How to Beat Writers' Block
What to do when you feel like nothing works
We’ve all been there. Whether you call it writers’ block, burn out, or creative exhaustion, the inability to create because of a mental blockage hits every one of us at one point or another. It can be frustrating, distressing, and incredibly stressful, especially when you make a living from your craft. So what can you do?
First, it helps to determine why you’re experiencing this blockage. Most of the time, it has nothing to do with your skill. You’re not a failure, you’re not a terrible writer, and you’re not useless. What you’re experiencing is very, very normal. There’s a few reasons you might be experiencing a creative block.
• You could be struggling with inspiration and coming up with new ideas, or having ideas but not being able to put them onto the page.
• You could be comparing yourself to others, and you feel like you aren’t as good as they are
• You could be experiencing stress from outside circumstances, making you feel overwhelmed
All of these things are not your fault. There are ways to work through whatever blockage you’re experiencing.
Let’s break it down, and look at them one by one.
Struggling with Inspiration
Maybe the worst of the lot – it can be hard to feel inspired some days, and there can be times that even though you are inspired, you just can’t make it work. There’s nothing worse than writing an entire page and then deleting all of it. One solution? Don’t delete it. Save it and come back to it later with fresh eyes. We say kill your darlings, but sometimes you can just let them sleep.
Let’s look at some things you can do to help you when you’re struggling with inspiration. Sometimes all you really need to do is shake it up.
Use a writing prompt generator
There’s plenty of writing prompt generators out there on the internet – they’re fantastic tools to use when you want to warm up and get those creative juices flowing.
Vocal has just released a series of resources with prompts. I’ll just link one, because they each have links to all the others.
You also don’t need to limit yourself to ‘written’ prompt generators. Scroll through Unsplash, Pinterest, or even Instagram and look at some cool photos. What story could they tell? Pick a photo you like and write something inspired by it.
Try a different perspective
Maybe you’re stuck on a scene, and don’t know where to take it. One thing you can try is to rewrite the scene from the perspective of a different character. The best part is – it doesn’t even need to be one of your own scenes. Take a scene from your favourite book, tv show, video game, and rewrite it from the perspective of another character in that scene. How does it change?
It could be any character – another named character, the antagonist, a passer-by or even a bird. Try switching it up by changing something small in the scene, and see where it takes you.
Try a different genre
We often stick to what we know, and sometimes it can be difficult to branch out. If you're struggling with writing something in your preferred genre, try something new! If you prefer to write science fiction, try comedy, or if you enjoy comedy, try a mystery. Switching it up can help to change how you view not just your own writing, but writing in general.
Part of becoming a well rounded writer is experimenting. Look at tropes that are common in different genres, and try them out in a completely different context. You might be surprised at how similar some genres are in terms of tropes and techniques. You never know - you might find a new favourite.
And speaking of techniques...
Try using a new narrative technique
Narrative techniques are found everywhere - you probably use them without even realising. There are simple ones of course, like exposition and dialogue, flashbacks and foreshadowing, but there are a lot that you might not have heard of.
Wikipedia has a list of narrative techniques, and also provides descriptions and examples. Try one out, and see how it goes.
Start somewhere else in the story
Writing doesn't have to be linear. There's no rule that says you have to start at the start and end at the end. You can begin writing wherever you like! Do you have a fantastic idea for the final scene, but have no idea how to get there? Write the final scene first, and worry about the rest later.
Sometimes we can get stuck on 'filler' scenes - the ones that get the characters from point A to point B. I'll let you in on a secret - you can skip the filler scenes if you want to. Never underestimate the power of bracketing.
You've just written a fantastic scene, but now you're stuck. You need something to happen, but you don't know what. This is where you use brackets.
This is your awesome scene. But you need something to happen next.
Now you can write the next scene you have an idea for!
You can come back later to these brackets, and fill in the blanks.
Comparing Yourself to Others
Despite our best efforts, we all do it. In some ways, it's human nature to compare ourselves to our peers. But that doesn't mean its always healthy. While it can inspire us to do better, sometimes it just gets us down.
Dean Furness gave this fantastic TedTalk on comparing yourself to others.
If you find that you're comparing yourself to others, and it's affecting your own self confidence, there's a few things you can start to do.
Remind yourself that everyone is different
The first step in stopping comparing yourself to others is to remind yourself that there is no better or worse. Everyone is different, everyone is at a different stage in their lives - be it career, fitness, skill, love - and that's a good thing. It means that there's more to learn, and more to do. Where you are now, isn't where you're going to be in two years time.
When you find yourself in those unhealthy thinking habits of "I'll never be as good as that person" and "they're so much better than me, why do I bother?" start challenging yourself.
"I'll never be as good as them" becomes "Wow, they have so much experience. What can I learn from them?"
"They're so much better than me, why do I bother?" becomes "How can I challenge myself to become better than I am now?"
Focus on reminding yourself that you're not worse at writing than someone else. You might just have less experience, and that's not a bad thing - because difference is good.
Recognise that you don't need to be perfect
One of the most important things to learn is to allow yourself to be imperfect. Even the greatest writers out there start with first drafts.
Terry Pratchett has some wise, wise words for writers:
“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.”
And really, that's all it needs to be. Every writer out there will tell you that they have struggled at some point. Every writer starts out by just telling themself the story. Often, these first drafts are, to be frank, shit. But they don't need to be good. At first, its just about getting words on the page.
Ask a published author how many drafts they went through before getting published. It's never the first.
If you're struggling with perfectionism when writing, put your draft aside, come back to it later, and let yourself be imperfect.
Record your progress
Compare your work not to that of others, but to yourself. Look at what you used to write, and look how far you've come! Measure your progress against yourself, rather than others. We all move at our own pace, and you'd be surprised at how much you've improved.
