Writer’s block is an illusion, albeit frequently, a very persistent one. Most writers, at some point, grow weary, bored, stressed, etc. with their craft—their thoughts and written words, stuttered. Common causes of writer’s block include, but aren’t limited to:
- Lack of enthusiasm about the subject matter
- Stress and/or anxiety
- Lack of research or knowledge about the subject matter
- Lack of understanding of the subject matter
- Self-consciousness about the author’s style of writing or writing abilities
What too many fail to realize, though, is that this apparent ‘stifling of literary creativity’ is only temporary—and that for every symptom of writer’s block, there’s a cure (or, at least, treatment). Following is a brief list of tips and explanations for overcoming the issue. And just as in medicine, sometimes different prescriptions work differently and more or less effectively for different people.
1. Just Do It
It’s ridiculously simple: Just start writing when the anxiety of creative writing rears its ugly self. It doesn’t even have to relate to the primary task (topic) at hand. Recognize from the get-go that the first drafts of virtually anything and everything you write won’t wax like Shakespearean prose. Do whatever you must to get inspired and energized, and be determined to set forth an honest effort. And when the perception (and it’s always merely a perception) of writer’s block starts forming over your head like an ominous storm cloud…
2. Brainstorm Your Way Out
“If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.”
Brainstorming involves rounding-up a specific topic, circling or underlining it, and running with it with damn-near reckless abandon. Here’s a good example (in horizontal form, nonetheless):
U.S. Politics, GO>liberal democrats ideology ideologies partisan republicans theology theocracy monarchy cohen franklin jefferson congress senate gop d.c. soviet supreme pledge of allegiance flags and stripes bursting in the air blind justice justice justices peace war constitutional constitutionality framework founders debates history divide conquer obama romney crazy flipflop shiptop
Simply put, it’s a chaotic word-cloud that branches out from a central topic. Weed through it, disregarding meaningless or irrelevant terms and phrases. Then, organize the remainder into distinct categories. Keep the list handy. Lather, rinse, repeat.
3. Escape From Writing Purgatory: Free Write
“In writing, there is first a creating stage–a time you look for ideas, you explore, you cast around for what you want to say. Like the first phase of building, this creating stage is full of possibilities.”
~Ralph Waldo Emerson
Write. Let loose. Similar to No. 2, transmit this steady stream of thoughts onto paper or into digital form without care or consideration. Disregard, for now, any notion of the rules of writing—that is, grammar and style. Let your fingers run wild for a while, allowing random ideas to trigger (potentially) exponentially more ideas. Try to stay on-topic, but not to the extent that it interrupts the tidal wave (or at minimum, river!) of ideas and solutions.
Afterwards, go back and read through all of the raw data, highlighting and saving useful, relevant thoughts and facts and weeding out redundant, irrelevant, and/or useless tripe.
4. Forget the Introduction: Take It From the Middle
“One of the most difficult things is the first paragraph. I have spent many months on a first paragraph, and once I get it, the rest just comes out very easily.”
~Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Despite that [very worthy] advice—from an awesome author, nonetheless—concentrating on the actual guts of your piece is often a great way of overcoming a perceived blockade (Note: Works a deal better with non-fiction/informative pieces than storytelling, for obvious reasons). Say your work entails the subject ‘Fundamentals of Microeconomics’. Instead of focusing on a killer introduction, dig into one or two of the key topics you intend to cover—e.g. for microeconomics, it could include anything from opportunity costs and the Kaldor-Hicks criterion to demand curves, price elasticity of demand, and unlimited other subtopics.
Again, don’t focus heavily on spelling, grammar or style. Doing so in the early stages of writing will prove a real hindrance or even total block of creative juices. In fact, turn off spell-check. Turn off the grammar-checker (in programs like Word) for now. Just write. There’s plenty of time later to edit, revise, and polish your masterpiece into a literary jewel.
5. Gather the Facts | Master Them
“Facts are to the mind what food is to the body.”
As directly related to the previous step, rounding up and categorizing all of the relevant data is particularly effective for good writing. But what’s even more killer than collecting a hodgepodge of random data about a subject and simply regurgitating it? Being an expert on that subject. Being well-studied empowers you to write more concisely, accurately, and with less back-and-forth. Know the subject inside and out, and realize the overall message you wish to convey to a particular audience; however, keep relevant facts, ideas, self-proposals, and sources somewhere handy.
