How to defeat writers’ block

So there you are, fingers limbered up, laptop ready – maybe that structure spreadsheet in the wings. All set for National November Novel Writing month. Or some project with a pressing deadline. Or that novel you were always gonna write. You know the drill.

And – nothing. The muse has departed so fast the door doesn’t even hit it on the way out. There you are with a blank screen and – and – (Tardis cloister bell sound here) – it’s –

***Writer’s block***

What do you do? Waiting isn’t the answer. You have four weeks to write 50,000 words. Or some other short time to meet a contract deadline (and trust me, ALL time is short when you have one of those!) The pressure’s on.

Writing environment; Otehei Bay, New Zealand – where Zane Grey fished and penned some of his 90-odd novels.

Welcome to the world of professional writing. Deadlines loom. Editors bleat. That blank page or screen doesn’t fill itself. And for writers with contracts and commissions, filling that page also fills their larders, pays the rent, clothes their kids. That sort of thing. No pressure…

Ultimately the answer’s going to be personal. I’ve got a few things which work for me. Maybe they’ll work for you. The trick is not to get distracted into something that occupies your creative mind, or let too much time pass – deadline, remember. When I’m stuck, I’ll try one of these:

1. Do some housework for about 20 minutes. (She Who Must Be Obeyed likes this one).

2. Go for a brisk walk. Not long – about 20 minutes again. It’s good exercise, and you can let your mind wander.

Quite often the answer will drift in while I’m walking. The problem then, of course, is remembering it. I have the perfect phrase. And by the time I get to type it out – it’s gone. Argh!

If I’m still stuck when I get back, I’ll often:

3. Start in the middle. Maybe the sticking point is that first sentence.

4. Write anything – if you have a word processor, deleting’s easy. So’s re-jigging.  A bad first draft is infinitely better than no first draft.

And finally, if all that fails – and it sometimes does – I’ll do something totally different. But I’ll also make a time to return to the writing – a specific time. Why? Because at the end of the day, writing is only 5 percent inspiration. The rest of it, alas and alack, is perspiration. Sometimes the only way ahead is by the brute force method.

So – those a few ways to break the muse-block. Do these work for you? What do you do? Do share! Send me a few lines on your own methods – ‘matthewwrightnz <at symbol> gmail <dot> com’ and I’ll post ’em in Part 2. Or comment below.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2011


19 thoughts on “How to defeat writers’ block

  1. Are you familiar with the Artist’s Way? Julia Cameron suggests pretty much the exact same methods, although she also has people do three pages of stream of consciousness writing each morning in order to ‘purge’ and go on a weekly artist date to ‘fill the well’ with inspiration. Her advice is also: just do the worm, whether you want to or not. I haven’t read it yet, but she’s also done a sequel that’s focused on using walks to help unblock yourself.

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  2. FYI ‘worm’ was meant to be ‘work’. Darn iPhone auto-correct.

    Anyway, it’s good to see these methods reinforced by others. The Artist’s Way is a great resource for blocked writers (and artists of other kinds). It’s a twelve-week self-help course in book form.

    On a side note: I really like your blog template. The stitched field journal look is really cool. 😀

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  3. Sometimes we have to write out the garbage to find the gems buried underneath. This is my main way of overcoming a block (although I’ve tried everything you mentioned plus the stream of consciousness method Jonathan brought up).

    When I’m blocked on a scene I’ll study it to find what the block is and then write exclusively about that. Work it out of my head, get all the garbage and bad ideas out of the way and find the heart of the obstacle. This could be an oversight of planning, a character nuance I need to learn more deeply or indecision about which way to go (so I’ll write them all and choose). The final solution, at least for me, to writers block, is to write until it’s right.

    Great post, Matthew.

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  4. Nature is always my salvation. I go for a walk and focus on whatever I’m trying to conquer and presto, something totally different usually comes to me. Not always the right thing, but it breaks the log jam in mind, anyway.

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  5. The part of the Artist’s Way that I’m currently working on has a section called “Blasting Through Blocks”. Its recommendation is to sit down and do the following:

    1) List any resentments you have in connection with the project, no matter how petty or irrational they might be (eg. I resent being the second person asked to do this rather than the first).

    2) List any and all fears about the project and/or anyone connected to it (eg. I’m afraid the work will be rotten and I won’t know it).

    3) Ask yourself if that’s everything. Have you left out any fears? Have you suppressed any anger? Get it all out on paper.

    4) Ask yourself what you stand to gain by not doing the project (eg. If I don’t do the work, I can criticize others, knowing I could do better).

    5) Make a deal with your muse: “OK, Creative Force, you take care of the quality, I’ll take care of the quantity.” Sign it and post it somewhere on your desk.

    The section ends with: “A word of warning: this is a very powerful exercise; it can do fatal damage to a creative block.”

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  6. I find music or reading over what’s previously written sometimes helps. Going for a walk is great. I also find that I get awesome ideas in the shower… not sure why, but I usually come running back to the laptop with dripping hair and a bit of inspiration.
    Great post.

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    1. Hi – thanks for visiting, and your thoughts. You’re absolutely right, ideas can arrive just about any time – and then the pressure’s on to get them written down before they disappear again!

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  7. I go with number 4 – usually utilising writeordie.com. There’s something about seeing that page go red (and hoping not to hear that sound) that makes my fingers move and the words flow…

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  8. All of those suggestions seem to work for me too but I also employ a bit of ‘free writing’ from time to time. I just gaze around the room and pick something to write about. I usually end up with a load of old rubbish on the page but it seems to get the writing cogs going and does the trick. I also find that, if I’m writing about a specific subject, browsing the Internet lends a helping little hand. I seek inspiration in knowledge. And if all that fails, I tend to manage to wake myself up in the middle of the night with a ‘Eureka’ moment – I have a notebook on my bedside table for just such occasions!

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  9. I have about a mile walk to and from work (in addition to taking the train), and I come up with some of my best ideas while I’m walking. Allowing your brain to wander while seeing new visual cues can do wonders.

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