A survey of 2,500 writers found that writer’s block was caused by high expectations, fear of failure, and unrealistic deadlines. Here are 21 ways to beat writer’s block.
Adapted from “Writer’s block: 101 proven tips for how to cure and beat writer’s block used by writers,” originally posted on the Stop Procrastinating blog. Reprinted with permission.
If there were any doubts about whether writer’s block really exists, they’ve now been laid to rest. A study of 2,500 writers by Stop Procrastinating, the productivity app and website, investigated how to beat writer’s block and found that 63% of writers had suffered a block at some point.
The definition of writers’ block was clear: your motivation or ideas for writing dry up. The survey found that the cause of writer’s block were high expectations, fear of failure, and pressure of unrealistic deadlines.
The good news is that all the writers in the survey beat writer’s block though a combination of creative motivation techniques and unorthodox routines. In many cases all that was needed was a change of scene, especially if the causes were overwork or stress related. For others, changes to their routine worked effectively.
From getting up earlier to taking a cold shower to doing the West Wing “walk and talk,” the following tips can help you be more creative and motivated about your writing, and best of all, beat writer’s block in any number of inventive ways.
1. Get up early or take a nap
Do you get up early or stay up late to do your best writing? Many scientific studies have found that creative activity in the brain is highest during and immediately after sleep. The research suggests sleep and dreams help build remote links between information that our mind struggles with during the day. Sleep, in other words, creates insight.
A 2013 BBC article dissects a study which found that people who slept on a problem did significantly better than those who didn’t, and a study from Psychology Today found that relaxing the brain’s focus on a problem enabled it to solve it. Our study confirmed that writers who changed the time of day they wrote to earlier in the morning were more likely to beat their writer’s block. However, nights owls still used sleep to improve their writing: Writers who said they were night owls had a nap before they began their late night sessions.
There are other reasons why the morning is ideal for creativity. The morning is quiet, you are well rested, and the day’s distractions have yet to begin. In fact, those writers who wrote successfully resisted checking their emails, engaging in social media, or turning on the radio or TV until they had finished their day’s writing.
2. Stop when the going is good
Writing too long can end like a bad party. Don’t even think about carrying on.
Writers revealed that they likened writing for too long to staying too late at a party: you become tired, irritable, and not much fun. You’ll also remember the party from the perspective of that sour mood rather than all the hours of fun you had before you got grumpy.
Simply put, give up when the going is good and you are more likely to look forward to writing again. Stop when you hit a block and you might not be motivated to hit the typewriter for a while.
3. Treat writing like a job
Imagine getting up in the morning and not wanting to go to work. Sure, a lot of people don’t want to, but they have to and they do a good job when they arrive.
Like most jobs, writing is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration, which means you have to put in the effort like the rest of us.
Writers suffering from writer’s block who are waiting for the muse to inspire them might be waiting a long time. Take time out to think, but you’re going to have to write. As with many jobs, at the beginning there may be pain. But once you get through the pain barrier, you’ll enter the flow stage, where your concentration sings and your writing comes naturally.
4. Stop digital distractions
When you’re feeling the pain of getting going or the lull in concentration that comes from work, what do you reach for? Distraction.
And what in our digitally enhanced world is only a swipe or click away? Millions and millions of pages of distraction from funny cat videos to erudite articles, from Facebook updates to the latest news story.
I once spent an half an hour watching trailers for a bunch of random movies. Then to make up for it, I read an intelligent online newspaper, at which point it was lunch time and half the day had passed by.
Cutting out the Internet connection gives writers a creativity boost. No longer are you tempted to browse the Internet or answer an email when the going gets tough.
Even if you aren’t looking for distraction to avoid work, you can easily become distracted if an email pops up or something else calls for your attention. Many writers in our survey said they downloaded a website blocker to help them to write, which helped improve their concentration and output.
5. Take a cold shower
It’s hard to believe, but some of the most hardy of writers said giving themselves the short sharp shock of an ice cold shower got their creative juices flowing. Taking a cold shower increases alertness, improves mood, and reduces anxiety – which is just what you might be feeling if you are worrying you can’t write any more.
6. Stop trying to write it all in one sitting
While some writers can produce all day, the majority create better work by limiting the hours they write to a maximum of three or four a day. Set a deadline and a time limit so you’re more focused.
7. Do something else
A change of scene or activity was a top cure for writer’s block for those writers who undertook our survey. Go for walk, bake a cake, have sex: just move away from the desk and stop writing. A period of time away from your desk, undertaking another activity (not browsing the Internet), allows the mind to work on an unconscious level. Often I find taking a short break can result with a solution only a couple of minutes into the new activity. The number of half finished cakes I’ve baked is legendary.
8. Break the task down
The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one. – Mark Twain
Break down the task of writing into bite-sized chunks by creating a plan or outline and giving yourself realistic targets and deadlines. You’ll be using the same technique as one of the most prolific and successful writers of all time.
