Writer’s block, ugh. It’s one of the most frustrating parts of the craft. You sit down to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard, as the case may be), and nothing comes out. Your mind is blank, your thoughts a messy mush of nothingness, and so you sit … and stare some more.
It’s a feeling that has plagued writers since the beginning of time, though the noun to describe it is relatively new. It was coined in 1947 by Dr. Edmund Bergler, an Austrian psychiatrist living in New York, who blamed writer’s block on “oral masochism and a milk-denying mother.” He theorized that writers subconsciously recreate that feeling of being starved by blocking themselves.
Interesting theory … if only wiping out writer’s block were as easy as giving babies all the milk they want, the world might be brimming over with loads more literature.
But alas, even those of us who were well fed during infancy get writer’s block. There’s no known direct cause for it; it’s often just part of the process. The most important thing to know about writer’s block, however, is how to overcome it. So, here are some tips to get your words flowing again.
Write one word at a time
No matter how big your ideas or how large the project, don’t get overwhelmed by its entirety. Instead, just take it word by word. In her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott tells this story that illustrates the practice well:
“Thirty years ago, my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by Bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’”
Bird by bird = word by word.
To get started, you may want to try a word association exercise. Start with any word related to what you’re writing about, then write a word or phrase associated with that word. Repeat it for that word or phrase and on and on.
For example, if you’re writing about murder, the next word may be blood. From there, you may jump to blood type, and from there, blood bank. Just write down whatever pops into your mind, and who knows where it may lead you. It may or may not be anything that ends up in your final draft, but it will get the words flowing and possibly provide some inspiration for more writing.
Write something, even if it has nothing to do with your topic. Write anything at all. This is known as freewriting. You can write short phrases, single words, or a random recording of your thoughts, such as “I’m sitting here not writing about the price of tea in China, when I know I should be, but I can’t think of what to say about it because there is a bee buzzing outside my window …”
Just. Start. Writing.
Aim for 10 minutes and see where you’re at. The act of getting your fingers moving and putting a dent in that blank space can get your wheels whirling. Something relevant to the topic at hand will likely follow.
Push aside your perfectionism
If you’re striving for a perfect first draft, you’re likely getting in your own way. Like we mentioned ⤴️ … just start writing, and you can go back and pick out the gems later. Sometimes, those gems won’t be apparent right away, so don’t be too quick to discard what you think isn’t working. In fact, you may want to have a separate file in which you keep discarded copy, because you never know if it might work better after revisions or at another point in your writings.
And remember, writing takes time, patience, and the ability to embrace imperfection.
Author Malcolm Gladwell explains it like this: “I deal with writer’s block by lowering my expectations. I think the trouble starts when you sit down to write and imagine that you will achieve something magical and magnificent — and when you don’t, panic sets in. The solution is never to sit down and imagine that you will achieve something magical and magnificent. I write a little bit, almost every day, and if it results in two or three or (on a good day) four good paragraphs, I consider myself a lucky man. Never try to be the hare. All hail the tortoise.”
Don’t sit there waiting for inspiration to hit you on the head. Sometimes, you need to step away from what you’re working on for a bit to find that inspiration.
Go for a walk or a drive, head to a nearby park and set up on a bench to people watch. Hit the mall or go to a coffee shop—anything to change your scenery. If you’re writing fiction, imagine why people are where they are and what their backstory may be. How might your characters interact with them or act differently in a similar setting? Note their mannerisms; write down details about the scenery. Just be sure to take along a notepad and pen or a laptop to record what you see.
You’ll get bonus points for stepping away from writing for activities that involve exercise, as research shows a clear link between physical activity and increased creativity. For example, you may want to go for a walk and talk through your story while recording it on your phone with a voice-to-text app. Or, if you hit the court to smash some tennis balls, stick a notebook in your bag to record any thoughts that occur to you between plays or after your match.
Write like you’re talking to someone
Don’t worry about the right words, perfect phrases, or proper punctuation, just write what you would you say to someone sitting across from you if you were to explain the subject or plot to them. You can always go back and tweak the language later, but getting the big ideas down in a conversational manner is a great starting point.
Record some of the conversations you actually do have, and while transcribing them, pull the snippets that might work for your story out and add them to your draft. Real life is a great inspiration. Of course, the whole conversation won’t be riveting stuff, but by analyzing a real discussion and pulling interesting parts out of it, you have a starting point to craft the rest of the conversation for your story.
Write out of order
The great thing about writing is that there are no rules you must follow. You don’t have to start at the beginning. If the first word/sentence/paragraph/chapter is your sticking point, jump to the middle. If you’re comfortable with one section or chapter later in the piece, jump ahead and do that, and save the more challenging ones for a time when you’re feeling more creative. Start with the ending, write backwards, write in circles—just write.
The next time you’re feeling stalled, stumped, or at a loss for words, remember, they’re in there somewhere. Be patient with yourself, try some of the methods above to unblock yourself, and the words will flow.