One More Method to Breaking Writer’s Block

Yesterday, I shared six methods for breaking through writer’s block. But I forgot one of my most favorite ones.

Writer's Block

If you find you’re stuck for a way to explain something or can’t quite figure out a direction of a story or article, explain it to a friend. I mean actually sit down face-to-face with someone and tell them what you’re trying to accomplish. If necessary, pull out paper and pen, and diagram what you’re talking about.

I’ve often found that in order to be able to put my thought process into words, I have to be able to crystallize my thoughts. It causes all the thoughts that are pinballing around my head to get into formation, and I can express them clearly and logically.

Once I do that, I get unstuck for what I’m trying to say, and everything makes sense. I will occasionally pop open my laptop or notebook and scribble down the thoughts in a brief outline, which I can go back to later. It especially helps if I have several minutes after talking to that person to put everything down in a complete idea dump, which I can go back and fix later.

Six Sure-Fire Methods to Break Writer’s Block

A lot of writers suffer from writer’s block. That big mental wall that sometimes get in the way of getting any writing done. But it doesn’t have to be permanent. Only a few times have people suffered career-ending writer’s block, but when that happens, we’ve gone beyond just plain ol’ writer’s block, and are getting into some serious performance anxiety.

Here are six sure-fire methods you can use to break through your own writer’s block.Erik Deckers' Moleskine & Coffee Tumbler

  • Carry a notebook with you at all times: I keep a little black Moleskine notebook and pen with me close at hand. Whenever I have an idea or a thought that I know I’ll want to use later, I write it down. If I have several minutes, I’ll write as much as I can about the idea that inspired me. Oftentimes, when I’m stuck for a topic or struggling with an idea, I’ll pull out the notebook and refer to what I’ve already written. Or if I’ve written enough, the material from the notebook is what I needed in the first place. I just transcribe it and clean it up.
  • Write something else: Most writers I know get hung up on one particular project. They can’t write this blog post, they can’t write that article. So write something else. If you’re a professional writer, or even a persistent amateur, there’s always something else to write. So write that instead. It often gets the juices flowing, and you can break the block. When you feel it break, immediately switch over to the project you were stuck on.
  • Write it in an email instead: Most writers seem to get stuck because they’re writing for posterity. They’re thinking not only of The Reader, but The Reader in 50 Years. I don’t know how many journals and notebooks I started and then trashed because I thought, “what if my grandchildren read this in 50 years” or “what if someone wants to study my writings in 100 years? What will they find?” I immediately froze up, got two entries into the journal, and then quit. I lost count of the notebooks I’ve pitched because of this.
    If this happens to you, regardless of what you’re writing, write it in an email instead. Start it out with “Dear Mom, this is something I’m working on right now.” Then write your project/article/blog post to your mom. We love our moms, and they love us. But they don’t always get what we’re working on. So write this in terms your mom will understand. Then, go back and delete the greeting, and you’ve got your piece. Stop writing for The Reader and The Future Reader. Write for yourself. And your mom. And call her once in a while, she misses you.
  • Pick a different environment: I have two offices. My regular office and my favorite coffee shop. Some weeks see me in one office more than the other. And there are times that being in one place or the other is not conducive to getting work done. So I go to the other office. The change in environment is often enough to jolt me out of my stuckness. But if it doesn’t work — and I can usually feel the torpor coming on — I’ll go somewhere completely different. A different coffee shop, a friend’s office (Tip: Make sure they own the business. Don’t stop by your friend’s place inside the giant corporate building.) The new setting is usually enough to jolt me out of my complacency and get my creative juices flowing again.
  • Write nonsense:I’ve never been a fan of writing exercises to get warmed up. This isn’t running. I’m not going to injure my brain if I don’t write something “creative” before I start real writing. But that doesn’t mean there’s not some validity to just writing complete and utter crap for the first 20 minutes. If you’re stuck on a particular topic, write stream-of-consciousness stuff about your subject, maybe even the piece itself. As you write, do it in an over-the-top voice and style, like Sideshow Mel from The Simpsons. As you do this, you’ll find yourself breaking through the block and starting to write some real material. But don’t delete the crap. Cut-and-paste it into another document, and then go back and read it a couple days later. You may find some nuggets worth keeping.
  • Quit waiting to be inspired: Once you become a professional writer, you don’t have the luxury of having writer’s block. You also don’t have the luxury of “being inspired” or “waiting for the right moment.” Real writers don’t get inspired. Real writers plant their asses in their chairs and start writing. If the words aren’t coming, try one of the other five things I mentioned. If they still aren’t coming, put your head down, and keep writing. They’ll come to you eventually.
    Most professional writers ignore the writer’s block, because they have a job to do, and they do what they need to to get it done. There’s no such thing as an accountant’s block, where the figures just don’t add up. Or a chemist’s block, because they can’t get the formulas right. When you reach this level of writing, the words just come automatically, like breathing and eating. You may have times where your work is better, but as a professional writer, even your “good enough” should be pretty good.

