Updated: May 5, 2022
Don't let the dreaded block stop your creative flow. Try these practical and useful ideas to get the words flowing again.
You know that empty feeling when you're staring at your blank screen for hours on end wondering why the words won’t come? Why some days the words flow faster than your fingers can keep up with, but other days your imagination is plugged tight shut?
Writer’s block has plagued some of the greatest writers of all time, so you’re certainly not alone.
While there are many writers out there who claim that writer’s block is a myth – the phenomenal Terry Pratchett being one – there are others who acknowledge its very real impact on the writer.
Whether you agree with Pratchett, or are experiencing the frustration for yourself right now, what’s most important is how you deal with it.
We have put together ten great tips to get your fingers moving again.
“The wonderful thing about writing is that there is always a blank page waiting. The terrifying thing about writing is that there is always a blank page waiting.” ― J.K. Rowling
10 Tips to Beat Writer’s Block
1. Look for the root of it
What is it that’s stopping you from writing? Is it a lack of time? Lack of inspiration and ideas? Is it, in the words of Normal Mailer, a failure of the ego, a lack of self-belief?
Writing – no matter the style or subject matter – can feel incredibly overwhelming, especially when impostor syndrome kicks in. Whatever the root of the problem is, take some advice from Mark Twain: ‘The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.’
Take your writing one step at a time: write one manageable scene, or one dialogic interaction, or one description of setting, or one description of character at a time.
There are no rules when it comes to setting your daily word count (unless you’ve got a deadline with your publisher!) so don’t set yourself up to fail. Set yourself realistic and manageable writing targets so that you can feel you achieve your daily goals. If you manage more than your target – great! That feeling of success will give you a real buzz and spur you on for the next writing goal.
"The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one." — Mark Twain
2. Change your scenery
Do you have a favourite writing place? Your dining table, your comfy sofa, your lovely bistro table on the patio in your garden? Maybe you don’t have a quiet space at home and prefer to work in the local library.
Maybe you prefer the hustle and bustle of the coffee shop down the road – with the added benefit of some people-watching to flesh out your characters. Wherever it might be, however much you love that place, it has the potential to become stale. To become less inspiring. To feel like part of the problem.
Think about mixing it up. If you usually write at home, take it outside. Find a space in nature and draw inspiration from that. If you usually write in the silence of the library, camp out at a table in a café and see what the noise brings you.
The same can be said for writing at different times of day. If you are a late-night writer, try getting 500 words out before breakfast instead. Look at the sky, listen to the birds, feel the difference that time can bring.
Don’t let routine become habitual and uninspiring.
3. Accept imperfection
If you’re anything like me, whenever you sit down to write, you expect perfection. If you’re anything like me, you bash out a few hundred words, read it back to yourself, and decide it is absolutely awful.
Writers are an unforgiving bunch – especially when it comes to themselves. One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was to accept imperfection in your writing.
Perhaps Terry Pratchett’s thoughts about writing block stem from his thoughts about the writer’s first draft: the first draft is just you, telling yourself the story.
Of course it is! Look at great literature, classics, best sellers and award winners – they all started with a dodgy first draft that needed work, attention and refining.
Don’t let first draft imperfections put you off.
4. Don’t start at the beginning
Two of my clients have polar opposite approaches to writing when it comes to order and chronology.
One will always start at the beginning and write in chronological order through the chapters until the draft is finished.
The other takes a very non-linear approach, writing scenes out of order depending on moments of inspiration, and the time available in the allocated writing slot.
A third client takes a completely different approach: first she writes the opening scene, then the closing scene, then everything in between in chronological order.
There is no right or wrong way – what matters is what suits you best.
However, there are advantages and disadvantages to each of these methods. Writing in a linear fashion can become frustrating when you are stuck on a particular scene and just can’t move past it – but it does make the editing job much easier. Approaching your writing in a non-linear fashion can make the writing job easier, but be aware of the challenges this creates for editing: is the chronology of the story still right, do your character arcs still work, have you kept on top of pace and rhythm in the sequencing of scenes and chapters.
But, ultimately, don’t feel compelled to start at the beginning. If you are stuck on what happens after your opening scene … skip it. If you are struggling with how to plunge your protagonist into a whole new world of trouble and challenges … skip it. Write the bits you do know. The rest will come.
