Eight unusual questions to free yourself from writer’s block
Want to write… but just can’t get the words down on paper?
Have something to say… but feel stumped as to how to say it?
Just feel like...ughghhhhhh!?
Okay, take a breath.
Here's a new way of looking at writer's block.
Try asking yourself these questions. They might just flip a switch and turn that lightbulb back on.
1. Are you trying too hard?
Sometimes the biggest block is just trying too hard to get it right.
Instead of trying to make your words perfect, concentrate on saying exactly what you mean. Say it simply.
If you’re afraid your writing is bad, let it be bad. Write poorly for now; edit later.
Sometimes when I’m struggling with this I think of a Seinfeld moment. Kramer is pretending to be the automated “Moviephone” service. After guessing (incorrectly) several times, Kramer asks the caller (George),: “why don’t you just tell me where you want to see the movie?”
I use this as a personal cue to just say what I want to say.
“Why don’t you just tell me what you want to say?”
No fancy language. No complex phrasing. Just say it already.
I also give myself permission to let the writing be bad. That’s what the editing process is for, after all. The funny thing is, when I keep my writing simple and straightforward, it usually takes less editing, not more.
So write simply, let it be “bad” – and it might turn out even better than usual.
2. Are you creatively nourished?
Writing comes from a fertile place. Doesn’t matter if you’re writing flowery poetry or strategic ad copy: it’s gotta come from somewhere.
Not to sound all hippie-poet about it but if you want to grow anything you need to water the garden.
Good writing is not going to grow out of concrete.
So what fuels your creativity?
If you don’t know the answer to that question, it’s worth exploring.
You can put all your effort into the craft of writing but if you don’t have the creative fuel you won’t get very far.
For me, it’s not only about inspiration, but about giving myself the space and time to let ideas develop and let the words form. Quiet time, going for walks, writing in my journal, drawing or doodling, sitting outside, even just lying in bed for a while before I get up in the morning…this is often when things coalesce.
If I’m constantly running from one place to another, churning through projects without time to breathe, my creative output is going to suffer.
3. Does what you have to say need to be said right now?
I’m an advocate for speaking up. I teach people how to develop comfort, clarity and confidence needed to share their stories.
That said, sometimes our message, our idea or our story needs more time to gestate.
If you’re stuck in what feels like writer’s block, maybe it’s not a block. Maybe you just need more time to continue to explore, consider or rest with the messages you want to express.
We live in a world where the live play-by-play has become standard. We get instant feedback on our photos and status updates, we share constantly: what we’re doing, how we’re feeling, the random observations, seemingly profound or utterly mundane.
It’s great to speak up and be a part of the conversation.
But it’s okay to be a listener, too.
Be an observer. Watch for a while.
Or be a researcher. Think more about what you want to see, challenge yourself by reading different opinions and perspectives. Learn more before forming an opinion and sharing it with the world.
You don't have to have all the answers right now. Give it time.
4. Are you trying to be the audience as well as the author?
Worrying about what other people think is one of the best ways to kill your work before it’s even written.
Yes, you want to write for your audience. Knowing your audience – who they are and what they care about – should set the tone for your work.
But pre-emptively imagining your audience’s reception of your work is a bad idea. Especially if you’re conceptualizing that audience as some kind of nasty critic.
Ever heard the quote, “write for your fans, not your critics?” Give that a try instead.
Tell those critics and judges they can come back later: they’ll help you edit.
For now, no one is watching over your shoulder.
For now, just write.
5. How and where are you writing?
Unless I’m really in a state of flow or already know exactly what I want to say, I can’t write at the desk.
Here’s how I typically write:
- Cross-legged on the couch with my computer on my lap. (There may or may not be a cat squeezed between my legs and the laptop, in a style I refer to as the kitty sandwich press.)
- Outside, preferably in my quiet backyard, writing in a notebook.
- In my head while walking, possibly through a crowded city environment. That may ultimately take me to a café where I hunch over my notebook in an effort to capture all the stuff in my head.
Every writer is different.
Timothy Findley was famous for writing his great novels by hand; his partner Bill Whitehead did all the transcribing.
Marian Keyes wrote an essay called Under the Duvet in which she described her writing space: in bed, snuggled between two duvets (one she lies on and one she pulls over her.)
Find out what works for you.
6. Do you need to give yourself permission?
Do you feel anxious about taking the time to write?
Does it feel like you have only a short window to yourself? Or there’s a limit to how much time you can spend on this project?
Don’t get me wrong – a deadline can be a great thing for a writer. (A necessary thing, most of the time.) But sometimes we need the permission to simply take our time.
Then we can relax into the process. Calm down. Stop trying to make it perfect all at once.
Try setting aside specific time for your writing. In that time, clear away the disruptive distractions (like other people who want a piece of your attention), and make room for helpful ones (music perhaps, or white noise).
Know that spending time writing is worthwhile. Even if it all gets edited out in the end.
7. Do you need to suck it up and just keep going?
When it comes to writing, sometimes you just need to keep going.
Sometimes every fibre of your being is telling you to forget it. And you just have to accept that it feels uncomfortable, refuse to be bullied by the blank page, and write.
Some discipline can help you resist the urge to flee, help you worth through it, and come out with something good. It can help you make progress.
I love this quote by Stephen King:
As King suggests, sometimes you just have to let it suck, keep writing, and move on.
8. Do you need to take a break?
Conversely to the last point, sometimes you just need to put it down for a while.
Many times I have put a piece of work aside because my brain just says “no.” So I go and do something else. I leave it for a while. Maybe overnight.
And often when I return to it, with that sense of dread in my stomach, thinking the whole piece of work is a wreck and will take hours of hard work, I sit down to write and discover…it’s easy.
Sometimes writing is like that. It can feel excruciating one minute. Easy flowing the next.
So when everything inside you resists, let it.
The words will be ready when you are.