Thirteen Ideas on Breaking Writer’s Block

 

Last week on the Ricochet podcast, it seemed that Peter Robinson (@peterrobinson) was suffering from a bout of writer’s block. It made him irritable and had him implying that those writers who didn’t suffer from it might have ridden to their parents’ weddings on bicycles.

I have more than a bit of experience with writer’s block. Half my vanity-project books are unfinished due to it. (Either that, or because I came to my senses and realized those dogs were never gonna hunt.) As part of one project from my past, I started cataloging and categorizing bits of advice that I had for writers, especially poets. In that catalog are thirteen tips for dealing with writer’s block.

Now, none of these bits of advice are original to me. Writer’s block has been around since the day after the invention of the alphabet. Naturally, people have been using ideas similar to these since those early days of writing. So, if you’re suffering, consider these to be bits of wisdom from the ages.


Read past works.

When you come to a stopping point, stumbling block, point where you just can’t write, maybe looking at your past works will help.

The reality is that all of these points in this section boil down to the advice to relax and get away from what you’ve been trying to write. By putting aside your performance anxiety and looking at your past glory, it can change your mood and attitude toward what you are currently writing.


Read other people’s work.

Maybe reading someone else’s writings will help re-inspire you and re-energize your writing.


Put it aside for a time; write something else.

Some authors have multiple projects going in different formats so there is always something to write, but there’s no pressure for one specific thing to be written. I presently have these writing projects going:

  • Seven science fiction novels,

  • A mystery novel,

  • At least four poetry self-help books,

  • A business marketing book,

  • My own poetry, which could be gathered into a compilation book,

    • Twenty-nine unfinished poems to work on when the mood strikes,

    • Two-hundred-six poetry ideas for new poems in a database,

  • Newspaper opinion columns, which also could be compiled into book form.

    • Two unfinished columns,

    • Seven column ideas.

So, that’s fifteen book projects at once, plus numerous shorter writing opportunities, such as show up on Ricochet. It gives something different to work on each day. This may not be the sanest way for a professional writer who is under deadlines, but if you are writing for fun, why not? You don’t have to be constrained to write one thing and finish it immediately. Even if you are under deadlines, sometimes working on something else for half an hour or an hour lets your brain process the more urgent work behind the scenes.


Write in another format.

Can you turn what you’re writing into a short story, a novel, prose, non-fiction, etc.? Can you write a short story, a novel, prose, non-fiction, etc. on a different topic that will allow your current poem (or other work) to brew in your unconscious? (As I mentioned above, this started as a list for poets.)


Write in another format. (Episode II)

Try a different format of poem. Perhaps you’ve been writing in free verse? Try writing it as a villanelle or sonnet. The structure might help bring it together. You say you’ve been trying a very structured form? Try a less structured form. Perhaps the final product has to be in a certain form? Try writing it in another form first to break the block. Then go back to the original form.

For those writing prose works, can you outline it? Can you put it in some other form that will be a spur for the final form? Can you do something ridiculous, such as writing it as a poem? You don’t have to finish it, just get yourself started writing again.


Don’t force it!

Sometimes, the words just aren’t flowing It’s better if the writing flows when it’s ready, not when you are. Again, if you are under a deadline, try a short break and come back to it, or edit what you do have and see if it starts flowing again.


Write something silly.

The main way to get over writer’s block is to be writing. Write something. Anything! Do it now! Seriously though, starting out to write something totally silly can break the mood and hold of writer’s block. Once you start writing something silly, you are writing again. Will it be long before the serious stuff starts again?

Unless, of course, you’re a comic writer or poet. Then you might consider writing something serious for once. Basically, get away from your norm for a bit.


Write about not being able to write.

A poem or bit of writing doesn’t have to be good to get you writing again. Sometimes you just get stuck and need to get something out to unblock the inspirational passage. The key is to find something to write about. It primes the pump for more inspiration out of the well.


Free associate.