5. Switch between projects
Often writers find their enthusiasm for their writing project can go a bit stale. Perhaps they have been struggling with one particular section for so long that it has become disheartening, that it is more of a hard slog than an inspiring writing experience.
One solution is to just suck it up and get on with it.
Another suggestion, however, is to follow in the footsteps of Diana Gabaldon, Neil Gaiman and James Patterson, who each have a range of projects they are working on at any one time, so they can switch between them whenever they need a change of focus.
Be careful with this though – it creates more opportunities for you to confuse plots, characters, and tone.
6. Use writing prompts
One of the best ways to get the cogs turning again is to use writing prompts. If you are stuck for inspiration, go looking for ideas.
One of my favourite games for generating ideas is ... what if? What if the industrial revolution had never happened? What if Amy Johnson’s plane hadn’t crashed? What if Columbus had never set sail.
While these might have nothing to do with the project I’m working on, they may at least get the writing juices flowing again. Taking your mind away from your most pressing project gives your brain a sense of freedom, of being unburdened.
Another approach to reigniting your imagination is to find images of inspiring places, using these to practice setting descriptions or for new settings for your novel. Just check out these images on BoredPanda or Rough Guides and you are certain to find some inspiration.
7. Keep a dream journal
That moment right after you wake up – suspended between conscious and unconscious minds – that can be the most fruitful for ideas. It’s the bit where you remember your dreams. Snatches of images, brief snippets of action, echoes of feelings.
Be like Graham Greene, keep a dream journal.
In his fifties, Greene himself suffered from a creative ‘blockage’, as he called it. His solution was to immerse himself in dream journaling. Greene found the process of dream journaling so successful, that he published a selection of his dream-journal entries in A World of My Own.
Your dreams are yours, and no one else’s. No one can judge you for them. No one will see them. But you will enjoy the creative freedom of writing down your innermost dreams.
Read. A lot. Of everything.
No matter where you turn for writing advice, the answer will always be the same. Read.
In the words of Jeffery Deaver, ‘… there’s no such thing as writer’s block; the problem is idea block.’
Immerse yourself in literature. Read the greats, read in your genre, read out of your genre. Read fiction, read craft books, read biographies. But read.
Use this reading time to study the literature already out there. How does Madeline Miller use setting description to so effectively evoke images of Circe’s Aiaia? How does Hilary Mantel so cleverly explore and unfold character through dialogue? How does G. D. Abson immerse the reader so deeply in Natalya Ivanova’s Russia? How does Lucy Strange use language and rhythm to perfectly encapsulate time and place?
"Read, read, read. Read everything ..." — William Faulkner
9. Switch your focus
Your day’s writing goal doesn’t always have to be on the narrative or the dialogue. On days of creative blockage, when the story just isn’t coming, try mixing it up.
Do some character work and develop your character profiles. Throw your characters into different settings (unrelated to the story) and see what happens. Pair characters up in new ways, create new enemies, new lovers, new mentors – just make it different.
Work on setting. This could encompass world building or writing standalone sections from your novel which focus on setting description. Try writing a scene set on a beach, then try writing it set in a cathedral. Try setting a scene on a summer’s day, then set the same scene in the middle of a raging storm. How do mood, tone and intent change?
Consider your plot in the context of a different genre. What would happen if you recast your romance novel as historical fiction? Your horror story as fantasy? Your middle grade mystery adventure as a crime thriller? See how your characters change and mould to their new genre.
Play with point of view. One of my clients was a third of the way through their novel in third person limited before they realised it worked so much better in first person. And who is your point of view character? Change it around and bring forward one of your supporting characters as the new point of view character. How does this change your story?
10. Take support from other writers
Writing can be isolating. It can be draining, frustrating and, on a bad day, soul-destroying (or, on a really bad day, soul-destorying).
Don’t suffer alone. Reach out to other writers, join writing circles, take part in writing festivals, join NaNoWriMo. There are thousands of writing forums out there, all filled with humans going through the very same struggles as you. Get on there, ask for advice, and give some in return.
No matter what you may read on the internet, writer’s block is a very real, very frustrating thing. It doesn’t mean we should throw in the pen and give up, but it does mean we need to consider what strategies we can use to dislodge the blockage. We hope these top 10 tips for dealing with writer’s block will get you back on the writing track.
For more support with your own work in progress, contact us to discuss our Book Coaching services.