For the first time, in a long time, I couldn’t write. Some people call it writer’s block. I never liked that term and in his book Writing Tools, 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, Roy Peter Clark (Poynter Institute) says we should think of this as a time of “rehearsal” or the process of “mental preparation,” but whatever it is, it’s definitely not good when you’re a writer.
For those of us who make our living as freelance writers, the problem becomes exacerbated with looming deadlines – article for a publication (print or online) or content for a client. When we either can’t find any words or thy come out sounding like lackluster prose we become more frustrated making it more difficult to get back on the creative wave we’re used to riding. So, obviously it’s a cycle we need to break because that’s what it is – a cycle that repeats itself over and over again as our mind says “you can’t do this.
So when this happened to me, as I sometimes do, I posted my dilemma on Facebook where a good many of my friends are also writers:
“Dear Writer Friends I Could Use Your Help. I’m not sure how to get through this. My writing lately is like bumping into a wall. Nothing comes easily and the final copy sounds like (fill in the blank). Any ideas on how to get through this rocky road would be appreciated. Thanks.”
Sometimes there’s no reason why a specific post gets a lot of attention on social media but apparently I hit a painful nerve for many writers because the support and ideas on how to break this cycle started flowing in. And what I ended up with was an amazing list of ideas about how to get through the block cycle, so I thought I’d share some of them here with you in my inaugural blog post for my website aimed at helping other writers. In no particular order, here they are
- Tracey Arial: Try writing a letter to yourself about the frustration. Or try to write poetry about your feelings. Or describe the room you are sitting in. Or write a letter to someone you love. Or start writing your “last lecture.” When a deadline isn’t getting me moving, I try to think of an emotional exercise to get me out of my head and into my heart. Maybe it will work for you too.
- Lisa MacColl Step away from your computer, grab a notebook and some colourful gel pens and map it out the old-fashioned way with pen and paper. Go to a coffee shop or some other spot that isn’t your office and see what flows. Or, try writing the conclusion first. Or do the outline and sub points in different colours or anything that loosens your creativity. I’ve found just switching to pen and paper helps.
- Ann Douglas concurs: One time when I couldn’t write at all (and the 2nd edition of The Mother of All Pregnancy Books was long overdue), I wrote about 100 pages of point-form notes in pen. Paper is less intimidating than a screen. She also adds: I promise myself I only have to write for 30 minutes or an hour — or that I only have to write in point form. Usually, if I do that, the words start flowing a bit more easily. Not always, but often enough that I return to these two strategies again and again.
- Miranda Miller: I use the book : Creativity Workout: 62 Exercises to Unlock Your Most Creative Ideas when I’m stuck! Bonus: the kids and I use it when we’re bored. Instead of writing prompts, we pick random words from the charts and do drawing prompts, where you have to draw something with three random things in it.
- Evelyn Symons: Pretend you’re writing a letter to me or to a pen pal. I what to hear it all.
- Allison Graham: I find writers block usually stems from self-doubt, self-judgement or unreasonable pressure. I find when I focus on serving the reader with the written message, versus focusing on is this any good in the midst of it re-energizes my flow.
- Nathalie Kleinschmit: Maybe forget your usual writing. Try playing with the words. A Haiku poem or a song. This past year, maybe because of working with artists, songwriting has been my outlet. And now, writing has become easier again.
- Jill Ellis: My key to productivity is an absolute commitment to deadline. “There is no try,” paraphrasing Yoda. Also, finding a great lede makes the piece take off & easier to write.
- Helen Lammers-Helps: Have you read Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way? Two messages I took away from that book are to write Morning Pages and the “artist’s date.” For morning pages, every day you write three pages of whatever comes into your head, no self-editing. This clears the mind and frees it up to be creative. An artist’s date involves ideally a weekly outing where you “fill the creative well.” This could involve a trip to a museum, a walk where you really take in your surroundings, sitting down and doodling, etc. It’s some time for you to rejuvenate.
- Kate Merlin Hanson: Self-care. Get some fresh air and exercise. Then try clustering and turn off editor because s/he is hampering your writing at this point. Send things to him/her later when you are ready.
- Heather Wright: When I’m stuck, I go back to the implements I used when I first got creative–paper and pen or pencil (I think we have a theme here). And a change of scene works wonders for me–coffee shop, library. The writing blahs can feel like an enormous weight that you just can’t get off your chest. Remember all of the great writing that you’ve done, and know that it will come back. Maybe you’re not writing what you should be writing. Is there a project that you keep pushing to the back burner that should be up front? Maybe this is its way of making you pay attention.
- Nicole Joanna: When I hit a wall I usually try to do something completely different. Like go for a walk. Have lunch with a friend. Anything to get me away from staring at the computer screen (in frustration).
- Amy Baskin: also suggests morning pages and says, I also swear by truly rough first drafts. Write a fast crappy draft of your work. Then leave it. Preferably for at least a few days. Then, return to it with fresh eyes. Rewrite and polish. Walking outside also helps. Ideas seem to flow then.
- Sharon Aschaiek: I find the more I try to engage with life, whether through hobbies, classes, friends and family or volunteering, the more easily ideas flow because I am constantly collecting fresh insights about the world and myself.
- Maggie Chicoine: One more idea generator that works for me: flip through a magazine or any book at random and find a picture or phrase that intrigues you and catches your eye. Then start writing with that thought, even though your original subject matter might not be related.
- Timothy Perrin: has a message for all writers: Your instincts are great. You have not managed to succeed all these years without both talent–whatever that is–and hard work. TRUST yourself and just write. Like someone above said, write shitty first drafts. I often tell my students that Hemingway said, “All first drafts are shit.” I don’t know whether he did or not but the statement is true. And sometimes second and third drafts, too. Writing is a process, not an event. But if you take the steps, do the work, do what you’ve always done, you WILL get the results.
There were many more suggestions, some similar, some unique, but I think this is a great list to get started with when you’re stuck. And most of all remember the lesson I learned here, you’re not alone in this. As writers, we all go through it.