There are various methods of free association that writers can use to break the block. One of these methods is called clustering, where you write down the central idea in the middle of a blank sheet. Then write related ideas all around it, and then write ideas related to those ideas. If you do this for long enough, you might decide to get back to work on your own or run out of paper.

Another free association exercise is as follows:

  1. Think of a word and write it down. It can be any word. It doesn’t have to fit the theme you might have been trying to write on. The objective is to get back to writing.

  2. Now set a kitchen timer or watch for at least one minute and start it going.

  3. Write down a word that rhymes with the word you have chosen.

  4. Use the time you have set to write down words that either rhyme with or are associated with one another. The point is to write quickly.

There are many other variations, but they all use the idea of free association. Don’t let your internal editor or critic in the room, just write quickly with whatever comes to mind.


Get away for a while. Clear your mind.

Put down the pen; step away from the keyboard. Come out with your hands up! Take a walk in the woods, or just take a walk. Get writing out of your mind. Come back in a half an hour or two hours and try again. Maybe you need to combine this with another suggestion already mentioned? Get away, and when you come back, write something else, or change formats.


Show it to someone else for comments or suggestions.

At the very least, most negatively critical reviews will anger you into focusing your purpose more and taking off with it. Better criticism might even be able to express what needs to be changed.

Also, it just helps to be able to discuss a piece with a living body. Usually, if they actually say much, it just gets in the way. The act of formulating your thoughts about the problem with a piece often gives you the solution, and what they say doesn’t matter anyway.


Write a blues song to clear away your troubles.

You got troubles? Nothing going right? Can’t write your way out of a paper bag with a sharply pointed pen? Maybe it’s time to sit down and unburden your soul in a blues song. Get it all on paper, and wail it out into the night. You’ll feel better in the morning. This author usually feels a lot better about half way through writing it down. There’s just something about writing a blues song that unblocks everything and brings a smile to the face. If you can write how bad it is, maybe it isn’t so bad after all.


Breathe!

Stop. Close your eyes. Take three of four deep breaths. Pay attention to your breathing. Visualize breathing in through your feet and out through the top of your head. Breathe the power and energy of the universe through your body rather than just air.

Techniques from Yoga, TM, and other metaphysical and meditational practices can bring you back and clear you out. They can free your inner Muse to write again.

One might even consider a bit of prayer, followed by enough silence to let G-d speak.


More from the Ricochetoisie?

So many of us are writers here. What has helped you overcome writer’s block in the past? Can you help Peter Robinson out, so he’ll be back to being the polite, loving, and kind Peter we’re all used to?

 

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There are 42 comments.

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  1. Percival Thatcher

    Arahant: Write something silly.

    I already was.

    Write about not being able to write.

    This I have done. It works.

    Show it to someone else for comments or suggestions.

    No way in hell. Or … maybe, someday.

    I get sidetracked into thinking that I need more research, then the research just leads me away from what I was doing, or closes off options I was tending towards.

    • #1
    • September 19, 2019, at 10:23 PM PDT
    • 7 likes
  2. Arahant Member
    Arahant Post author

    Percival (View Comment):
    I get sidetracked into thinking that I need more research, then the research just leads me away from what I was doing, or closes off options I was tending towards.

    Yeah, research can be deadly, especially for an INTP. One may never see him again.

    • #2
    • September 19, 2019, at 10:25 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  3. Arahant Member
    Arahant Post author

    That reminded me of another idea.

    Break the job into smaller chunks.

    If it is a large project, and part of why you are facing writer’s block is that it seems daunting, break it into small pieces and just take on one at a time.

    • #3
    • September 19, 2019, at 10:27 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  4. Judge Mental Member

    Arahant (View Comment):

    That reminded me of another idea.

    Break the job into smaller chunks.

    If it is a large project, and part of why you are facing writer’s block is that it seems daunting, break it into small pieces and just take on at a time.

    I would do something similar writing code. If you start a project and you don’t know how you’re going to do it all, start with the part you do know. Even if the overall structure is unclear, there will be parts within that that are clear. So working on those can give your subconscious days to work out the next piece before you get there. Just keep moving forward.

