41 Ways to Conquer Writer’s Block

For the past several years I have volunteered at the local high school, advising a number of very talented students in the creative writing club. This year I mentioned NaNoWriMo to several of them. Word spread, and now we have a large group of students who are all determined to write an entire novel this month. Only problem? Some of them had no idea where to start. Since I’ve dealt with this same issue, I made up the following list for them. Since many of you write — books, term papers, blog entries, thank-you notes — I figured I’d share the list with you as well. Have favorite ways to jump start your writing? Please share!

  1. Go back to when everything last worked and to see if you went off-track.
  2. Skip ahead to what you do know and write that. Sometimes you’ll find that the scene you agonized over really doesn’t need to be there, or in the meantime you – or your subconscious – could think of a good way to fix it.
  3. Think of ways to make your characters’ lives worse, then implement them. It’s hard to have a book if you don’t have conflict.
  4. Make a list of all the scenes that have to happen in your book. Good. Now you know where you’re going, and you have a goal. Start figuring out how to get from your current scene to the next one.
  5. Read what you’ve already written to get back into the groove. Danger: Don’t let this lead you to edit too much; it’s possible to spend all your time polishing the first three chapters and never get anything else written. You’ll have a great beginning, but you won’t have a book.
  6. Write with someone else. This can often be inspiring; when others around you are being creative and productive, it’s hard to keep your own pen off the page.
  7. Writer’s block is often caused by fear. It may be fear of writing something imperfect, fear of what others will think, fear of rejection, or even fear of success. What are you afraid of? Sometimes just knowing will help you conquer it.
  8. Remind yourself that this is only a first draft. Most books go through many, many revisions, so if it’s not perfect the first time around that’s normal. You don’t have to show anyone until you’re ready.
  9. Perhaps you’ve lost sight of your characters’ goals, motivations, and conflicts. What would your character would do next in order to reach his/her goal? Now prevent him/her from it.
  10. Watch a movie or read a book for inspiration. Sometimes the creative well just plain runs dry.
  11. Brainstorm with someone.
  12. Or, the reverse could be an issue: Perhaps you’ve talked about your book too much and now it doesn’t seem fresh or fun anymore. If that’s the case, try going in a new direction to freshen it up a bit, and keep it all to yourself for now.
  13. 90% of all people who begin a novel never finish it. 85% of all those who began NaNoWriMo last year never finished. Beat the odds no matter what, even if means writing utter crap. You can always revise later.
  14. Reexamine why you’re doing this in the first place. Write your motivation(s) on a sticky note and post it next to your monitor.
  15. Sometimes having too many options can cause a block. For example, should the character be an architect or a plumber? Should his/her parents be divorced or still together? It’s difficult, but make a choice and stick with it. If you still can’t decide, write each choice on a piece of paper, fold up the pieces, throw them in a hat or bowl and draw one.
  16. Set a timer and tell yourself you’ll write for this amount of time, no matter what – but that you’re allowed to stop after that if you want to. Anyone can write for 15, 30, or 60 minutes if they put their minds to it. Take a break to eat or do something fun, then set that timer again.
  17. Develop a writing routine – light a candle, write at the same time each day, choose a special writing chair, etc. Just going through those motions can tell your brain that it’s time to write.
  18. Shake up your writing routine. Write at a different time or place.
  19. Allow yourself some awful first sentences each time you begin a new writing session. After all, quite often the hardest part is just getting started. Once you’ve warmed up, it usually becomes much easier.
  20. Next time you write, try stopping in the middle of a sentence, paragraph, or scene. This way you’ll know where to begin when you come back to it.
  21. Write daily. Make it a habit. Often the longer you go between writing sessions, the harder it can be to get back into it, and the more time you’ll have to psych yourself out.
