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20 Surefire Ways To Beat Writer's Block

Daphne Gray-Grant knows writing. As a Publications Coach she works with corporate writers who want to do their work faster and better. So we know she’s faced writer’s block.

If you’re a blogger, a business owner, or a writer of any type, I don’t have to explain to you what writer’s block is. You’ve almost certainly had it. I know I have. And Daphne’s suggestions have helped me work through the blocks when they come.

Daphne’s not blogging yet and so she’s graciously allowed me to reprint her article, Twenty Best Ways To Beat Writer’s Block, which went out on her newsletter the past couple of weeks. Both of us hope you gain from it. Enjoy

Twenty Best Ways To Beat Writer’s Block

  1. Write something else. Most of us who write professionally have a hierarchy of horribleness. That is, we know which projects are going to be a little bit awful and which ones will be tremendously awful. My advice? Start with a less awful one. Procrastination, yes, but it’s productive procrastination. (You’ll be happier to face the Project of Doom once you have a bit of good writing under your belt.).
  2. Ask a series of questions. Stuck? Instead of writing your article or report in the “normal” way, brainstorm a list of questions your readers are most likely to wonder about. Then answer them. This may take only minor editing to turn into the “real” report or article.
  3. Write an email. This is a variant on the old trick of pretending to write to a friend. But verisimilitude is important. To maintain the “this isn’t really work” illusion, you must write your piece in the body of an email. (Just use “move block” to copy it into a word processing document when you’re done.)
  4. Change your setting. We all get bored and stuck in ruts. You may be dreading writing because you’re dreading your office. So move to another room. Try the kitchen table or the cafeteria. Or decamp to a coffee shop. It worked for J.K. Rowling.
  5. Go for a walk or run. There’s lots of evidence that we think better when we’re moving, so take your writing on the road. Just be sure you have a way of capturing your thoughts. A small digital recorder does the trick very nicely.
  6. Do a brain dump. Sometimes you just need to get all the information out of your head and onto paper. Mindmapping, which I’ve written about many times before, can be very useful for this. Take a blank piece of paper, turn it sideways and write your topic in the middle. Draw a circle around it. now draw some lines radiating out of the circle (like spokes on a wheel) and write down all the other words that come into your head. Draw circles around them, too, and join them to the spokes. Keep going until your head is empty or until you feel, “aha! Now I know what I want to say.”
  7. Write the headline or title. A headline or title is a bit like a poem. It must distill your big idea into a very few words. It must also be catchy. When you write the headline first, the entire direction of your piece is likely to become more clear. This will make writing substantially easier.
  8. Find your best time for writing. We all have our own biorhythms. I used to be a night owl. It was my best, most productive time for writing. In recent years, I’ve turned into a morning lark. Now I do my best writing at 6 am or earlier. But I’m a disaster by 11:30 am because my blood sugar is crashing and I’m starving. As Socrates said: Know thyself. Identify your predictably “good” times and use them. Don’t try to write during your bad ones.
  9. Tell yourself you have to write for only five minutes. This is the trick they teach to runners. Okay, so you don’t feel like exercising today. Well, pull on your sneakers and tell yourself you have to run for only five minutes and then you can quit. Many times you’ll discover that the simple act of starting will give you enough momentum to continue. It works for writing, too.
  10. Stretch. Even if you’re not blocked, you should do this. Stand up. Reach your hands to the ceiling. Now, clasp your hands behind your back. Straighten your shoulders pushing back against your shoulder blades almost as if you were trying to get them to touch each other. Those of us who work at computers all day tend to spend a lot of time hunched forward. This kind of stretch is not only good for your back, it’s also invigorating. Breathe deeply a few times, too. Oxygen stimulates the brain.
  11. Give yourself permission to write badly — really badly. Many times we’re blocked as writers because we’ve raised the stakes too high. “This report will make or break my career,” we tell ourselves. “My income depends on this sales letter,” we fret. Those thoughts may be true, but set them aside while you’re writing. If you simply must beat yourself up, do it when you’re editing.
  12. Ask yourself, “have I done enough research?” People often worry about over-researching as a form of procrastination. This does happen, but, interestingly, I find the problem is more typically the reverse. People often try to write before they have the raw materials to do the job properly. This inevitably leads to much staring at a blank computer screen. Before you begin to write ask yourself: “If a friend, partner or colleague grilled me on this topic, could I answer most of their questions easily and in plain English?” If not, continue your research without feeling guilty. (Hint: Make sure your research includes more than facts and figures. You need stories, anecdotes and colour. These are what will make your writing come alive.)
  13. “Speak” your writing. Most of us have no difficulty talking. So go with the flow and dictate your words into a tape or digital recorder or even your voicemail. If all else fails, ask a friend to interview you.
  14. Prevent interruptions. Okay, I don’t need to tell you this, but turn off your email and shut down your browser. No pings. No “control + m.” No peeking. Email, blogs, checking online forums and surfing the web will keep you busy — and unproductive. Instead, use these interruptions to “reward” yourself when you’ve finished your writing. To avoid non-digital disturbances, I also like popping on a pair of noise-cancelling headphones (these are also excellent for keeping children at bay if you work from home.)
  15. Break your writing job into a number of smaller tasks. This is the oldest time-management trick in the book — use it because it works. Do many small jobs rather than one big job and the work will feel less onerous. Here’s how you can divvy up your writing work: print out research from Google; go through your research with a highlighter or sticky notes; interview people; make a mind-map; write a rough draft; rewrite an early draft; copy edit.
  16. Reward yourself. If you’ve worked hard on a piece of writing, give yourself a prize. I don’t recommend double fudge brownies for obvious reasons, but there are lots of other options. Allow yourself 15 minutes reading blogs. Call a friend. Play some music. Buy a Moleskin notebook. Get a cappuccino.
  17. Turn off your screen so you can’t see what you’ve just written. This tip does depend on your ability to touch type, but if you have that skill, it’s the single best way to stop yourself from endlessly editing your work when you ought to be writing.
  18. Limit your writing time. Work expands to fill available time (Parkinson’s Law.) Writing thrives under constraint. (Daphne’s Law.) I know this sounds counterintuitive but we often give ourselves too much time to write. Don’t set aside a day for that report. Tell yourself you have to do it in two hours. Remember how productive you can be just before going on holiday? Create the feeling artificially by limiting your writing time.
  19. Pretend you’ve phoned a friend and said, “Guess what?” Then continue the conversation by explaining the key elements of the topic you’re writing about. What makes this technique so effective is that it follows a natural progression. Because you’re telling a story, you’ll start with the most interesting material, give detail where it belongs and end by reinforcing the point you want to make.
  20. Read a short but good piece of writing that’s similar to the kind of piece you need to complete. Get yourself a folder for essays and brief magazine pieces you can dip into for inspiration. If you write sales letters, you probably already have a “swipe file.” That works too. For extra reinforcement, you can even re-read some of your own writing. This is often a welcome reminder that while writing can be awful, having written is the most wonderful feeling in the world.