    • #4
    • September 19, 2019, at 10:35 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  5. Gary McVey Contributor

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    That reminded me of another idea.

    Break the job into smaller chunks.

    If it is a large project, and part of why you are facing writer’s block is that it seems daunting, break it into small pieces and just take on at a time.

    I would do something similar writing code. If you start a project and you don’t know how you’re going to do it all, start with the part you do know. Even if the overall structure is unclear, there will be parts within that that are clear. So working on those can give your subconscious days to work out the next piece before you get there. Just keep moving forward.

    Pure inspiration feels best, but sometimes you just have to grind it out and hope that subsequent revision makes it “sing”. When that happens, I assign myself a metaphorical job ticket, after the printed sheet or card of specs attached to a car on an assembly line. Usually coded, it means, roughly, “This car has to be a four door Dodge Mirada, 3.5 liter engine, interior package 4, cobalt blue”.

    In my case, it’s more like “I liked the White House scene, I liked the atom bomb scene, but in between, at minimum, we have to establish somehow that the West and the South are going to secede from the Union, and Arahant is putting up the money for the rebellion”. Okay, a phone call? No, a helicopter ride. But we don’t want to have to do the whole thing in one long talky scene. So break it up. How?” 

    • #5
    • September 20, 2019, at 12:37 AM PDT
    • 8 likes
  6. Arahant Member
    Arahant Post author

    Gary McVey (View Comment):
    Pure inspiration feels best, but sometimes you just have to grind it out and hope that subsequent revision makes it “sing”.

    That’s what makes the pros.

    • #6
    • September 20, 2019, at 3:09 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  7. Seawriter Member

    I work on tight schedules and cannot afford writer’s block. Generally when I get it, it means I do not know enough about the subject I am writing about. So, I skip that segment for the nonce and go to some other part of the book. Meanwhile I do more research on the area I am blocked.

    • #7
    • September 20, 2019, at 4:33 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  8. ctlaw Coolidge

    Those of you who have always lived in a world of word processors don’t know how easy you have it. Writer’s block is huge when you actually have to write. The task of editing is very difficult.

    Even within one work, having a word processor helps break writer‘s block. One can skip back-and-forth between editing existing material and writing new material.

    • #8
    • September 20, 2019, at 4:37 AM PDT
    • 9 likes
  9. Arahant Member
    Arahant Post author

    ctlaw (View Comment):

    Those of you who have always lived in a world of word processors don’t know how easy you have it. Writer’s block is huge when you actually have to write. The task of editing is very difficult.

    Even within one work, having a word processor helps break writer‘s block. One can skip back-and-forth between editing existing material and writing new material.

    Amen to that. I remember the old days all too well.

    • #9
    • September 20, 2019, at 5:33 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  10. SkipSul Moderator

    ctlaw (View Comment):

    Those of you who have always lived in a world of word processors don’t know how easy you have it. Writer’s block is huge when you actually have to write. The task of editing is very difficult.

    Even within one work, having a word processor helps break writer‘s block. One can skip back-and-forth between editing existing material and writing new material.

    I started using a program called Scrivener last year, and it’s amazing. On long projects it lets you keep multiple different drafts going within a single file, have sub-folders for notes, and lots of other organizational tools.

    It makes the editing of things very smooth too, as you can make draft forks that let you try multiple approaches when stuck, or when editing, and then easily move text back and forth.

    • #10
    • September 20, 2019, at 6:07 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  11. Bethany Mandel Editor

    I walk away and have a dedicated time and place to think (the shower. TMI?). The hardest part about breaking the block from there is I can’t write anything down, but I think that’s part of why that’s the place I’m able to do it. 

    • #11
    • September 20, 2019, at 6:28 AM PDT
    • 7 likes
  12. Songwriter Member

    Arahant (View Comment):

    ctlaw (View Comment):

    Those of you who have always lived in a world of word processors don’t know how easy you have it. Writer’s block is huge when you actually have to write. The task of editing is very difficult.