What about you serious writers? How do you break through writer’s block? How do you prevent it? Has anything worked or not worked? And did any of those involve alcohol?

Update: After I wrote this post, I thought of one more method to breaking writer’s block, which I published the following day.

A Sure Cure For Writer’s Block

So I’m bugging the bejeezus out of this poor woman at a coffee shop, asking to look at one of her books when she’s obviously working hard writing something very scholarly. The name of the book? Professors as Writers: A Self-Help Guide to Productive Writing.

Writer's Block

Having been in higher education for a number of years, and having written a number of scholarly works (and being the son of a professor myself), I was naturally curious what those Ivory Tower residents are talking about writing. I open it up to the first chapter and see:

Telling a writer to relax is like telling a man to relax while being prodded for a hernia. . . He thinks the article must be of a certain length or it won’t seem important. He thinks how august it will look in print. He thinks of the people who will read it. He thinks that it must have the solid weight of authority. He thinks that its style must dazzle. No wonder he tightens. — W. Zinsser, On Writing Well

Wow, I didn’t know writing had to be that hard. I’ve just sort of, well, done it. I never had writer’s block, because I’ve never worried about what other people thought of my writing, except for a few people. I quit worrying about what it would look like in print after the second time it was printed. I never worried about whether it made other people laugh, only if it made me laugh. (Coincidentally, the stuff I think is hilarious never gets that many compliments, but the stuff I think is just throwaway crap I needed to fill a word count is the stuff that gets rave reviews from readers.)

So quit worrying already and start writing. You’re not writing for posterity, for future generations, or for tens of thousands of readers. You’re writing for yourself. You’re writing what makes you happy, what pleases you, what brings you joy. If you like writing mystery novels, then write mystery novels. If you like writing blog posts, then write blog posts. But write your mystery novels, write your blog posts.

They’re not for someone else, they’re for you.

Writers loosen up once they start writing for themselves and stop thinking about the reader. Quit thinking about The Reader.

We all have a mythical buildup in our mind about The Reader. Our writing teachers always tell us to “think of The Reader, don’t forget The Reader.” But you’re not writing for The Reader. Once you start thinking about The Reader — that genderless, faceless judgmental bureauratic-minded nerd who’s all set to jump on your writing with a shrill “a-ha!” — you’re stuck, because you’re always trying to please him*. The only person you have to please is yourself. Pleasing everyone else is just gravy. (*I know that in a more accepting society, I should say “him or her,” but I’m not. It takes away from the rhythm of the language, and your own The Reader is going to be whatever you call it. Mine is a him.)

So, smack The Reader in the face, and write something you know he’ll hate. Do it on purpose. Make it suck. Make it really nasty, something that should be wrapped in newspaper. And then print it out, and put it somewhere where you can see it. Then, point your finger at it, and shout, “You see that, Reader? Choke on it!” (No, I’m not kidding. Ten cool points if you publish your sucky piece to your blog. Let me know you did, and I’ll even link to it out of moral support.)

Once you loosen up and start writing what you want, the ideas will come faster and more easily, your fingers will fly, and the words will come easily, and your writer’s block will be broken. You’ll be writing again. So, kick The Reader in the ass and tell him to go away and leave you alone. You’ve got better things to do than to pander to him.