I’ve used a number of these myself. And many, such as 5, 6, 7, 8, 10, 13, 14 & 18 are part of my blogging routine – especially when I’m stuck.

Pretty good tips, huh? And practical. That’s what I love so much about Daphne’s newsletter.

If these tips were helpful, subscribe to her newsletter, Power Writing, where weekly she publishes practical tips for improving your writing – and the speed of which you do it. It’s one of the few newsletters I still subscribe too myself.

So how do you deal with writer’s block? I know you get it… Have you had success with any of Daphne’s suggestions?

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Comments

  1. Jean Browman--StressToPower says:

    Thanks! I immediately wrote her an e-mail to thank her, too. Then I signed up for her newsletter and read one of her other articles. She had a great example of the power of disappointment:”[Roger]Bannister never won an Olympic medal. He finished fourth in the 1,500 metres at the 1952 Olympics. And he says he might never have broken four minutes, if not for his disappointing performance at that event.”

    Again, thanks!

  2. Jean Browman--StressToPower says:

    This isn’t exactly about writer’s block, but it is about great writing. Check out the image and first sentence of Tony Clark’s post Nobody Is Going To Save You. Talk about packing a punch!

  3. Dawud-

    I loved this article – came at the perfect time for me.
    Thank you so much for your sweet inspiration. . . you’re the greatest~!

  4. Dawud,

    Hi. I just came back to see a weeks worth of awesome posts!