    Even within one work, having a word processor helps break writer‘s block. One can skip back-and-forth between editing existing material and writing new material.

    Amen to that. I remember the old days all too well.

    Wordsmiths had it easy. Those of us who write music had only pencil and paper until relatively recently. And so-called composer software is really more accurately described as typesetting software. I wrote everything by hand on score paper until about 2010. And I know plenty of guys who still work the old-fashioned way.

    Interestingly, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David wrote every episode of “Seinfeld” by hand on legal pads.

    • #12
    • September 20, 2019, at 6:33 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  13. Arahant Member
    Arahant Post author

    Bethany Mandel (View Comment):

    I walk away and have a dedicated time and place to think (the shower. TMI?). The hardest part about breaking the block from there is I can’t write anything down, but I think that’s part of why that’s the place I’m able to do it.

    There are shower white boards available.

    • #13
    • September 20, 2019, at 6:59 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  14. Arahant Member
    Arahant Post author

    Songwriter (View Comment):
    Wordsmiths had it easy. Those of us who write music had only pencil and paper until relatively recently. And so-called composer software is really more accurately described as typesetting software. I wrote everything by hand on score paper until about 2010. And I know plenty of guys who still work the old-fashioned way.

    Too true. Although these days, you can hook in a keyboard and play to transcribe and then move stuff around.

    Songwriter (View Comment):
    Interestingly, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David wrote every episode of “Seinfeld” by hand on legal pads.

    The old ways still work. And it’s a different thinking process than being at a keyboard. You can draw pictures in the margins.

    • #14
    • September 20, 2019, at 7:01 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  15. SkipSul Moderator

    Songwriter (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    ctlaw (View Comment):

    Those of you who have always lived in a world of word processors don’t know how easy you have it. Writer’s block is huge when you actually have to write. The task of editing is very difficult.

    Even within one work, having a word processor helps break writer‘s block. One can skip back-and-forth between editing existing material and writing new material.

    Amen to that. I remember the old days all too well.

    Wordsmiths had it easy. Those of us who write music had only pencil and paper until relatively recently. And so-called composer software is really more accurately described as typesetting software. I wrote everything by hand on score paper until about 2010. And I know plenty of guys who still work the old-fashioned way.

    Interestingly, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David wrote every episode of “Seinfeld” by hand on legal pads.

    The slower and more deliberate pace of pen and paper (or mechanical pencil, as I prefer), does force a different thought process. Some things really are better for being first composed by hand.

    • #15
    • September 20, 2019, at 8:10 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  16. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    SkipSul (View Comment):
    The slower and more deliberate pace of pen and paper (or mechanical pencil, as I prefer), does force a different thought process. Some things really are better for being first composed by hand.

    I have less writer’s block when I write by hand. But I also have a bum shoulder now that makes writing by hand painful. So annoying a keyboard it is. These days, I try to reserve handwriting only for really desperate scenarios, since I shouldn’t let writerly self-indulgence scotch my physical functionality. Better to reserve asymmetric motions for stuff like childcare and housekeeping.

    • #16
    • September 20, 2019, at 8:36 AM PDT
    • 9 likes
  17. Arahant Member
    Arahant Post author

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake (View Comment):
    Better to reserve asymmetric motions for stuff like childcare and housekeeping.

    Wax on. Wax off. Asymmetric?

    • #17
    • September 20, 2019, at 8:40 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  18. Andrew Miller Member

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake (View Comment):

    SkipSul (View Comment):
    The slower and more deliberate pace of pen and paper (or mechanical pencil, as I prefer), does force a different thought process. Some things really are better for being first composed by hand.

    I have less writer’s block when I write by hand. But I also have a bum shoulder now that makes writing by hand painful. So annoying a keyboard it is. These days, I try to reserve handwriting only for really desperate scenarios, since I shouldn’t let writerly self-indulgence scotch my physical functionality. Better to reserve asymmetric motions for stuff like childcare and housekeeping.

