successful strategies for overcoming writer’s block?

Fact: Hemingway overcame writer's block by sheer force of his masculinity.
Fact: Hemingway overcame writer’s block by sheer force of his masculinity.

Image credit: JFK Museum

1. Exercise

This is the most common advice for overcoming writer’s block. Get out of your house and do some exercise. The endorphins will make you feel good, and the change of scenery will invigorate your mind. You might even find something inspiring.

The only thing to watch is that exercise becomes a form of procrastination. During my PhD, I underwent several protracted periods of writer’s block, and I was getting quite fit by the end of them. I much prefer my natural state of slightly-round-about-the-middle productivity.

2. Read around your subject

If you’re stuck for ideas, read what other authors have done with similar subjects or themes. And if one of their ideas captures your imagination…

Remember – if you steal from one author, it’s plagiarism. If you steal from multiple authors, it’s research.

3. Write around your subject

Write other stories featuring the same characters. Write down a list of character traits for each character. Write down their histories, their backstories. Explore their universe. This is particularly helpful for writers of science fiction or fantasy who are trying to flesh out new worlds.

4. Do writing exercises

Can’t think of what to do with your story? Go write something else! Write a poem. Write a blog. Write an essay. Write a short story. It keeps your mind engaged with writing, but directs your attention to somewhere else.

Here are some suggestions for writing exercises:

– Keep a diary. Writing every day helps to maintain focus. Writing shouldn’t be a matter of waiting for motivation – it should be a matter of habit. Habit always beats motivation.

– Write a stream-of-conscious narrative. What are your thoughts? Write them down, right now, without pausing, without corrections. Just get that shit onto paper, son!

– Write about the writer’s block. “I am having writer’s block right now. I think it’s because…”

5. Edit

If the ideas aren’t coming, perhaps it’s time for the editing process to begin. If you get writer’s block halfway through a project, look back on what you’ve written and start editing. It will stop you from procrastinating, and thinking critically about your own work may allow you to diagnose the problem that is causing the writer’s block.

6. Encouragement

It has been suggested that writer’s block may extend from a lack of encouragement. The author feels overwhelmed by the project, or that they are lacking the experience of constructing and sustaining a long narrative. In these cases, seeking the encouragement of a friend or mentor can certainly help. Having someone read through your manuscript and give constructive critical feedback can be one of the most helpful exercises for a writer. And if you’re serious about publishing, having a friend look at it before sending it to an editor is a logical step.

In my previous article about writing, I mentioned the benefit of belonging to a writing group. I’ll extend that advice to seeking out creative writing courses. The best teachers aren’t the ones who just provide feedback on a piece of work – they’ll guide the student throughout the project and help to analyse what’s working and what’s not working.

7. Diagnose and Change

The previous points are designed to help stimulate the mind and get you thinking about your work in fresh ways. But this last point is the most important, because it helps you to diagnose the problems within your own work.

I most frequently encounter writer’s block on the opening page of a new story. I start writing, but it just doesn’t feel right. There’s an intuitive understanding that something is fundamentally wrong about this scene, and I can’t make any progress until I diagnose what’s wrong and make some changes.

Things that I typically look for:

– Point of view: Is this a suitable protagonist for this scene? Should this scene be told from another character’s point of view?

– Characters: Are these characters even suitable for the story? What it the purpose of using these particular characters in this particular story? What is their character arc?

– Tone/style: Am I approaching this scene with the right tone? Is it too serious, or too frivolous?

– Language: Are these the right words? Are the sentences too long or too short? Does the dialogue fit the characters?

– Scene: Is this the right scene to be starting on? Should the narrative be starting earlier or later in the story? Should I perhaps use an in media res beginning, to get the action going?

With a bit of luck, some of these strategies will help the next time you find yourself with writer’s block.



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