Writing about a writer’s block is better than not writing at all.
I couldn’t let the irony of the above quote pass as I did my research for this article, although I’m not personally feeling writer’s block at this minute.
Let me start by saying that, in my opinion, there are three main types of writer’s block:
- Midway through a piece of writing and don’t know where to go next
- Trying to start a piece and don’t know where to begin/keep redrafting the first paragraph or chapter
- Can’t seem to put pen to paper at all (more what I spoke about last week with fear of writing).
It’s a common misconception to think that you have to wait to feel “inspired” before you can write. In my first ever university lecture a wise professor said, “Good writing is 2% divine inspiration and 98% hard work and revision.” This gem passed on that day was something that I wouldn’t forget and would become the lynchpin of my writing theories and practice. A lot of the time I feel like 98% of the time writer’s block is writers just being too hard on themselves.
Side note: I am primarily a writer of fiction so forgive me if a lot of these examples lean that way. Okay, let’s get into it!
1. Start keeping a journal
Diaries have the 13-year-old girl stigma, that’s for sure, but some of the most famous writers—and people—in history kept journals (Albert Einstein, Sylvia Plath, Marie Curie and Mark Twain to name a few). Not only is it a healthy and constructive way to express your feelings, it gets you in the habit of writing and helps you gain confidence in wording things quickly and fluidly.
2. Make a plan: get that brain storming!
If you are looking to write a specific piece, there’s nothing like having a plan to get you started. This definitely got me through all my year 12 English essays. The planning was actually the hardest part for me mentally – deciding what to write. But once the plan was done, all I had to do was execute it. Easy peasy! Right? Brainstorming can give you completely new ways to write your content. Researching is also a great way to get you more familiar with your subject matter and can help you write from a far more authentic place than if you just go off hearsay, general knowledge or movies you’ve seen about that culture, event or time period.
3. “Free write” every day for a week
This is similar to a diary, but it can be a short exercise for someone who isn’t into my previous suggestion. Free writing is something that makes some people uncomfortable because you can literally write about anything. Anything at all. Try writing every single day – first for a week, and then see if you can go longer and make a habit out of it. Countless writing teachers over the years and across campuses everywhere have urged their students to write every day. How do you get better at your craft? Practice it. Writing + More Writing = Better Writing. It’s just maths.
The difference between a diary and free writing is that often with a diary people feel restricted to simply recording the events of the day. While a diary needn’t follow this format, free writing can be a poem, a train of thought monologue, a story or an unstructured political essay. Literally whatever you like.
4. The “no backsys” rule
While working in retail (full time writing jobs are hard to come by, kids) an experienced journalist and novelist came into my store and ended up giving me some stellar advice that helped me write the first draft of my novel. I am now up to my third draft, and without her, I may have never gotten past chapter one.
Her advice was to scribble out your first draft as fast as you can without looking back. Don’t re-read and try not to even backspace. The “over obsessers” (I know that’s not a word) usually end up with a finished product … of a perfect first chapter, while the scribblers end up with one whole, totally flawed draft. This wise journalist said to me, “The first thing you need to do is give yourself a skeleton to work with. Without the skeleton how on earth are you supposed to learn the shape of your story?”
5. Remember that “all first drafts suck”
This brings me to my next point. She also said “First drafts aren’t meant to be read. They’re meant to be looked at by the writer then completely ripped to shreds (figuratively).” But without a first draft you will never have a finished product. Writer Geoff Goins says, “All first drafts suck,” so don’t judge yourself – just put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and activate this necessary key to writing a polished finished product.
You then unlock the magic of what I like to call the “secret first draft”. If you know you’re not going to show it to anyone, you’re far less likely to judge yourself. Only start showing your work to people at the second draft and, I promise, you will work faster.
6. Research writing prompts
This is for the ones who hated Tip # 3. One of my best friends Taylor gives the bestest birthday presents ever. A couple of years ago she sent me this book called 642 Things to Write About. It was such a brilliant resource and a lot of the articles on this blog are inspired by those prompts (one of my favourites to write was Your City 100 Years From Now). You don’t have to buy this book – writing prompts can easily be found from a quick Google search. Using a prompt is not cheating. Sometimes getting a writing prompt can be just the kick up the pants we need. You’d be surprised at the ideas that start popping into your head as soon as something provides you with direction.
7. Read your work out loud
I’m probably not making many friends with this post but reading your work aloud can be one of the most effective ways to spot mistakes. First give yourself a day or two of space from when you finished the content then, if possible, print it out, and read it aloud with a red pen in hand. It has been proved that you’re better able to see mistakes on a printed document than reading on a computer screen. Another way to get past writer’s block (mid-piece) is to let a trusted person read it and give you honest and constructive feedback. Remember, just because someone says more than “Loved it!” doesn’t make you a bad writer. It just means you’re being given an opportunity to grow in your craft.
8. Read, read … and then read some more!
One of the other gems in that first university lecture was “READ”. Read anything you can get your hands on. Read old stuff, new stuff. Read classics, read trash (if you don’t read both, how are you going to know the difference?). Reading teaches us and inspires us to be better writers. I’ve never met a good writer who wasn’t also completely obsessed with reading. I read in an essay by George Orwell that a true writer needs to have a love affair—to the point of obsession—with words. That was the moment in second year of uni when my choice to become a writer was confirmed.
9. Take a break
This is more for those stuck in the middle of their writing pieces, because of course you can’t take a break from something you never started. If you haven’t yet begun, SKIP this step and don’t apply it, or you’ll never write. Finish your break and start working!
If you’re stuck in the middle, get up from your chair or couch and get out and do some exercise, work on a jigsaw puzzle, draw, eat something, play a video game – sometimes we can all get in our head and we just need something to snap us out of our funk.
10. Play 20 Questions with your main character
If you’re specifically stuck with a character, write out a big list of questions about your character and then answer them – including really specific things like bra size, hair texture and the foods they secretly hate. As I said to my friend and fellow writer, Emily, when she was stuck with a story: Your character is usually already there – they just need to be uncovered. Once you start to really get to know your character – they’ll decide what their next move in the story is and you just follow their lead.
11. Find a fresh angle
If you’ve written a scene and don’t like it, rewrite it in a completely different way (or from another character’s perspective) and see if you can come at it from a different angle. If I try to swap in words here and there to my original paragraph, I can often find myself demotivated to come up with anything fresh, but starting the same section anew forces me to think of something original. Then make it a competition and the inferior version gets cut while the best version earns a place in your content.
12. Let someone else drive for a while
This one is a bit unorthodox but, oh well, it works for me. If you’re halfway through a story or piece of fiction and can’t figure out where to go next, get a family member or friend (preferably one who is not a writer at all) to read only the last paragraph and then continue on with the story for a few paragraphs (or pages). They can change the story as much as they want and make it as ridiculous as they like.
It may sound crazy, but when I was drafting my first novel in high school, my siblings (who are not writers, no offence) used to take over when I got stuck and write the craziest scenes – leprechauns were mentioned – and somehow after reading them and laughing, I was able to get back on track. Maybe I’m crazy. But don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.
13. Just write!
My final tip is so obvious – it’s that the best way to overcome writer’s block is to just write (dammit!). Open a notebook or Word Document or Google Doc right now and just start writing. Are you doing it?
You won’t regret it – promise.
Images (all sourced 9 February 2019):