How to Beat Writer’s Block

All writers get writer’s block at one time or another. For some, it last five minutes. In extreme cases, it’s been known to last for years. For me, it’s been on and off for about a month now.

In a desperate attempt to jog myself out of this rut I’m in, I figured I’d ask some readers for come topic suggestions. Guess what the most popular topic suggestion was? You guessed it, “How to Beat Writer’s Block.”

Why not use my writer’s block as the topic of my next post, to see if that gets me back on track? I love the irony, don’t you?

Since writer’s block seems to affect each writer differently, I pulled together some of the most common scenarios I’ve seen from my own experiences and conversations with other writers.

For each scenario, I’ve tried to provide some basic suggestions for how you might be able to deal with each. If you’re facing any of these writer’s block scenarios, I hope the tips help you get unblocked.

Here are the most common scenarios typically described as writer’s block:

You’re Out of Ideas

It’s highly unlikely that you’re out of ideas. While you may think you’ve written about everything interesting you have to offer, the truth is there’s a lot you know that others don’t. If you’re truly stuck for ideas, try one of the following:

  • Ask your readers or friends for story ideas (this is where I got the idea for this post).
  • Keep a notepad on you at all times – jot down ideas whenever you have them. This way, when you’re low on ideas, you can turn to the list for inspiration.
  • Scan the headlines on your particular areas of interest (or setup RSS feeds or Google Alerts on topics – you’ll have a regular flow of ideas coming in all the time).

You Have Too Many Ideas

I’ve been here before. I have a spreadsheet with about 500 blog post ideas in it, some of which have been on the list for a year now. Don’t fall into this trap. While it’s good to have a scratch pad of ideas, the best time to write that post that’s on your mind is usually now.

Sometimes it’s easier to add ideas to the list than to start writing. If you find yourself bouncing around from one idea to the next, try the following:

  • Come up with a scoring system to rate your post ideas. I rate my ideas based on how much I want to write about it, how much I think my readers want me to write about it, and how relevant the topic is to the editorial content of my blog to to Web searches that would lead to my blog. Average the numbers together and you’ve got priority and order.
  • Sometimes it’s fine to bounce around from one topic to the next, just make sure you’re getting closer to completion on each task. I have a couple of blog posts in draft mode at all times. This way, when I’m feeling inspired by a topic, I can wrap it up.
  • Some people can’t shift back and forth like this, and most productivity experts would tell you to only focus on one thing at a time. Follow there advice. Write your topic down and tune everything else out.

You’re On Deadline – Too Much Pressure

This one’s easy. You can’t shift time. The only way to overcome writer’s block on deadline is to start writing. You don’t have the luxury of time. It might not be the best article you’ve ever written, but you probably have a topic, a word limit, and a deadline.

Write the article as fast as you can, and spend the time leading up to your deadline revising and tweaking. It might not be up to your standards, but you’ll be surprised how many people have lower standards than you. Some of my “best” articles have been on deadline.

For future opportunities, follow these tips to avoid feeling the pressure:

  • Plan ahead. If you know something is due in one week, start on it now. Try to complete something three days (or a week) before the deadline.
  • Keep a log or mental note of how long it actually takes you to write. Deadlines are often self-imposed. Don’t tell somebody you can complete the work sooner than you actually can.

You’re Self Conscious About an Article

You might not want to admit it, but some of you are intimidated by what people will think of your article. You worry about negative comments on your blog, or that your post will come back to haunt you later.

Perhaps you are concerned about what your boss will think, or that you’ll use bad grammar and appear less intelligent. You could just as easily hope for the best.

I’ve only blown it on a a couple articles out of thousands. There is far more good than bad that can come out of writing. Don’t get hung up on what others will think.

Of particular note, if you’re a blogger, go back and read some comments from six months ago. Chances are you’ve received a lot of positive feedback and encouragement – use it to build your confidence.

Too Much is Going on Around You

I’ve done some of my best writing in the middle of a coffee shop during the morning rush. I’m able to tune everything out sometimes. Other times, I need complete silence. Only you can know what environment is most productive for you.

If you find yourself getting distracted too easily, change your environment. Takes stuff off your desk and shove it in a drawer. Send your calls to voicemail and disconnect from the Internet. You’ll be surprised how fast you’ll get your writing done.