    She has some great tips.. how about adding starting in the middle.. I often find myself writing the middle, the end, or somewhere in there.. and working my way up and down from there..

  5. Walking does it for me every time. No sooner than I get on the treadmill, I am flooded with ideas. So much so, that it is difficult to stay on & finish my workout. If only I could do both.

  6. Char,
    You’re welcome, and you should thank Daphne.

    Jean,
    I know the Bannister story, great example. Thanks.

    Andrea,
    Thanks. Great tip. Sounds like a couple of blog posts in that tip…

    isawyournanny,
    Cool. How about using a digital recorder and taping yourself while you’re on the treadmill and then transcribing it later?

  7. Some great tips! Although I must admit that the double fudge brownies would be a GREAT incentive to me (off to look for the brownie mix!)

  8. Strangely, writing (or typing) using colour can also be very effective.

    This works because creative and technical processes are handled by the two different hemispheres of the brain. Using colour helps the two hemispheres to work together.

    Strange, but true.

  9. Great ideas.

    Often, writer’s block is coupled with a lack of motivation. For me, that means working on motivation overall; not just writer’s block specifically.

  10. ses5909,
    I hear you…

    Mark,
    Interesting. I’d love to hear more about that. How do you think color affects reading?

    Ben,
    Can’t say I know what you mean there, Ben 🙂

  11. I like to create an outline and fill it in level by level. Start with a title then subheads. Then fill in 2-4 points under those (sometimes they turn into new subheads or entirely separate posts!) and keep expanding until the article is written. Getting away from it, like Andrea mentioned a while back, helps too.

    Wow! 17, turning off the monitor… that sounds scary, but I think I might try it! I find myself editing after every sentence sometimes.

    These were some great tips! Definitely bookmarking this to del.icio.us!

  12. @Dawud: I get writer’s block when my motivation (in general) is waning. It might not be a lack of motivation specific to blogging/writing, but something else – which seeps into blogging and blocks me from doing something really good.

    I expand on your thoughts here:
    http://www.instigatorblog.com/beat-writers-block-by-reading-and-commenting-more/2007/08/13/

    (not sure why it didn’t trackback on its own…)

  13. Dawud,

    Simple amazing Tips for Bloggers

  14. [quote comment=”9208″]
    Interesting. I’d love to hear more about that. How do you think color affects reading?[/quote]

    I really don’t know – but have you noticed how kids books are very colourful. Is this just because kids like the pictures and can begin to associate the words to the images, or maybe there’s more to it than that?

    Perhaps, following the same theory, it’s possible that the colour stimulates the imagination in the child and helps them to learn.

    The natural progression of this argument for the adult population, of course, is comic books.

    Ahem.

  15. I haven’t even been blogging for 2 weeks yet, so thankfully I haven’t hit this yet. I think I’ll bookmark this as a little lifeline for when the inevitable happens!

    (Number 5 is my favourite. I’ve done that a lot of times before for other writing projects. Works brilliantly. 🙂 )

  16. Mark’s comment reminded me of this little test… waaaaaay harder than it looks!

  17. Ray Bradbury gave the best cure. he said blockage comes from reading too much of the same material.
    He suggested filling the “hopper” with eclectic reading – Polynesian history, sex life of bees, prison poetry (I’m making these examples up) etc. and the hopper will eventually make a “deposit”.
    Quotes are Bradbury’s as I remember from an interview (Rose? Cavett?)
    Ross

  18. Everyone,
    You have to check out this brain teaser that LaurenMarie shared.

  19. Liked that brain teaser, huh? 😀 It’s fun to share with kids too! I wonder if they have an easier time processing it than adults.

  20. Hi everyone,

    Dawud let me know about all the posts here, so I thought I’d check in. Thanks everyone!

    LaurenMarie, I hesitate to suggest you change part of your writing process, because we’re all different, but I have to tell you that I’ve persuaded many people to STOP outlining and to switch to mindmapping instead. Almost always, this helps people to double their writing speed. I have one client who claims it increased his writing speed by five times!

    I have an article hiding on my harddrive somewhere about why you shouldn’t outline. I will try to post it to my site in the next couple of days and will provide the link when I do so.

    Cheers. -daphne

  21. Daphne,
    Great advice. Did I not tell you all she’s great???

  22. Cool article. I am still surprised on how one could manage to put up a list with 20 ways, did the writer face any writers block while doing this, hehe.