One thing you can do is keep folders for different years. Everything you write this year, keep in a folder labelled 2023 - then at the start of next year, come back to it and see how much you've changed.
Encourage and challenge yourself, but try your best to not compare yourself to others.
Sometimes, despite everything, we just feel overwhelmed. Stress can affect our lives in so many ways - if you're overwhelmed and can't find the energy to write, that's okay. Sometimes, we just need to rest. We can't always fix these outside stressors because oftentimes its things outside of our control like finances, or a break up. But you can still do things to try to help.
Take a break
Sometimes, you just need to take a break. Walk away from the computer, from that empty document, and just let your mind rest. You could listen to music, read a book, meditate, or even do yoga. The important thing is to give your brain time to rest and relax.
Forcing yourself to keep going when you're tired and overwhelmed won't do you any favours. Not only can it make you feel worse but it could even lead to you hating writing.
Don't force it. Walk away, give yourself time, and come back to it when you're ready.
Try the Pomodoro method
The pomodoro technique was popularised by Francesco Cirillo, and was named after the Italian word for tomato. In essence, it's a time management technique where you break your task down into sections of time, with a break in between.
The traditional method is to work for 25 minutes, with a 5 minute break in between, but you can adjust that to your needs. Some people have longer attention spans, and some people have shorter ones.
You can use your phone timer, or use pomofocus.io, which lets you add tasks and sets a timer and break for you.
Write in dot points
Remember how I mentioned letting yourself write badly? One method of getting words on the page is to just write dot points. It's a great way to get ideas out of your head for you to come back to later.
It doesn't need to be written well, and it doesn't need to be poetic. It can be as simple as "and then this happened" and "Jane then has a conversation with Jean about what happened at Tom's."
Writing in dot points lets you feel like you've accomplished something, and gives you something to work off later.
Free writing, or stream of consciousness writing, is a technique where you just let your pen go, and write what you're thinking, hearing, and feeling. It's a method that helps get words on the page, without overthinking it. Not only can it function as a warm-up, but it can help you de-stress too, by putting all those tangled thoughts on the page.
Stream of consciousness is also a literary technique that was popular amongst Modernist writers, including Virginia Woolf. This form of writing is non-linear and if you're used to structure and pacing it can be difficult to allow yourself to let go, but once you've opened that flood gate of thought, free writing can help you work through whatever blockage you may be having - and as always, it does not need to be good. We're not trying to win the Man Booker Prize here - we're just trying to write.
Like all things, this too will pass. You won't experience writers' block forever - and the sad reality is, you'll probably experience it again. But that's a part of life.
Hopefully these strategies and suggestions give you a solid foundation when trying to tackle writers' block. Of course, you don't have to only use one or two - they work best when used together. You can come back to them, or use them to figure out a method that works for you.
Let me know in the comments below what you do when you're struggling with writers' block!
Good luck, and happy writing!
About the Creator
Lover of fantasy and all things whimsical. Currently studying Writing and Publishing at UNE in Armidale, Australia. Living on Anaiwan land.
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Such an inspiring story on writing and beating writers bock
Pomodoro method is sometimes my technique!!
THIS WAS AWESOME! So many helpful tips, and so well done! i love this and appreciate all the resources!
Awesome article! I agree with so much here and learned some things to try. :) My personal favorite has been looking at photos; there's always a story to tell in an image somewhere! :) Congrats on TS!
Fantastic article, Ash. Some really good advice here. Congrats on a well-deserved Top Story.
When I feel writer's block which is often I tend to type up work anyway and try to be as awesome as possible. I still have not won a challenge yet but would truly love to win a challenge or a few.
Thank you for providing this comprehensive collection of tips! I often catch comparitinitis and feel terrible about my writing, or a case of the blahs when I don't want to write at all. This is a helpful article to save 🤗
I got a lot of tips from your work. I use bullet points, and I will sit and just write on paper until something clicks.
We've all got a folder called "Darlings" though, right?
Congrats on a well deserved Top Story, Ash! This is so helpful and well-written. I don’t get writer’s block, and I use a lot of these techniques. I’m a visual artist and photographer, so I love pulling inspiration from pictures, art, or scenes I witness from my daily life. I think part of being a writer is being an observer. Joan Didion is one of my idols, and she loved using brackets. I too find them very helpful. I only ever write what I’m passionate about writing at the moment. I will procrastinate writing one thing by writing something else, and use brackets to come back to stuff when I’m ready. I use the Pomodoro Technique when I can’t get out of my logical mind, and I’m overthinking. I learned that from a writing group I was in. We met on Zoom during the pandemic, and the host would set that timer twice per session, with one 5-minute break. I love stream of consciousness, free writing, meditating on the page. In my personal opinion, that’s the only writing that counts as writing. Anything else is contrived. I save the contrived writing for those rewrites, when I’ve got to trim the fat and make a point. This is great, thank you. ✨
Congratulations on Top Story!
Beautiful article with some excellent points to learn and to implement. I love writing. Hahaha if I said writing is my passion so it's not wrong though. If you want you can also read my articles that I published and it's honour for me if you appreciate my work also.
Thanks for this I sometimes experience this in my book First Impression
Thank you for this! This is really helpful!
Excellent article, some great points and congratulations on your top story
I treat my projects like a garden of bonsai trees. I go through with fresh eyes and a peaceful mind and trim one here and another there, a la Mr. Miyagi. I find that each one benefits from this approach. However, this may not be a good approach for material with deadlines, but rather is tailored more to the spiritual, wandering artist like myself. Also, I may have watched too much Kobra Kai with the kids... Nice article!