How to Beat Writer’s Block On Personal Projects

If you’re a professional writer, you already know how to deliver content on time, no matter what else is going on. The process of research and writing becomes nearly automatic after a while.

… Until it’s time to write in your voice and on your work. The longer we spend shaping our writing around other people or brands, the more difficult it can be to dig up the voice we had to bury: our own. Difficult, that is, but not impossible. Below are a few methods that can help you find your way back to you.

1. Stop Trying So Hard

The act of writing is simple. The process of putting words on the page ... not so much. Many people, seasoned writers included, have voices in their heads stopping them before they can even start.

The voices tell them that they're not good enough, that their ideas are not relevant to anything, that they don't even know why they decided to do this. Then there's the pressure to write a great first sentence since that's the part that will decide whether the reader reads the second and third. How to make it compelling, though? How to keep it from sounding cliche?

Rather than simply putting words on the page, so many of us ponder these thoughts and questions for way too long while the cursor taunts us. This is what writer's block is, and there's only one way to get past it:

Stop trying to write well.

If you really think about it, writing is a simple act with an almost mechanical function. We write because we have something to say. Whether that thing is an essay or a novel doesn't matter — we do it because there's something in our brain that needs to get out, and words are the vehicle. If we focus more on what we need to say than how we need to say it, we can quiet the voices long enough to get some words on the page.

Remember, whatever you're trying to write isn't about you (even if it's about you). You're writing to send a message to the world that needs to be told, a message that you've been selected to tell. Serve the message, not your ego. Write in the way that best communicates what you're trying to say.

From there, you can always polish your writing in the edits. But the message must always come first.

2. Write the Way You Speak

I know I said to serve the message and not your ego, but I'll admit that it's a slightly unfair statement. Part of why we feel the pressure to write well is because we know we'll be judged by whoever reads what we wrote. Because of that, it feels like we need to deliver something perfect or else our message won't be taken seriously.

The thing is, people don’t generally want to read something that sounds like an academic essay or a piece that belongs in a professional journal. People want to read something that teaches them, moves them, or entertains them. (Bonus points if you can manage to achieve all three at once.) Either way, filling your work with words you had to pull out of a thesaurus won’t do the job.

What will do the job is to start by writing the way you speak. If you happen to be an expert in something and write in a conversational manner, your expertise will show through while giving the reader the sense that they could be sitting with you over coffee. By talking to them instead of at them, your writing will engage them on a whole other level.

It’s okay if your speech happens to carry with it some grammatical mistakes. You should still start by writing the way you speak in the first draft and then polishing it up through the edits. (Remember, you’re a professional. You already know how to do this.)

But don’t polish it all away. And don’t polish all of you away. Keep the tone conversational, so your reader hears you and your message, not just impressive-sounding words.

And know that there are some grammatical conventions you can ignore (no, I do not mean the Oxford comma). Go ahead and write in passive voice sometimes just to give the piece a sense of flow if that truly matches the way you speak. And don’t worry about ending a sentence with a preposition occasionally — to be honest, not doing so can sound pretty stuffy sometimes.

Write for clarity and meaning and not for an “A” to ensure that your reader will get your message and get to know you a little better in the process. And if you’re really stuck, talk out loud about the subject to get yourself into the flow. This will help you clarify the message and tap into your voice.

3. Read the Style You’d Like to Write

Here’s a really fun trick: If you aren’t happy with the way you’re writing on any given day, read something you love. There’s no way the style you’re reading won’t filter through to your writing, even if the difference is slight.

Think about accents for a minute. If you spend a month in London, you’re going to go home sounding a little more posh. If you hang out in Texas for the same amount of time, you might find it hard not to drop a “y’all” every so often. (Seriously, is there a word in the English language more satisfying to say than “y’all”? Give it a try, it always feels good.)

Accents are acquired even when they’re not meant to be, and the same can happen in your writing. You don’t even have to stick to the same medium, either.

You could read a great novel, for example, if you want to incorporate more magic into your blog posts or essays. Or you could read some poetry to elevate your descriptive language. Good writing is good writing, no matter the format. If your voice is feeling stuck, read something magical to unclog the pipes.

4. Just Answer the Question

And if you’re still not able to find your voice after years of writing in everyone else’s try this final step: Just answer the question.

It doesn’t matter what you’re writing; the beginning is always a question. The question in fiction is always, “What happens next?” The question in poetry is, “What do you have to say?” The question in a blog post or article or essay is pretty much exactly what the headline is.

Just answer the question.

This is going back to the “serve the message before the writing” idea I mentioned above. This should always be the first thing on your mind. Writing starts with a question, and it’s up to you to answer it.

Remember, we writers often get stuck writing because of two things:

  1. We don’t think what we have to say is worthwhile

  2. We don’t think we’re the person who can best serve our message

As a result of these doubts, we focus more on the way we write as the problem. We think if the right words would come, then all our problems will be solved. But that’s not really the problem, is it?

The problem is that we don’t trust that people will want to hear what we have to say, and we’re not even sure we’re the right person for the job.

But the idea came to you, didn’t it? Shouldn’t that mean something? Shouldn’t that mean everything? At the end of the day, we’re not snowflakes. It’s safe to say a topic on your mind is also on the mind of some other people as well — and that they’ll be happy you started the conversation.

The goal shouldn’t even be to know all the answers. Often if we simply validate the importance of a topic by bringing it up in the first place, our readers will be immensely grateful for it. If all writing is the beginning of a dialogue, then all you have to do is start the conversation.

Photo by guy stevens on Unsplash