6. Draft an Outline
Establish a rough/tentative outline of sorts. Use subheaders throughout to break up and organize your thoughts and the data. Also, keep in mind that it’s a good practice to limit paragraphs to 4-5 sentences, and to vary the length of sentences from short, to medium-sized, to long. However, there’s no need to worry about these stylistic issues until after the first draft is completed.
7. Take Frequent Breaks
No one writes an entire book—all revised, polished, bound, and barcode-stamped—all in one sitting. Whoever makes such an audacious claim, well, they’re lying. Be realistic: Break your work up into 30 or 60 minute chunks. It’s worth nothing that the average person’s attention span, when doing something akin to watching a movie or reading a book (essentially being entertained), drops off substantially after about one-and-a-half to two hours. With fresh, creative writing, the same usually holds.
8. Change Your Surroundings, Change Your Mindset
“Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.”
Which place would be the most ideal for writing: A living room chock-full of beer guzzling guys watching the game, a busy yet fairly calm public library, in a boat on a desolate lake, in a dimly-lit closet, or in your home office? The answer, maybe surprising, is wherever the author feels most comfortable, most in-tune with his or her thoughts, and the least distracted or bothered by external happenings.
9. Physical Inactivity Is Terrible For Effective Writing
This one’s a no-brainer by any measure, but it’s worth putting out there nonetheless. Writing requires of the author to sit and write (or in this digital age, type). After enough time has elapsed, though, the mind and body typically become frustrated, per se, with such physical inactivity (and no, moving fingers don’t count)–paralyzing creativity and even the writer’s ability to conjure up coherent sentences. Get up every 30 to 45 minutes; walk/run around the block a couple of times, hop on the treadmill, clean the house, or soak up some sun. Getting active boosts dopamine (the brain’s “happy” chemical) production and jump-starts your creative neurotransmitters to fire on all cylinders. Bottom line: Get up and move around as needed!
10. Get Inspired
“Actually ideas are everywhere. It’s the paperwork, that is, sitting down and thinking them into a coherent story, trying to find just the right words, that can and usually does get to be labor.”
Like painters and sculptors, writers employ tangible things—such as people, places, things, ideas and so forth—for inspiration and ideas. That said, inspiration is everywhere and can be anything. A sunset (cliche? probably). Dark clouds. A stray dog. The hair on the back of some old dude’s neck. You get the point.
Whenever you’re out and about, always keep a small memo pad to record inspirational thoughts and ideas that may, and often do, randomly manifest themselves in your mind. If it’s another person or an object, snap a couple of photos with your phone’s camera to use later.
11. Start With the Most Complex Stuff First
Try to knock out the more complicated areas first. Doing so, you’ll probably feel a helluva lot more motivated to finish your work than if you had started the other way around, a.k.a. with the simple and/or obvious stuff first. Remember rule No. 3? It’ll more than likely directly apply here as well. Start writing, dissect ideas and facts in the most logical, comprehensive, yet easiest-to-understand, fashion.
12. Get Pumped With Caffeine
Admittedly, extended, drawn-out periods of even inspired writing can take a toll on even the most creative mind. When you’re not up-and-about, stretching out (#7), keep your system alert with a moderate (keyword: moderate) amount of caffeine from coffee, energy drinks and so forth. Or, if you must, have an unhealthy smoke. Don’t overdo it, though, as consuming too much of any of the aforementioned only has the opposite effects: decreased energy, mental fatigue and—surprise—hindered motivation and creative abilities.
Bonus Tip for Fiction Writers
The value of ‘word prompts’ can’t really be overstated. Word prompts work like jumper cables, but igniting creativity instead of fuel combustion. They force your creative juices to roar like whitewater rapids.
“Words – so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.” ~Nathaniel Hawthorne
Let’s briefly review. Once you sense this notion of “writer’s block” creeping up, or if you’re just getting started and just want to preempt “it” (notice the clever and hopefully inspirational use of quotation marks there?!), find a quiet, calm place and get out the creative drawing board, per se. Start with a general outline—inserting relevant headers, marking where bullet lists/charts/illustrations/etc. may possibly be beneficial, determining how many sentences and/or paragraphs you’ll use (that are totally tentative, of course) and so forth.
Brainstorm and free write. Use both the tangible and intangible for inspiration. And after your butt sinks far enough into that Laz-E Boy, put writing aside, go outside and stretch out already. Return bursting with positive and creative mental energy, determined to make positive headway on your project!
This is a guest post by Michael Bock, staff writer for Lifed. There he writes about life hacks, health, finance and productivity tips.