You’re Hungry, Tired, Stressed or All of the Above

This is the hardest one to recognize, but honestly, it’s the one that plagues me the most. When I’m having the hardest time writing, it’s often when I’ve been staying up too late, not exercising and eating poorly.

Guess what advice I’d offer here? Go to bed, eat an apple and go for a jog. Honestly, when I’m well rested, get some exercise and eat something good for me, I write twice as fast and come up with a ton of fresh ideas.

Too Much Info

If I’m writing a fairly technical piece, I have a tendency to over research. All that information can cause information overload and make it difficult to focus on the task at hand.

A better approach is to start writing about a topic and leave spaces where you want to inject backup information. Research that information once you’ve got a rough draft to work with, this will save you from researching a bunch of information you’ll end up not using.

If you feel you need more information before you can get started, read up on the subject and jot down some notes. Try to resist excessive printing of information or highlighting, it will only leave you more confused over the focus of your piece.

Conclusion

These are just a few of the examples that came up in my conversation with other writers. Do you have other suggestions for ways to beat writer’s block? If so, I’d love to hear them.

Would you like advice on a particular area where you get stuck? Give me a shot, I’ll do my best to help.

As for me, hopefully this post does the trick. Is it my best post ever? No. Is it my worst? Probably not. I got the assignment done, and that’s what overcoming writer’s block is about.

(Image Credit: Building Blocks by Holger Zscheyge)

About Jeremy Porter 214 Articles
Jeremy Porter has been passionate about the intersection of public relations and journalism since studying both Public Relations and Journalism at Utica College of Syracuse University in the late 90s. Porter launched Journalistics in 2009 to share his ideas and insights around both professions and how trends and developments in modern day marketing, communications, and technology impact those working in these fields. Porter also values the traditions and history of both professions and regularly shares his perspective in these areas - and related topics geared toward the next generation of journalism and public relations professionals.

9 Comments

  1. I’ve been breaking writer’s block for nearly 20 years in a one-time
    consultation for people ranging from full-time professional writers,
    including one who’s had ten books in a row on the New York Times
    bestseller list, and another who is a Pulitzer prize winner, to
    part-time writers, graduate students, and aspirant writers.

    I identify six major forms of block (these also apply to other
    creative artists as well as writers, such as composers, photographers,
    and painters — but not to actors — and, actually, can apply to great
    numbers of people for great numbers of projects or undertakings).
    They are:

    1. Paralysis

    2. Avoidance behavior

    3. Last-minute crisis writing

    4. Inability to finish

    5. Inability to select from among projectsfinish

    6. Block specific (able to work on other material).

    I can’t summarize a five-hour session filled with concept and
    technique here, but here, without going into detail about them or
    discussing the many subtle ways they can play out, are what I call
    “The Three Big Killers” in block:

    1. Perfectionism — which is a form of all-or-nothing thinking,
    triumph or catastrophe, with nothing possible in between.

    2. Fear — which is a product of the first and second Big Killers,
    but which can be identified as a separate entity. All fear in
    writer’s block, regardless of where it starts, can be boiled down to
    the simple statement: “That I can’t do it.” And what is the “it”
    that I can’t do? The simple act of putting words on paper. Period.
    Nothing more. Nothing less. The simple act of putting words on
    paper. No more magical an act than painting a board or throwing a
    board. (Find an equivalent analog for whatever task or project *you*
    have in mind or are facing.

    3. The Baggage Train — these are all the things we wish to
    *accomplish* with our writing, such as I want to be rich, I want to be
    admired, I want to make them laugh and cry, I want to save the whales,
    I want to bring peace to the middle-east, etc., but which are not the
    *act* of writing itself. The problem arises because, while it looks
    like I’m trying to write, and I *think* I’m trying to write, I’m not:
    I’m trying to get rich, save the whales, get my ex-wife and all my
    ex-lovers to say ‘Boy, I really should have stayed with him. Look how
    sensitive and insightful he is,’ etc. The key is to disconnect the
    baggage train from the locomotive, which is writing, which is the
    simple act of putting words on paper, so that thing get out of the
    station.

    Any single one of these Killers operating in you with sufficient
    strength, and you’ll be blocked ; any two present at the same time,
    and you don’t have a chance.

