Ten Tips to Trounce Writer's Block

There's a school of thought that says there's no such thing as writer's block. It's an excuse put about by lazy wasters who spend more time dreaming of glitzy literary parties than doing any actual work. But whether or not you subscribe to this view, there's no denying the fact that writing has its bad patches. Sometimes it's extremely difficult indeed. Sometimes it's hard to write anything at all; sometimes it's impossible to believe that what you've written is any good.

Today I'm listing my favourite strategies for getting going again when the going has got tough. You probably have lots more ideas I haven't thought of - if so, please add them in the comments and let's build up a resource that has something for everyone.

1. Fool your brain
I read somewhere [citation needed] that smiling releases endorphins, so by making yourself smile, you trick your brain into feeling happier. Similarly, you can convince said brain that you're writing. I do this by copying out something I have already written. The act of scribbling makes it easier to carry on beyond the end of the scene, and before I know it, I'm writing something new.

2. Do the fun bit
Skip ahead to an easy scene, or one that's been occupying your mind so much that you can't get on with anything else until you've written it.

3. Tell the dog
Explain verbally what you're trying to achieve. Tell a pet, a tree, a cuddly toy, a tape recorder, or if you're very brave, a writer friend. Articulating the idea brings it into focus, and even if the dog just snuggles deeper into his basket in the hope you'll go away, you have made a statement of intent – once you've said it, you have to get on with it.

4. A change of scene
Try writing somewhere different – in the garden, on a park bench, in a café or library. Or try longhand when you normally use a computer, or vice versa. Break the habit of sitting in the same place staring at the same blank page.

5. Get off your backside
The word “exercise” strikes fear into the heart of those of us who remember shivering on a sleet-swept hockey pitch while a “teacher” with the world view of a Tyrannosaurus Rex (but a smaller brain) screamed “MOOOOOVE!” But it doesn't have to be like that. Exercise includes nice stuff like walking and gardening. Ignore the fact that lots of hugely talented famous writers were drunken slobs – exercise really does renew your mental and physical energy. Honest.
I am trying to convince myself of this more than I'm trying to convince you.

6. Shoot the crap-censor
Writer's block isn't just the blank-page phenomenon – sometimes it means looking back over every sentence with a despairingly critical eye. It all seems so, so dire that you never make any progress. Don't worry, just lower your standards. In fact, don't have any standards at all. Hell, you can even use adverbs if you like. Just bung any old crap on the page. [Caroline makes a superhuman effort to resist the temptation to add “It works for Dan Brown.”]

7. Don't be yourself
If you are not motivated and inspired, act the part of someone who is. Pretend to be a focused, well-organised, supremely talented writer, and get her/him to do the work.

8. Clock on
In a normal job, you must show up and get on with it whether you like it or not. Treat writing the same way for a while - turn up, slog through it, then go home. Others might view your writing as a self-indulgent arty-farty little hobby, and it's difficult not to internalise this attitude and feel that, because you're not guaranteed to make money, it isn't real work. Tell your inner guilt to take a hike, because it is important and it does deserve the time.

9. Tiny goals
Set a minuscule target – to write 100 words, or to edit one page. Every step is an achievement and is far better than neglecting your writing on the basis that you haven't really got time to get into it - with the result that the small amount of time you do have is aimlessly spent watching YouTube vids of funny cats.

10. Wait it out
Tides ebb and flow; so does the writing life. Motivation and inspiration need a rest sometimes – let them rest, and do something else while they take their time to regenerate. Treat 'em mean and keep 'em keen – if you don't agonise over them or lament their absence, chances are they'll come crawling back when you least expect them.


Photograph by Warley Rossi.


Julie P said...

Lots of useful ideas, Caroline - thanks (Who's Dan Brown?)

I always find it useful, when I'm struggling with my writing, to pretend to interview myself for a magazine, and write my questions and answers down - where I write, what first got me into writing, what my writing goals are etc. I am therefore writing something and I trick my 'I can't write for toffee' brain into it!

Julie xx

sarah fox said...

Thanks, Caro - some great pointers - I like the idea of telling the dog!

Susie Nott-Bower said...

Fabulous post, Caro - so useful to be reminded that I CAN do something when the dreaded block strikes. Especially like the 'Fool Your Brain' one - that's ingenious!

Caroline Green said...

Some really great tips here, thank you Caro. My only one is to write any old nonsense in my version of morning pages. Even writing about how hard writing is helps!

Gillian McDade said...

Caroline, I love the idea of telling the dog, or in my case, the cat! I'm definitely going to try that one!
Thanks for the tips :)

Administrator said...

Some really good ideas there, Caro.

I lose myself in research for a while if i'm blocked, telling myself that this still counts as writing. But i absolutely agree, it should be treated like a job, and unless there is something going on in your private life that's distracting you, i think it is all too easy to tell yourself it's something all writers go through and that you should just sit it out - rubbish! Put pen to paper and get on with it!

Fionnuala said...

Caro, fab post as always. I did a course in London last week and this subject was covered. I dont have the notes to hand but think you've covered everything that was suggested AND you've added the dog. Does a goldfish count?! I do love the idea of building this as a resource though so if I think of any more will let you know.

Jeannette said...

I can relate to this! A change of scene works best for me, maybe because it also involves a walk to get there. On the other hand, if it gets to the point where I'm taking advantage of needing to go out to write in a café, I set a timer and force myself to "just write anything" for 20 minutes. It's kind of like instrument practice with the children. After 20 minutes, I usually don't want to stop....

Anonymous said...

Great rules and tips, Caroline. My main resolution has to be: 'Stay in more!'


Tangledally said...

Thanks for these great tips!
I like this one from Jean Hannah Edelstein:

"But the best thing I discovered was the fake commute, recommended by a (non-famous) writer friend: aping one of his own heroes, he gets up every morning, gets dressed, walks around the block several times, and goes home to work."


A walk around the block after breakfast certainly helps to shake the cobwebs out for me.

Geraldine Ryan said...

I often think "Just trust yourself". We writers can be really hard on ourselves some time. For e, worrying that I don't have an idea just makes it a dead cert that no idea will come. As soon as I stop worrying and throw myself into something else, an idea will come.

Geraldine Ryan said...

Just wanted to post this link to my online friend's post on the same point. Here's what Teresa Ashby has to say on the subject:-


Though it's hard to imagine Teresa ever getting blocked!

Lydia said...

Lovely to hear other people's ideas for beating the dreaded "block" - sometimes it's not so much not being able to write as thinking everything you do write is rubbish. I'm with you, Sam - just get on with it. I take the dog for a walk which often blows away mental cobwebs, but failing that I just bash on anyway, even though it feels like wringing clothes through a mangle. I had a day like this recently: I just couldn't write anything, I was so depressed about lack of progress. So I spent the day revising and editing an old story to resubmit. Guess what? I sold it! Sometimes when I "just write anything" I come back to it later and re-read and realise it's actually not that bad. Geraldine, you are sooo right: we just need to trust ourselves. One of the most fabulous things about blogs like this one is to know that we are not alone and that everyone feels the same sometimes - even the great Teresa Ashby!

Jenzarina said...

I always wondered who the other 14,000 people were who had clicked on YouTube videos of 'funny cats'.
Yup, it's all the other writers.

Caroline R said...

Thanks for all the additional ideas - all really useful. I think "just trust yourself" is particularly important one to remember.