  22. Tell everyone your goal so that you are held accountable. Then you have no choice but to get something down.
  23. Start with success: Do something important but easy, such as finding a good last name for your character or doing some simple research. This gets you back into your story, and the success is often motivating.
  24. Sometimes you just have to get yourself out of your own way. Take a shower, do the dishes, knit a scarf, take a long drive, play a computer game, hike, run, swim…Do something that keeps your hands and body occupied but your mind free. Then assign your brain the task of thinking about what to write next.
  25. Disconnect your internet, so if you’re ever tempted to conduct another email check you have to get up and walk over to the modem to plug it back in. Quite often your willpower will return before you set aside your laptop or notebook.
  26. Think of what you could be doing that you want to do even less – homework, cleaning house, writing that thank-you note to your Great Aunt Pearl, whatever.
  27. Give yourself silly goals such as finding random words in the dictionary and having to use them, or starting the first sentence with the letter A, the next with B, the following with C, etc. The challenge can help get your mind off your fear and spark your creativity.
  28. Open a new document or turn to a clean page in your notebook. Anything goes when you’re starting fresh. If you like what you come up with, you can always add it in later. Sounds silly, but it’s actually one of my favorite — and most effective — methods.
  29. Type with your eyes closed. This can remove inhibitions.
  30. Begin a free-write with, “I don’t know what to write,” and go from there, writing whatever comes to mind but slowly working your way into examining your book and then, perhaps, starting to write it again.
  31. Interview your main character, or write a monologue from his/her P.O.V.
  32. Keep a notebook by your bedside, in your car, in the bathroom – wherever you’re likely to get an idea. When one comes to you, take a moment to (safely!) write it down. Next time you’re stuck with your writing, look through your notebook for ideas.
  33. Maybe you’ve gone the obvious route with your writing, and you’ve ended up boring yourself. Throw something big into the works to change things radically: someone new (dead or alive) turns up, your character finds out a devastating secret or is suddenly faced with what s/he most fears, the hero fails at an important task.
  34. Make a list of 20 things that could happen next. Cross out the first 10-15 since those are often the more obvious choices, then consider implementing the last few.
  35. Let your subconscious do the work. Long before you sit down to write, give yourself a problem that needs to be solved, anywhere from “What should I write next?” to “How should my protagonist react when s/he finds the dead body?” Think about it from time to time. By the time you write, a solution will often present itself with minimal effort.
  36. Eat, go to the bathroom, and do any urgent business before writing. That way you have no reason to get up from the keyboard once you start. Just make sure you don’t put writing dead last, or you may never get to it.
  37. Whatever you do, don’t delete! If you really don’t think it’s worthwhile, cut it from the manuscript and paste it in a new one so you can put it back in or use it in something else. Sometimes all you need is a little perspective, and that can take time and distance. If you’re stuck, go through your file of deleted scenes for inspiration.
  38. What do you like about certain books/movies? How can you incorporate that into your own work in a creative way? What do you hate about particular books/movies? How can you write it better, and with your own creative twist?
  39. Work on something else for a while. Ever have several books going at a time, reading whichever one interests you right then? The same can work with writing.
  40. Remember that writing is hard. Just because it doesn’t always flow, it doesn’t mean you’re blocked. So realize that it might not be easy, and work through it. After all, things that are worth it rarely come easily.
  41. Examine your attitude before you go into it. Are you expecting to have a fun, productive writing session, or are you expecting pain and blockage? Your brain often delivers what you expect.

