5 Ways to Power Past Writer’s Block

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felicia leeIf you’re a writer facing down writer’s block, few things are scarier than staring at a blank Word file evocatively titled “Document1.” You sit, hands poised on (or somewhere near) your keyboard, wondering why your muse has gone AWOL while picturing every other writer acquaintance of yours typing away, creative juices gushing, as pages and pages of inspired prose emerge to greet an adoring world.

If it’s any consolation, this is almost certainly not happening. Apart from a few exceptionally prolific writers, everyone who writes, either professionally or for fun, has faced the occasional bout of writer’s block. Luckily, you have lots of easy options for getting out of the doldrums fast and getting those creative juices flowing again. The ones below are some of my favorites:

1. Stop worrying about being perfect. Perfectionism is the enemy of creativity. While maintaining high standards for your writing is noble, being too hard on yourself when writing early drafts can lead to paralysis. Too many talented people I know have gotten themselves stuck because of the fear that a single, less-than-perfect turn of words would permanently mark them as hacks. It won’t — if you look at original manuscripts by master writers such as Ernest Hemingway, you’ll see plenty of scratched-out passages and revisions. And he didn’t care who knew his original vision was less than brilliant.

Of course, if you’re still feeling self-conscious, we now have a face-saving option Hemingway didn’t: the Delete key. So feel free to write something, anything, just to get yourself started. You can always change or delete it, and no one will be the wiser.

2. Feel free to skip ahead (or go back). So you’ve written a gripping opening scene, introduced the protagonist, set up a conflict, and then . . . a bunch of stuff has to happen before a major turning point, a tension-filled car chase that will reveal something shocking and important about a major character. You can visualize every last detail of that climactic scene and have it all written out in your head . . . but you’re still stuck figuring out how to move the story to that point.

Don’t let this stop you. There’s no rule requiring that stories be written in strict chronological or linear order. Go ahead and skip to the chapter you already have fully fleshed out in your mind. It may spark ideas for the story leading up to this point. And at the very least, you’ll have a confidence boost with more of your story on paper.

Of course, this dilemma is more likely if, like me, you’re a pantser rather than a plotter. But even if you always have a full outline ready before you start writing, you too can skip ahead (or backtrack) if you’re feeling uninspired.

3. Change up your routine. If writers’ block makes you dread sitting at your desk every day, you have an easy solution: Stop trying to write at your desk. Instead, take your laptop outside (weather permitting) or to the library or your favorite café. A change in atmosphere is sometimes enough to break that cycle of bad vibes. Alternately, step away from your word processor and take a shower or go for a walk. Calm, relaxing activities foster free association, which may bring you just the idea you need to move your writing ahead.

4. Write something — anything. This is related to strategy (1) — just the act of putting something down on paper (or into a digital file) is often enough to spark confidence, if not new ideas. Don’t worry about the presentation being perfect. If all you can come up with are outline notes for what you want your characters to be saying/doing/feeling, at least you’re still making progress. You can use these ideas as the starting point for later, more detailed writing.

5. Set tiny goals — and stick with them.  Writer’s block is sometimes triggered by dread of the size of the project ahead — how will I ever get this darned novel finished?  And the more you procrastinate, the worse that sense of intimidation gets.

If you have a tough time just motivating yourself to sit down and face that blank page, you can ease yourself into it by developing a micro habit, a goal so ridiculously small and doable it will wipe all your “life gets in the way” excuses off the table.

For example, instead of promising (and inevitably failing) to sit down and write an hour a day or until you’ve produced 1000 words (or whatever), promise you’ll sit down five minutes a day (say, after you’ve checked your e-mail in the morning) and write one sentence. Yes, that’s right — just one sentence. This may sound dumb, but after a week, you’ll have a couple of paragraphs done, and by the end of the month, maybe a draft of a chapter or a short story.
And yes, this actually works in real life. I tried this to get through a short story that was causing me trouble, and within two weeks, my first draft was done!

Finally, remember that writer’s block is only temporary. Do you have another solution when you’re feeling stuck?

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Lee is the author of the Days of the Dead series. She also writes non-fiction essays (some of which have appeared in the Los Angeles Times and Salon.com and promotional copy for businesses, nonprofits, and public agencies. She earned two degrees in English from Stanford and has a doctorate in linguistics from UCLA. After ten years as a university professor and researcher she returned to her roots as a writer and has never looked back.