    Would a typewriter be any good at all? 

    • #18
    • September 20, 2019, at 8:40 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  19. Arahant Member
    Arahant Post author

    Andrew Miller (View Comment):
    Would a typewriter be any good at all? 

    • #19
    • September 20, 2019, at 8:44 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  20. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    Andrew Miller (View Comment):

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake (View Comment):

    SkipSul (View Comment):
    The slower and more deliberate pace of pen and paper (or mechanical pencil, as I prefer), does force a different thought process. Some things really are better for being first composed by hand.

    I have less writer’s block when I write by hand. But I also have a bum shoulder now that makes writing by hand painful. So annoying a keyboard it is. These days, I try to reserve handwriting only for really desperate scenarios, since I shouldn’t let writerly self-indulgence scotch my physical functionality. Better to reserve asymmetric motions for stuff like childcare and housekeeping.

    Would a typewriter be any good at all?

    Unfortunately not — same linear limitation as a computer keyboard, and harder on my arthritic bits, to boot.

    Composing software for music and electric pianos (which can be set to a soft action) have also been a boon to me, although I still work out many musical sketches by hand (which likely says something about how I value music compared to words).

    My father wasn’t generally an indulgent man, but one thing he would make time for was his daughter monkeying around with primitive composing software on his home-office computer. So I am sort of a “digital native” of score-writing. And, considering I don’t rake in the big bucks for my music (I count myself blessed when others perform my works at all), writing music is also not something I should sacrifice physical soundness for (although doing so is more…. tempting…)

    • #20
    • September 20, 2019, at 8:50 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  21. Brian Watt Member

    I usually ask for help from someone…to strap two cinder blocks with duct tape…one on each hand…and then I pound them on my skull until I’m rendered unconscious. I find this helps.

    • #21
    • September 20, 2019, at 9:32 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  22. CarolJoy, Above Top Secret Coolidge

    A long time ago, circa early 1990’s, a writer’s group I joined over on The Well had a great suggestion about writing.

    It helps both with unlocking writer’s block and also to help tune up a person’s inner creativity.

    The exercise was called something like “A story in 288 words.”

    You chose any story idea that came to you and decided to write it down in 288 words. One other suggestion was that you chose a story different from anything you were actually attempting to finish.

    One aspect of the exercise is “Who in the world cannot complete something if it is only 288 words?” So that tended to open the flood gates.

    I mean, for Pete’s sake, you only need to write down an essay under 300 words. Even a child could do it!

    Of course, nothing is ever that easy.

    My first topic was about an amateur astronomer who noticed the angle of the sun was off, and that the sun was about to begin swallowing all the other planets. He knew earth would be swallowed soon. Carl Sagan weighed in on his prediction and said it was “Poppy cock.” But the amateur researcher ended up being right.

    Finishing the assignment, I had an essay that totaled around 1100 words. Oops! Four days later, I had it down to the requisite length.

    I found I could work on these essays anywhere I was. In the bank while waiting for the next teller. Sitting in a chair outside the principal’s office, hoping I could explain away my son’s latest transgression.

    I still use this exercise to help when what I am “really” writing is stuck. It also helps me keep my writing alive and breathing, as if you can tell the end of the world in 288 words, why can’t you keep other topics down to a concise yet clear word length?

    Try it. You may find it to be fun and a way to keep writer’s block at bay.

    ####

    • #22
    • September 20, 2019, at 9:36 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  23. Arahant Member
    Arahant Post author

    CarolJoy, Above Top Secret (View Comment):
    Try it. You may find it to be fun and a way to keep writer’s block at bay.

    It’s not a bad exercise, although for a poet, 288 would be verbose. 😉

    • #23
    • September 20, 2019, at 10:36 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  24. SkipSul Moderator

    Arahant (View Comment):

    CarolJoy, Above Top Secret (View Comment):
    Try it. You may find it to be fun and a way to keep writer’s block at bay.