28 Comments

  1. James H said,

    Monday, November 3, 2008 at 7:37 pm

    What an awesome post! I’ll definitely come back to this when I have writer’s block. Nice to know it happens to us all once in awhile =)

    James H

    http://serviceafol.blogspot.com/

  2. alyson noel said,

    Monday, November 3, 2008 at 10:44 pm

    I learned this from Robert McKee and haven’t had writer’s block (knock wood!) since, it goes something like this:

    Writer’s block occurs when you don’t know enough about your character or your world. So anytime I get stuck, I go back and research my story. This ALWAYS spawns new ideas — Works every time!

  3. Robin said,

    Tuesday, November 4, 2008 at 12:36 am

    What a fantastic list, Caryn! Those students are darn lucky to have you! Thanks for this great advice!

  4. Katie said,

    Tuesday, November 4, 2008 at 1:19 am

    #22 should NOT be underestimated. The same principle helped me lose 30 lbs last year. Telling someone, and then NOT following through brings shame, and that is a strong tool in your toolbox. Thanks for these!

  5. writtenwyrdd said,

    Tuesday, November 4, 2008 at 8:18 am

    Good list and thanks for sharing!

  6. virginia said,

    Tuesday, November 4, 2008 at 8:28 am

    i think typing with your eyes closed is a good suggestion. i’m always so conscious of my typing errors that by the time i go back and fix them, i’ve forgotten what i was trying to say! :)

  7. Tuesday, November 4, 2008 at 2:31 pm

    Fantabulous list, Caryn! My personal fave–when I’m totally stuck and worried that everything I write will be dreadful–is to tell myself that I have to write the worst paragraph possible. It has to be REALLY bad. So, if I succeed (and it’s horrible), I win. If I don’t succeed (and it’s not that awful), I also kinda win…

  8. David Rice said,

    Wednesday, November 5, 2008 at 6:05 am

    Terrific post, Caryn! Sometimes the thoughts don’t easily lend themselves to paper. I’m planning to take a writing class next semester. Sure hope so, we now have a new direction for this country after 8 years of ignorance and fear!

  9. Wednesday, November 5, 2008 at 7:57 am

    Thanks, James. I hope you’ll find it helpful. :-)

    Alyson, wonderful advice! That’s probably why it helps me when I outline the remainder of the book. It just helps to know where to go next.

    Awww, thanks, Robin!

    So true, Katie! I think that’s where I heard it first — when trying to lose weight. It definitely helped me.

    Thanks, writtenwyrdd!

    Virginia, the same happens to me! Plus sometimes I see the words on the screen and they just look silly to me. If I have my eyes closed, I can’t re-read them until afterward, when there’s more context.

    Marilyn, I LOVE that idea! Must try it the next time I’m stuck! Plus it gets you writing, which, for me at least, is half the battle.

    David, best of luck with your writing class. I loved the ones I took. Hope yours are just as fun.

  10. borismc said,

    Wednesday, November 5, 2008 at 9:21 am

    Some great ideas, Caryn. This post has now been added to my favourites. I think some will also be useful as a set of check steps in the writing process – not just to avoid writers’ block, but also just as a way to stop and consider progress on the way.

    I would also recommend taking a look at Brian Eno’s ‘Oblique Strategies’ at:-

    http://www.rtqe.net/ObliqueStrategies/

    These started as a series of cards with single sentence instructions to make you think about a creative work differently, but there are freely available online versions now available.

  11. Erik said,

    Wednesday, November 5, 2008 at 11:11 am

    It’s a good thought to keep in mind when it’s 3am and even your fingers are numb… “just one month, just one month”

    I think it’s awesome that you’re getting HSers on board with Nano, it’s a great project for teenagers to try.

  12. Melina said,

    Wednesday, November 5, 2008 at 1:51 pm

    I waited to read this post until I hit a NaNo wall. Today, I must write over 2,000 words to stay on target, I’m ready to fall asleep, and I’m completely unsure of where to go next, even though I have an outline.

    So I figured it was the perfect time to read this. Thank you so much! :-)

    BTW, it’s so great that you are encouraging students to do NaNo!

  13. Ilana said,

    Wednesday, November 5, 2008 at 1:53 pm

    Great list. I have a former student of my in NaNo. He’s falling behind rapidly. Only 2500 words or so on day 5.
    I’m sending him this link.

    Hi Pawel.

  14. tanaudel said,

    Wednesday, November 5, 2008 at 5:13 pm

    Start a new scene, even if you haven’t worked out what happened at the end of the one you were writing. Especially then.

    Blow something up. Seriously. Especially good if it is in a pre-industrial story because you’ll get a good number of words while the characters scramble around trying to work out what happened, and how, and why.

