There are few things more demoralizing than writer’s block. You never see it coming, and you never know how long it will last. What’s more, it’s now in style to say that writer’s block isn’t real, and that daily diligence will prevent blocks from forming. If only that were true.
I’ve been writing professionally for seven years now, and I’m here to say that a daily writing practice is important, but it won’t stop you from having days when the words won’t come. What a daily writing practice does help with is being able to pick up and try again the next day. But the blocks are still there, and the pain is real. Here’s what I do when the words won’t come.
How I Unblock My Writing
1. I Diagnose the Cause of My Writer’s Block
I try to deal with my writer’s block almost like a scientist so I can discover the cause and find a treatment. In doing so, I’ve discovered that my writer’s block is usually triggered by one of these things:
I only have a vague idea of what I’m trying to say
I don’t have a complete grasp of the topic at hand
I’m in the midst of emotional upheaval
I’m subconsciously focusing on the “right” way to write
I’m writing about something I think I should write about
Some of these might resonate with you, while some might seem ludicrous. For example, you might find that emotional disruption spurs your writing even though I’ve just said it blocks mine. The point isn’t to understand some universal truth about writer’s block — it’s to understand how this frustration materializes in your life.
2. I Create a Treatment for Each Trigger
The act of understanding your patterns and finding solutions for them is how you can treat writer’s block. Here’s what I do about each of the aforementioned triggers:
If I realize my issue is an incomplete grasp on the topic at hand, I find someone with whom I can talk about it. Their questions help guide my research, but I also usually end up realizing that I understand the topic more than I thought I did.
If I’m in the midst of emotional upheaval, I might have to take some time to deal with the situation at hand if possible. If not, I put aside my assigned work and take to a notebook — the hope is putting my emotions on paper will get them out of my head long enough for me to do my work.
I usually realize I’m too concerned with the “right” way to write when my words come out stilted or clunky. I’ll then take 15 minutes to read a favorite writer for the type of writing I’m working on. This helps me get my head into the style I want to write in.
I tend to notice I’m writing a “should” topic when the words that come out veer sideways from what I planned. In that case, I go ahead and write what wants to be written so it can get out of my head and on paper. Usually, after that, I can go back to my assigned topic or, if it was for my own work, possibly even dismiss that topic altogether.
3. I Use Stream of Consciousness As a Tool
If all else fails, there’s one thing that always unblocks me: Writing in a stream of consciousness style. Here’s how I do it:
I take a pen and legal pad to a coffee shop, leaving the laptop and all its distractions in my bag so I can’t try to use it during this exercise.
I write for two minutes about the first person that walks in, giving myself only a few seconds to notice their clothing, demeanor, and anything they’re carrying. I might write a fictional account of what they’ll be doing after they leave or what the start of their day looked like.
I do it again for the next person, this time for five minutes.
Finally, I do it one more time for the next person, this time for ten minutes.
The stories I write when I do this exercise never see the light of day. They’re not meant to be good; they’re simply meant to create a flow of words. It can be shocking to realize that a couple of seconds of examination of any person, place, or object can generate entire stories in your mind if only you let it.
Then, once the juices are flowing again, I find it easier to go back and make progress on the work I was supposed to be doing. This might sound time-consuming, especially if you’re blocked on assigned work or bumping up against a deadline. However, this 17-minute exercise (or 30 when you factor in the commute to a coffee shop) ends up saving me hours I would have lost to writer’s block. It’s not easy to say it’s time to change track and try something else, but I find that it always works for me.