You told your professor you’d have the essay in their inbox by 9 AM tomorrow. But now that you’ve sat down to write, your mind is blank. The empty page is so intimidating, the blinking cursor so taunting. You want to write, but it feels impossible.
If this sounds familiar, then you have a classic case of writer’s block. Luckily, you’re far from the first writer to experience this problem. Ever since there have been writers, those writers have struggled to write.
While it’s impossible to eradicate writer’s block, there are ways to cope. Below, we present eight techniques you can use to break through the creative block and return to your writing adventures.
What seems like writer’s block may be procrastination in disguise. So before you read any further, be honest with yourself: Are you really struggling creatively, or are you just delaying something you don’t feel like doing?
Writers are far from immune to procrastination, after all. Way back in 1830, Victor Hugo procrastinated mightily on writing what would become The Hunchback of Notre Dame. He worked on other projects, entertained guests, and generally did anything but write on the book he’d promised his publisher.
Once Hugo found a way around his procrastination, he completed the book at breakneck speed, turning the final draft in early. (You can read a full account of how Hugo stopped procrastinating in James Clear’s Atomic Habits, where I first discovered this anecdote).
But the broader point is that in some cases, the problem isn’t writer’s block but rather good old-fashioned procrastination.
If you’re struggling with procrastination, check out this guide for advice on how to beat it.
When you’re writing a draft, it’s easy to let perfectionism prevent you from even starting.
But remember that the draft isn’t the final version. The whole idea of a “draft” is that it’s a work in progress, a starting point for later refinement. And you can’t refine something that doesn’t exist.
Therefore, our next suggestion for tackling writer’s block is to write something (anything) down. Withhold your judgment about whether it’s good or bad. The goal is to cover the intimidating blank page with words. As Vincent Van Gogh advised in a letter to his brother:
“Just slap something on it when you see a blank canvas staring at you with a sort of imbecility. You don’t know how paralyzing it is, that stare from a blank canvas that says to the painter you can’t do anything.”
Though he was speaking of painting, Van Gogh’s advice applies equally well to dealing with writer’s block.
Even when you’ve resolved to put aside your perfectionism, getting something down on the page can still be tricky. To take the pressure off yourself, set a timer for 25 minutes (or however long you want) and write until it stops.
Truly focus on nothing but writing. Don’t let your fingers stop moving, no matter how ridiculous or crappy the output is.
When the timer is up, you can stop. Often, however, 25 minutes will be enough to get you into a flow state, and you won’t feel like stopping. If so, feel free to keep writing.
This tip is essentially the Pomodoro technique, which you can learn more about here.
When top athletes talk about the secret to their success, they often mention some kind of pre-game ritual. This could mean listening to a particular song, putting on a lucky pair of socks, or even getting slapped in the face.
How much these rituals actually influence an athlete’s performance is up for debate. But the point is that they have a ritual to get them into the mindset of peak performance. You can apply the same idea to your writing practice, creating a ritual that prepares you to write.
By their very nature, writing rituals are highly personal. Therefore, it’s difficult to give an exact set of steps that will work for everyone. Instead, we’ve put together the following list of ideas as a starting point:
Put on a playlist that helps you focus
While some people will find music too distracting, using the same playlist or album for writing can create a powerful association. It can signal to your brain that it’s time to write, helping you focus.
While some writers thrive off the buzz of a coffee shop or even the sound of the TV, I find too much noise distracting. If you’re the same, then I suggest putting on a set of headphones before you write.
Headphones have the obvious benefit of canceling out distracting noise. But I’ve also found that, after enough writing sessions wearing them, the act of putting on headphones gets me in the writing zone.
Make tea or coffee
Making your favorite hot drink is another great ingredient to add to your writing ritual.
While I usually drink whatever tea or coffee I have on-hand, our web developer Martin suggests taking things further. He has a specific tea that he only drinks while writing. In this way, the flavor and aroma of that tea become a cue that it’s time for writing to begin.
Light a scented candle
In addition to having a specific tea to drink while writing, Martin also recommends lighting a particular scented candle when it’s time to write.
This certainly won’t be for everyone, particularly if you’re sensitive to scented things. But if you like the scent of candles, I think it’s a great way to create yet another sensory association. (You can also do the same thing with an essential oil diffuser or wax warmer if you live somewhere that doesn’t allow candles).