  15. Pam said,

    Wednesday, November 5, 2008 at 5:15 pm

    I vote for #24. :)

  16. Wednesday, November 5, 2008 at 6:39 pm

    Caryn, I have been teaching Creative Writing at a bookstore near my house, and the students are always asking me how to help them. You have created such a concise, helpful list! I’m asking your permission to share it with them, giving you full credit, of course. I’ll also give them your blog address, so they can soak up your wisdom first hand. :-)

  17. Courtney said,

    Wednesday, November 5, 2008 at 10:30 pm

    Great list. I’m trying NaNo again this year with no expectations (kinda hard to write when a 2 month old demands your attention), but I could surprise myself.

  18. Kath Calarco said,

    Thursday, November 6, 2008 at 10:30 am

    Love the list and have utilized many of what’s mentioned. I know a few writers locally who might benefit from this – is it okay to print this and share?

  19. scribbledoodle said,

    Friday, November 7, 2008 at 3:17 am

    Awesome list. I’ll definitely try them whenever I get stuck. And thanks for the words of encouragement!

  20. Katie said,

    Friday, November 7, 2008 at 7:55 pm

    I love #2, #4, and #34…

    I have a couple of things I do when I need inspiration:

    1. I pretend my book is a movie, and I write out the chapter headings from the DVD.

    2. I listen to music, set to play on random–and think, “Whatever the next song is has to be the soundtrack to a scene about X character”–and that helps me daydream.

    3. I create a playlist of songs that fits the mood and story of my project and listen to it nonstop (except when I’m writing).

    Can you tell I have a film school background? LOL.

    3.

  21. Saturday, November 8, 2008 at 1:32 pm

    Thanks Caryn, for such an awesome and helpful post! I do a lot of your list, but this is the first time I consciously recognized what I was doing! And one thing I do when I get stuck in my w.i.p. is jump ahead and do notes/dialog for the later scenes.

    Which helps as I am doing NaNoWriMo this month!

  22. Saturday, November 8, 2008 at 6:12 pm

    #25. Damn you wireless. DAMN YOU!….:)

    Great list, Caryn.

  23. writtenwyrdd said,

    Sunday, November 9, 2008 at 9:12 am

    I don’t really get writer’s block; I get the “I don’t wannas”. Really, just set yourself down and make yourself write seems to do the trick.

  24. Sunday, November 9, 2008 at 11:15 pm

    Oooh, I wanted to add one more. A writing friend taught me this one. You know how when you sit down to write, a million other thoughts immediately enter in? You think you need to clean the bathroom, go buy yogurt for tomorrow’s breakfast, reunite with your fifth grade best friend, look up that recipe for olive tapenaude, learn to play the piano the way you always meant to? Instead of jumping up and letting herself actually go do these things, she merely makes a little note next to her computer. By the end of her writing session, there’s a list of things next to her…things that she did NOT get out of her chair to do. And it’s amazing, she says, how many of them really did not need to be done–they were just those too-familiar traps. You know, the “Do THIS, don’t write!!” traps. Anyway, I tried this, and it works.

  25. Anne said,

    Monday, November 10, 2008 at 2:52 pm

    This is a great list! Some of my co-workers and I are taking the NaNoWriMo challenge this year. It’s now day 10 of the challenge and I’m nearly 14,000 words behind – BUT while writing the 2000 words I do have, I generated about 5 new story ideas in my head, so not all is lost.
    How do you feel about students writing so many words so rapidly? Is it a breeding ground for a lot of mistakes or a forum for some great ideas? Maybe a combination of both.

  26. Tuesday, November 11, 2008 at 8:04 am

    Great ideas.. I printed out this list. Thanks. :)

  27. Thursday, November 13, 2008 at 10:15 pm

    This is amaziningly creative–and thorough! Were you procrastinating…? :)
    I fold the laundry.

  28. jmjorat said,

    Saturday, November 15, 2008 at 10:13 pm

    Loved this post, great information.


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