  23. I agree with Daphne on the mindmapping – it never fails for me – but then I mindmap most things!
    This has been my first visit – I will be back.
    Thanks
    Jackie

  24. Yep, we are all stalked by the writer’s block from time to time. Here are my detailed thoughts on this.

  25. study guide,
    I don’t think so. Daphne’s pretty good at what she does. And anyhow, if she did, she has some great advice for working with it.

    Jackie,
    I know, I use it too.

  26. “Officially” I don’t believe in writers block, but when I get stuck I find either a nap or a shower seems to move me to the needed new place.

    Anne

  27. Thanks for the link to the original blogger! I’ll have to keep an eye on your blog, and on hers.

  28. thanks best regards..

  29. thank you very much. this is great 🙂

  30. Ask a friend for suggestions, critique, or a different angle. This can spark a new way of thinking about the topic and you can be well off on your own just borrowing someone else’s thoughts.

  31. Tampa,
    I’ve done this a bunch. It’s a great way to get outside yourself a bit and look at something from a new place.

  32. güzel sözler says:

    Thanks for the link to the original blogger! I’ll have to keep an eye on your blog, and on hers.

  33. güzel,
    You’re welcome. And thank you for following me.

  34. Writer’s block is very hard, but it’s an essential element of the creative process. People need to know when they need to take a step back.

    They also need to know when to push themselves. These, and other writing tricks like the ones you discuss are valuable.

  35. Thanks 😉

  36. Writer’s block is something that has been tormenting me for a long time , I have this sickening negative feeling when I sit down to write. There are times when I overcome it very easily and there are times when it just does not go away.

    I guess your tips might help me.

  37. Thanks! I think these are really good tips are really good and mainly because they are simple.

    I think one way of dealing with writer’s block is by not attaching to much significance to it. I think we should realize that in the end it just takes a second to get out of it…

  38. Karian Time Personal To Do List Organizer says:

    thanks for the tips! These were really good guidelines. And i wanted to beat the writer’s book and i think these guidelines will be really useful.

    Thanks a lot!

  39. Long board skateboard shop Australia says:

    Your article is interesting. Strangely, writing (or typing) using colour can also be very effective.

    This works because creative and technical processes are handled by the two different hemispheres of the brain. Using colour helps the two hemispheres to work together.

    Strange, but true.

  40. Some great tips! Although I must admit that the double fudge brownies would be a GREAT incentive to me (off to look for the brownie mix!)

  41. I think the atrificial time set worked. I write a page in only a few moments, which is good for me. I’m only 12 so, I’m by no means the greatest typer in the world. I’m on my second novel and this hepled a lot. Thank you, you are gifted.

  42. Article Writer says:

    This is a very helpful article. I do get the occasional writer’s block too and I do a lot of things listed here as well. Also, I use a tool for mind mapping. It helps a lot organizing my thoughts as well.

    Megan J.
    Article Writer

  43. writer’s block really suck! You just cant force it …as they say it will come to you. Me I try to relax and get inspired by art, music or anything else..write notes on it on a post it and hope that an idea will come.

  44. awesome article. Writers block has always been an effect of my ADHD unfortunatley. There are ways to help without medications though.

  45. we are leading the blog as well. sometimes it’s hard to create a new article. Will try to use “Guess what!?” idea) sounds like fun. Thx, man.

  46. maxsikis says:

    Change your setting. We all get bored and stuck in ruts. You may be dreading writing because you’re dreading your office. So move to another room. Try the kitchen table or the cafeteria. Or decamp to a coffee shop. It worked for J.K. Rowling.

  47. Nice also to be able to brainstorm with other writers. In the Tampa Bay area we have a group of blog writers we meet with on a regular basis.

  48. Feriebolig i Thailand says:

    Took me time to read all the information, but I really enjoyed. It proved to be Very helpful to me and I am sure to all the commenters here! It’s always nice when you can not only be informed, but also entertained! I’m sure you had fun writing this article.

  49. Dawud, You have a real informative blog here unlike most of the blogs out there. I would like to thank you for sharing your knowledge and expertise with us.
    Btw you have a very unique name.. I heard Davud which is a Turkish name but Dawud?

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