Close the door
If I’m deep into writing a draft, interruption is unacceptable. To avoid this, I always close my door before I start writing. This signals to my roommates that they shouldn’t disturb me. Plus, the closed door prevents noise in the rest of the house from distracting me.
I recognize that not everyone has the luxury of a separate room with a door they can close (I certainly didn’t for most of college). If that’s the case, at least designate a certain area of a room for working. Or, if possible, find a time to write when no one else is around.
Finally, remember that the above list is a starting point for creating a writing ritual that works for you. Take what you need, add what you like, and discard the rest.
For more ideas on how (and how not) to create a writing ritual, read Daily Rituals by Mason Currey.
While automatic spelling and grammar checking tools make editing a piece easier, they’re distracting when you’re trying to write a draft.
Those green and orange squiggly lines invite the temptation to edit as you write. But you must resist! Making corrections or edits as you write is horribly inefficient. Fix those mistakes later, when you have a draft to work with.
To ensure you keep your writing and editing separate, turn off grammar and spell check in your writing app. This way, those pesky wavy lines won’t distract you while you work.
Just be sure to re-enable grammar and spell check when you’re editing (or skip the built-in tools entirely and use Grammarly).
Working in the same space each day can be great for getting in the zone, but that same familiarity can also get you stuck in a creative rut. To break free, write somewhere different.
If you’re able, go to a coffee shop, library, or even the park. However, since this isn’t possible for most people right now, I’ve found a few ways you can switch up your environment without leaving home:
- Write outside (if you have outdoor space and the weather permits).
- Sit on your couch and write (as long as you aren’t tempted to turn on the TV).
- Write at your dining table or kitchen counter.
- Work while standing instead of sitting (pro tip: a tall kitchen counter or dresser can double as a makeshift standing desk)
Finally, if you want to get out of the house while still staying safe, you can do what Martin does:
- Drive somewhere with nature and sunlight.
- Park your car.
- Write on an iPad or laptop.
“The thing that is the most soul-sucking, honestly, is looking at your phone….That will just delete your ideas. But if you actually do a task in the physical world, it shakes your brain up enough to come up with something else.”
– Phoebe Bridgers on dealing with writer’s block
Often, taking a break is the best thing you can do to combat writer’s block.
Taking a break gives your unconscious mind a chance to grapple with problems that your conscious mind can’t solve. The solution can bubble to the surface while you’re doing something else, giving you the idea you need to make writing progress. Plus, taking a break can give you a fresh perspective when you resume writing.
Sometimes, all you need is to take a walk around the block and then get back to it. Indeed, sometimes this is all you have time for if you’re on a tight deadline.
Other times, it’s best to take a longer break. The classic advice to “sleep on it” applies here. Sleep gives your brain a literal rest, helping you return to writing refreshed. And it also gives your unconscious mind even more of a chance to puzzle through what’s blocking you.
Whatever you do, be sure you’re actually taking a mental break. Checking social media or reading the news doesn’t count. Ideally, find something that occupies your body. Walking is great, as are household tasks such as doing the dishes or folding laundry.
With your body busy, your mind is free to wander.
While you can write about almost anything with enough persistence and time, some ideas just aren’t worth pursuing. In this case, it’s perfectly legitimate to abandon the piece of writing and move on to something else.
Of course, this isn’t always practical when you’re writing something for work or school. But if you have the autonomy to do so, avoid throwing good writing after bad ideas. You can always return to an abandoned piece of writing later if inspiration strikes.
Mind you, this should be a last resort if you’ve tried everything else and still can’t make progress. Don’t give up too quickly.
You now have a set of tools you can use to break through writer’s block when it strikes.
However, don’t get too caught up in self-pity. While writer’s block can be maddening, it’s a part of the creative process. Everyone gets through it eventually, and so will you.
Writer’s block is much less of a problem when you make a habit of writing every day. Learn how to build strong habits with our free course:
Building habits isn’t just about discipline; there are real-world steps you can take to set yourself up for success! In this course, you'll learn how to set realistic goals, handle failure without giving up, and get going on the habits you want in your life.
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