The debate on the existence of writer’s block is as long as it is tedious. There are those who would argue that it’s nothing more than an excuse for laziness but if you’re a writer, you’ll know these people and that statement are wrong. Yes, we all make excuses from time to time. When I sit down to write, I am often overcome with the urge to organise my entire music collection or—horror of all horrors—partake in housework. This is called procrastination, a term I’m sure you’re overly familiar with.
Writer’s block, on the other hand, is an entirely different beast.
And when it comes to defeating it, Google suggests a plethora of articles claiming to solve your dilemma. However, most articles will offer up poetic overarching statements like ‘let go of your fears’ and ‘forget about your expectations’.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with this. It’s actually good advice—but it’s vague as all hell.
By all means, DO let go of expectations and fear and doubt and worry; these things will only hold you back and cause you to censor yourself. But if you truly want to kick-start your creativity again after a period of inactivity, arming yourself with a few specific, practical tips is perhaps the best way forward.
Here are six practical things I do to trick myself out of writer’s block:
1. Cut distractions.
Put every device (including the one you’re using to write) on Airplane mode. Make your writing the ONLY thing in front of you and force yourself to put one word in front of the other. Even if you ignore the rest of this list, this tip alone can get the ball rolling. The internet is built to distract us. Shut it out. (And no—doing ‘research’ does not qualify as writing.)
2. Hit fast forward instead of pause.
If you’re stuck on a chapter, jump ahead; you can always come back to the previous one. If the idea of this rattles your nerves and you absolutely MUST write in order, simply jump ahead within the scene. This may sound unhelpful but the difference it can make might surprise you. The beginning of a new scene plays havoc with my perfectionist’s brain so I avoid the pressure of constructing a perfect opening and skip it altogether. The ellipsis is your friend. Just add dot-dot-dot, hit enter, and write the first few words that come to mind. Keep going. Add an ellipsis every time you hesitate and focus only on the bits that are clear to you. By the time you reach the end of your scene, you’ll have found your writerly groove and will fill in those gaps with ease.
3. Write badly.
Give yourself permission to suck. Much like dancing like no one is watching, writing without censorship or editing of any kind will tap into your creative well. No author writes a perfect first draft. Write with abandon—write with the knowledge that the only pair of eyes to lay sight on this travesty will be yours. Use ALL the adverbs. Write monotonous drivel. Throw in XXX when real words fail you. Just tell the story. THEN go back and fix it.
4. Check that outline.
An outline is your map in the story wilderness. Just as you wouldn’t go on a trip without first finding out how to get there, don’t set yourself up for extra work and brain ache by skipping this important step. The story is important but knowing the structure and having a clear timeline of events by which to tell that story will save you a world of pain. I get it. I used to be one of those people who thought that writing a rigid and detailed guide would hinder creativity. It didn’t. And an outline doesn’t have to be rigid OR detailed. It can be as flimsy as you like. It can be as simple as listing the main events of your book. You can leave the ending wide open if that better suits your purpose and technique. But regardless of how much work you do or don’t put into the outline, having one will help you when you find yourself stuck or lost. And if you don’t already have an outline, make one. (Scrivener is perfect for this.)
5. Outline the current scene.
Like a micro version of everything I mentioned in the last tip, outlining on a smaller scale has helped me battle my way through stubborn scenes. Bullet-point everything. You know where your character was last seen and what she was last seen doing. So, what happens next? Your main outline should tell you as much or perhaps you’re winging it. Either way, once you know where she is to be seen next, bullet point your way through each step she must take. This might sound like a stupid or redundant move but it does help. With the main course of action in place, it becomes surprisingly easier to fill in the gaps and flesh everything out.
This final tip might seem like a bit of a cheat. Reading won’t increase your word count. At least, not directly. Sometimes though, we really do need a timeout from our writing projects. By using that timeout wisely—by reading, for instance—you’re refilling your creative well. It does work. I’m still constantly surprised when something as simple as a well-constructed sentence in a book will spark a new train of thought for my own work. Or sometimes, after finishing a beautiful story, I’m compelled and once again inspired to redouble my writing efforts. By no means should you ever wait for this inspiration—but if all else fails, and you’ve been sentenced to the writing bench, reading another author’s work will fire things up again. Writing requires imagination and there is no better way to develop and nurture and harness your imagination than by reading.
These tips have worked for me, time and time again, and I hope they might prove useful to others. I’d love to know what other methods actually work for the rest of you. Leave a comment and let me know your personal tricks for beating writer’s block.