How To Break Through Writer’s Block: Show Up And Bring A Pen

writer's block
Photo via Flickr

This month, thousands of writers will commit to grinding out close to 2,000 words per day as they take part in National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, a writing project-gone-internet obsession now in its 15th year. The point of NaNoWriMo? Write a novel — or at least 50,000 words — between November 1 and November 30. Spelling, grammar, and even, to some extent, plot go out the window in the interest of speed, stamina, and, ultimately, completion of the goal. But even still, participants might find themselves staring at a blank Word document, unable to lay down another word.

Even if you’re not participating in NaNo, writer’s block can be a real issue. Whether you’re trying to draft a blog post, an email newsletter, or even just a clever word on your coworker’s birthday card that’s being passed around the office, when words fail you, it’s nice to have some tools in your back pocket that can help you retrieve them in a heartbeat.

The most important way to make sure that you get your writing done is to commit to getting your writing done. Nothing will get written if you don’t actually show up. Plenty of great writers and thinkers have spoken on the importance of showing up to do the work, including the poet Maya Angelou, who noted that just doing the work was sometimes enough to help her push through.

“What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.’ And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.'”

This idea of showing up for the muse is a time-honored one — and one that’s easily lost in an era when every phone is also a powerful word-processing device. But actively setting aside the time to get your writing done is one of the easiest ways to make sure it does, indeed, get done. Then, once you’re there, just write whatever comes. Eventually, it’ll take shape.

writer's blockAnother big tip: Don’t be afraid to poke around online, within limits. Lots of writers swear by writing without an internet connection, which does work really well for some people, but also has the distinct potential for locking you into your own ideas. Allowing yourself the ability to explore online and research while you write can help you find new ideas and inspiration, and can also give your brain the much-needed break it needs to move on.  However, discipline is key in this situation; if you let yourself fall down a rabbit hole of Google searches and deep internet dives, you might waste all of your allotted writing time and come up with nothing. Take 10-minute (yes, set a timer) internet breaks when the need strikes.

You can also try to break up your work into smaller, more doable chunks. NaNoWriMo writers may be more prone to writer’s block because they’ve got just a hefty goal ahead of them, but rather than sitting down to crank out 1,600 words a day in one sitting, it might be better to write some in the morning and some in the evening. At least, that’s what Mark Twain may have advised.

“The secret of getting ahead is getting started,” he’s quoted as saying, “The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one

You can also move your physical self in order to move your brain. Blogging consultant April Bowles-Olin suggests a change of scenery.

“One of the things that you can do is change locations; sometimes just moving to a coffee shop,” she explains. Instead of staring into the middle distance from your home office, go in search of a new place to write. Even if the location itself isn’t that inspiring, the trip for or from the place, or the act of getting up and moving your body, can sometimes be enough to jog your brain and give you something new to think about.

If you’re really, really stuck, it may be time to try a new medium, especially if you’re writing on a digital device. To help unstick your creativity, take a quick break from the screen and pick up some art supplies. Doodling has been found to help the brain draw critical connections, spurring your ability to get more visual with your thoughts.

“Studies have shown that doodling can free up short- and long-term memory, improve content retention and increase attention span. It can also produce creative insight,” writes Jennifer Miller for Fast Company.

Try drawing what you’re writing about, or even just sketching images for each letter of your name or the alphabet. The point isn’t what an exceptional artist you are, but instead, that you’re getting in touch with the more visual part of your brain. The sketches don’t need to go anywhere or even be seen by anyone, but they may help you work your way out of the mental corner you’ve found yourself in.

Hanna Brooks Olsen FOLLOW >

Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and editor for CreativeLive, longtime reporter, and the co-founder of Seattlish. Follow her on Twitter at @mshannabrooks or go to her website for more stuff.