Five ways to conquer writer’s block

When I sat down to write this blog post, I procrastinated for a full twenty minutes, intimidated by the blank computer screen that stretched out before me like a pristine canvas waiting to be marred by an unsightly splotch of paint. It’s silly, of course, in an age of word processors and backspace buttons that eliminate your errors and false starts before anyone but you ever sees them, but beginning is always the most difficult. And then I realized that my struggle is fittingly ironic in light of the subject I’m covering: writer’s block. I guess I’d better start using my own advice!

Of course, that feeling of paralysis, of not having words to fill the rest of the page, can strike whether you’re at word #1 on a blog post or #45,131 on your great American novel. Unfortunately, not only is it debilitating and demoralizing, but it can last for a long time, limiting your output as a writer. So without further ado, here are five methods that I’ve found effective at combating writer’s block.

1. Don’t be afraid to write crap.

I’ve always struggled with revising. With academic writing in particular, I tend to revise as I write; I craft my second and third drafts concurrently with my first draft. This is a system that tends to work for me, but it’s also one that lends itself to the worst bouts of writer’s block. When there is pressure to get the words right the first time, a writer’s perfectionism can go into overdrive. Take a deep breath and remember that you can—and will—fine-tune your words later. You don’t have to show your story or paper to anyone before you think it’s ready. Start typing words even if you’re not sure that you’ll keep any of them later. All forward motion is progress.

2. Don’t be afraid to write something else instead.

Even if you’re struggling on the story or essay that you were planning to write, your juices might start flowing again if you work on something else. Perhaps you have a backup story that you’re working on, or you can get a head start on a paper for another class. Maybe you need to find a writing prompt that jolts you, allowing you to write a scene freely, even if you never do anything with it. Try writing a paragraph that has nothing to do with the blank page you’ve been agonizing over. You just might be able to break out of your writer’s block and go back to your original project.

3. Have a firm deadline to which someone else is holding you accountable.

For students, this may seem easy—the professor has assigned a due date! Having pulled more than one all-nighter to finish the last seven and a half pages of my ten page paper, I can’t criticize those who use this method; there’s nothing like visions of a 0 grade to smash through writer’s block. (Pro tip: Drink as many ounces of water as you do of your energy drink of choice and eat a snack every hour and a half throughout the all-nighter. You’ll still be miserable, but your body will thank you the next morning.) That said, you’ll be much happier—and probably even write better—if you finish in advance of your professor’s deadline. See if you can get someone—a friend, significant other, or study buddy—to hold you accountable to a deadline of at least 24 hours before your paper is officially due. At least for the first draft.

Creative writers often have to be a little bit more proactive. Unless you’re working under contract, which is rare if you’re not an established author, you have nothing even approximating a hard and fast deadline; the publishing house that you’re secretly dreaming will turn you into a New York Times bestselling author usually doesn’t even know you exist yet. If you’re not part of a writer’s group, join one. You can often connect with them through the local library, and if you can’t find one in your area, you can join an online community. Find one or two people within that group who will ask you how you are progressing toward your writing goals. Be specific with them about the word count that you want to reach by a specific date. Knowing that someone is holding you accountable can work wonders for forcing yourself to keep plugging away when it’s hard. And, of course, return the favor and help your friends meet their own deadlines.

4. Set a word count goal.

The goal of a first draft is not to be Ernest Hemingway or Virginia Woolf. The goal of a first draft isn’t even to be publishable. Focus instead on playing with ideas and getting words onto the screen. Yes, some of your story lines will flop. Some of your theses will need to be ditched. Some blog posts should never see the light of day. If, after you get through a few pages, you think that you’ve written something absolutely terrible, let it sit for a week (while you write other pages). Then look at it again with fresh eyes to see what you can salvage. Maybe you had some really good phrasing. Maybe you created a character that you’d like to work into a novel. Maybe there is a single line of dialogue that you want to make sure you use. Maybe you even think that the whole thing can be saved with a few revisions! But you’ll never know if you don’t get your thousand words out of your head and filed away.

In short, what matters is that you are getting words on a page and honing your ideas. To do this, set a word count goal that you stick to whether or not you feel like your sentences are nothing more than an incoherent stream-of-consciousness account of how much you hate being a writer. Sometimes you may have to ditch every last one of the 1500 words that you forced yourself to write. Even if this is the case, don’t despair—the writing itself has forced you to think through your ideas more critically so that you’ll write something better next time. But usually you’ll end up with something worth keeping in the midst of it.

5. Give yourself rewards.

If I promise myself that I can watch ten minutes of my current episode of The West Wing as soon as I’ve written 500 words, I often jumpstart my productivity. Rewards can be anything from a break to a cookie to a change of scenery as you work. Sometimes, when I’m at my most distracted, a reward every 500 words isn’t going to cut it; if I don’t have a reward every 100 words, nothing is going to get written. And that’s OK. Keep in mind that the smaller the increments into which you’re breaking your writing goal of the day, the smaller or shorter your reward should be at each milestone.

Do be careful with this, however. Don’t stumble into the same pitfall that I sometimes catch myself in: the never-ending break. I have allowed myself to watch just ten minutes of The West Wing and guiltily awoken from my complacency six episodes later. Needless to say, those were less-than-productive days. If you feel like you’re one break away from a TV binge, try alternating your writing spurts with non-writing items on your to-do list. Sometimes keeping the productivity going, while not keeping myself at any one thing for too long, can be just what I need to get it all done.

Have you tried one of these tricks before? Did it help you? What are other tools with which you’ve found success? Share them in the comments below or on our Facebook page! And if you’ve found this post to be helpful, don’t forget to share it with your friends!

Come back on Thursday for an interview with Quill Pen client, novelist Katie Cross! And on Monday, we’ll continue this discussion with a list of 25 writing prompts that you can use to help put your resolution of defeating writer’s block into action!

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