9. Just don’t give a damn
Many writers learn to lower their expectations and not care about the first draft. Just getting something down is crucial to getting over the block. With no expectations and the assumption that your first draft won’t be any good, you’ll begin writing. You’ll soon realize that what you’ve produced actually isn’t half bad.
Of course, the real work comes later, when you edit what you have written, but it’s much easier to edit and improve something that’s already been written than a blank page.
10. Write a letter
Follow the the advice of one of America’s greatest writers. When musing over writer’s block, John Steinbeck suggested a good cure was to imagine writing a letter to a friend or a relative. You could start by telling them about a great new friend you’ve met, a character from your novel, or the topic of the content you want to write about.
11. Write anywhere
Learning how to write anywhere was a key remedy for many writers. Being able to jot down notes anywhere and at any time unlocked their imagination and removed the pressure of writing at a set time of day. The reason for this is similar to why sleeping helps creativity.
When you aren’t focusing on the task at hand – because you’re riding in a taxi, on the bus, or eating lunch – your mind will be working in the background on the issue.
Guaranteed, just when you are in the middle of something else, an idea will come to you. If you don’t have a notebook, you might lose your moment of creation forever. Many writers keep a notebook with them at all times for when an idea comes to them and they need to write at a moment’s notice. Many writers who suffered from writer’s block taught themselves to keep notes and write whenever they were inspired.
12. Find your optimal time
Whether in the morning, afternoon, or late at night, many respondents to our survey said that disciplining themselves to write at the same time every day had a positive impact on their creativity. You could keep a diary of when you should write. Writing down your writing goals with a specific time in mind is key to achieving them.
13. Make a mind map
Don’t be constrained by the page in front of you. Mind map your creativity or brain storm ideas: Write down ideas that come to you and pin them to a board or scatter them over the floor. Write in scraps and notebooks and throw it all together at the end.
14. Write to music
In her “rules for writing,” Hilary Mantel, the award-winning writer of Wolf Hall, says she listens to music while she is writing. A number of our surveyed writers listened to inspiring music while they worked and it helped unlock their creativity. Many said classical music worked well as the lack of lyrics didn’t distract and this type of music put them into a lower trance state allowing them to access their imagination far more effectively.
15. Build up a sweat
If there is one elixir of life, it is exercise. Exercising increases energy levels and improves the flow of oxygen to the brain. As a result, exercise has been linked with improved creativity, increased focus, and the creation of extra cell matter. It has even been found to prevent age-related cognitive disorders, such as dementia.
Taking a break to quicken the heartbeat results in quickening your writing. However, not all exercise has to be hard work. The stereotype of the walking genius is based on truth. Researchers at Stanford University found that walking improves a person’s creative output by 60%.
16. Visualize your story
Rather than writing, sit or lie back and daydream about characters in details. Watch them grow and act out scenarios in front of your very eyes. Once you have them living and breathing in your mind, writing will be a lot easier.
Mindful meditation helped some writers overcome their block, allowing them to expand their mind through peaceful contemplation. This is backed up by research showing that meditation reduces anxiety and increases blood flow to the brain.
You can get some free guided meditations here.
18. Walk and talk
The West Wing model of creative writing involves walking while talking into a recording device.
As I’ve already pointed out, exercising to solve a problem is proven to work. But you don’t want to lose any of your creative ideas, so some writers found that walking and talking into a dictaphone helped them create. Sherlock Holmes often solved his trickiest cases by walking and talking to Watson. As we don’t all have a Watson, a small recording device will have to do.
19. Read a book
Many writers started because they were inspired by a book. Go back and read passages that inspired you to write in the first place – it will lift your spirits, remind you why you were first interested in writing, and motivate you to create.
20. Join a writing group
Writing groups keep you motivated and offer mutual support from other writers. You can set deadlines for the following session as well as find a writing buddy who can comment on your work. Or maybe you are confident enough to have the whole group comment on your work. It will certainly ensure you write as well as you can.
21. Read your story aloud
Taking a step back and reading out your story can help you to really listen to the voice of your writing and your characters. Do they sound authentic? Maybe this has been the problem – you aren’t sure of what you are writing. This technique works also for non-fiction writers and bloggers. Reading out loud engages your mind in a different way and come up with solutions and provides another perspective. Either you’ll continue writing with renewed confidence or you’ll be encouraged to change what you are writing.
Stop Procrastinating used the results of a survey to create a powerful guide to beating writer’s block with 101 proven tips and techniques.
They also put the top 25 actionable strategies to beat writer’s block together in this infographic.
The 12-Step Cure For Writer’s Block, Pt. 1: Don’t Be Married To Results
The 12-Step Cure For Writer’s Block, Pt. 2: Don’t Compare Yourself To Other Writers
Focalization: Smart Writers Never Ignore It
10 Writing Exercises To Break You Out Of Your Creative Rut
How To Write When You’re Not In The Mood – 7 Remedies For Writer’s Apathy
Overcome Your Inner Critic