    I hope that is of some help. I wish you the best with this problem.
    (Incidentally, I am not invulnerable to block myself. In fact, I have
    a *huge* potential case of it. The difference is, I know what to do
    about it. Actually, I break writer’s block several times a day for
    myself. If I didn’t, I would be paralyzed.)

    Be well,
    Jerry

    http://www.unblock.org

  2. Like tens of thousands of others with a background in journalism and PR, I’ve written on diverse subjects over the years: health care, the Internet, financial services, real estate, HR management, customer care, telecom policy and on and on. That’s the beauty of our field — the endless variety of topics we can apply our craft to. Some I have loved. Others made me drowsy. It’s a bad sign when your own writing puts you to sleep: Writer’s block at its worst.

    When that happens, I take a “break” of sorts, meandering through the blogosphere to see what’s there and maybe offer a comment. Your blog is always a treat. Refreshed, I can now return to whatever technical yawner I was working on, and maybe liven it up a tad.

    • You hit on a good point with the “own writing” thing. I wouldn’t say my own writing puts me to sleep, but I do need to be really motivated to right a piece before I do. I guess this is my quality filter at work – maybe it’s not writer’s block at all?

      Good call on livening things up a tad too.

  3. Great ideas — all of them! I would add that I turn off email completely (close the program so I won’t get notices every time a message comes in). I am a big fan of the “get enough rest, exercise and healthy food” club. I do my best thinking on a brisk walk or the elliptical machine. I also meditate predawn. It slows me down and, as a result, I am more productive. Ideas come to me in that calm silence and I am not so wrung out from all the frentic, unproductive energy. Finally, I have to fight off the interruptions from email about household and kid needs (school volunteer pleas and details about Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, two baseball teams, church). I care deeply about all those things, but have to set firm boundaries that I am “at work” in my home office and on a schedule, even if it is somewhat flexible. Such interruptions can cause writer’s block because it destroys momentum and you can’t just hit a restart button and regain it. I know, it took me four years to finish a dissertation while having and raising two babies. Good post, keep ’em coming.

  4. Heh I did the same thing—turned my writer’s block into a post—but yours is a lot less defeatist than mine.

    Writer’s block has to be the most freaking frustrating thing ever, but I guess it happens to everyone at some point. What I like more than anything is being in multiple locations on the Web. I may not be able to come up with anything for my blog on a particular day, but I can probably at least eke out a few 140-character Twitter posts, any of which may wake up my sleeping creativity.

    Great post.

  5. I’ve been writing for a living for 29 years. Unless and until there is surgeon’s block, cook’s block or plumber’s block, I refuse to entertain the idea of “writer’s block.” We get paid to write, and “not feelin’ it” is just an excuse. I once was asked by a student in a graduate writing seminar at Temple University what I use to motivate myself when I don’t feel like writing. It’s called a mortgage, young man.

    Do your homework and start writing. My key is recognizing that clarity of expression isn’t going to happen until I have clarity of thought.

  6. For me, the writer’s block usually stems from avoidance. I know there is a particularly difficult challenge on the horizon, so I do what I do best – procrastinate. Sometimes you just have to glue your butt to the chair and stay there till you push past it.

    But I do agree that not taking care of yourself can hamper your ability to think clearly. When I’m eating right, getting plenty of sleep, and exercising, the words flow more easily than they do when I’m being lazy and pigging out.

  7. First of all, thank you for your useful post about writer’s block, something I really know.
    I’ve been writing for a living for ten years and I recognize my self in several scenarios you described.
    However, there’s one, I see, you didn’t take and it happened to me often. Imagine this situation: you aren’t out of ideas, instead you actually have one good topic to write about, but you have no idea what to say. I mean, you want to say something new, something original, something intelligent but you don’t know how start.
    Do you have some suggestions for deal with this situation?
    Thank in advance for any tip!
    A.

  8. I am so glad that you wrote a blog post about this. I do love the irony of it as well. So many times I find myself completely at a loss for words. There are times where I swear it is as if I’ll never be able to write again. I never thought of using your writers block as a topic though. Great idea! I also really liked one of the topics you chose: You have too many ideas. I think this is my biggest problem. Even when I’m writing about a specific topic, I feel like I have so much I want to say and not enough room to say it. I’ll definitely be using your advice on this subject!

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