    It’s not a bad exercise, although for a poet, 288 would be verbose. 😉

    If the poet was Writesrot Wordsworth, 288 would be considered a pre-workout stretch.

    • #24
    • September 20, 2019, at 10:41 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  25. Arahant Member
    Arahant Post author

    SkipSul (View Comment):
    If the poet was Writesrot Wordsworth, 288 would be considered a pre-workout stretch.

    I should have specified a “good” poet.

    • #25
    • September 20, 2019, at 12:04 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  26. WillowSpring Member

    This is an interesting thread. I don’t “write” except sometimes for Ricochet, but I do write code and have done for all my career. I also get what I guess would be “coder’s block” and sometimes “debugger’s block” and have developed many of the same techniques as described above:

    • work on another part of the problem – there is always another part of the problem.
    • get up, walk around for a while. Unfortunately, in a work environment, there are only two valid reasons for wandering the halls: getting coffee or going to the restroom. Fortunately, there is a certain synergy between the two.
    • For more serious cases, sleep on it. There was a good book by Arthur Koestler called “The Act of Creation” that among other things, suggested that it was the sub-conscious mind that solved the problem and you just needed to keep out of the way for it to happen. I have found that to be very true.
    • Write a diagram of what is going on – it puts a different part of your brain to work on the problem. The diagram could be of the structure of the data, the data flow or how the code will be separated into modules.
    • This may be the equivalent to the 288 word limit, but many computer languages and editors allow you to ‘play’ and execute single lines of code at a time. That is a great way to proceed where the block is really a problem with my understanding of the language itself.
    • These days, there is a lot of talk about “test first development” where you write tests that a section of code should pass and then write the code, run the test and work on the code until it passes. I can’t think of to that for ‘real’ writing unless it is some sort of reviewer.
    • “Tell it to the duck” – in other words, talk through the issue with someone. It doesn’t matter so much if they understand, just that they listen. I remember working out a communications problem with my wife by sitting at the kitchen table pushing bits of paper (parts of the communications protocol) back and forth. This technique is explained here – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rubber_duck_debugging

    Ok – back to why my current code isn’t working.

    • #26
    • September 20, 2019, at 12:22 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  27. Arahant Member
    Arahant Post author

    WillowSpring (View Comment):
    I also get what I guess would be “coder’s block” and sometimes “debugger’s block”

    Same principle. Any creative or editorial endeavor. Same with painting or other visual arts.

    • #27
    • September 20, 2019, at 1:27 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  28. Arahant Member
    Arahant Post author

    WillowSpring (View Comment):
    For more serious cases, sleep on it. There was a good book by Arthur Koestler called “The Act of Creation” that among other things, suggested that it was the sub-conscious mind that solved the problem and you just needed to keep out of the way for it to happen. I have found that to be very true.

    For me, it has helped that I am at most ever semi-conscious,

    • #28
    • September 20, 2019, at 1:28 PM PDT
    • 8 likes
  29. Arahant Member
    Arahant Post author

    WillowSpring (View Comment):
    These days, there is a lot of talk about “test first development” where you write tests that a section of code should pass and then write the code, run the test and work on the code until it passes. I can’t think of to that for ‘real’ writing unless it is some sort of reviewer.

    That was how we did it back in mainframe days. (Yes, I worked on those.) You developed test cases first, including for boundary conditions.

    • #29
    • September 20, 2019, at 1:30 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  30. Percival Thatcher

    Arahant (View Comment):

    WillowSpring (View Comment):
    These days, there is a lot of talk about “test first development” where you write tests that a section of code should pass and then write the code, run the test and work on the code until it passes. I can’t think of to that for ‘real’ writing unless it is some sort of reviewer.

    That was how we did it back in mainframe days. (Yes, I worked on those.) You developed test cases first, including for boundary conditions.

    People who write decent code have always done that, then somebody wrote a book and some manager actually read it. Probably one of the same managers who wouldn’t allow schedule time for testing.

    • #30
    • September 20, 2019, at 1:34 PM PDT
    • 8 likes
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