Sometimes the words flow from our fingers; other times, we have to strain our mental limits in order to coax out that creative muse. Writer’s block has various causes, and it can be helpful to self-diagnose the root of the problem:
- Perfection paralysis: you worry about how much your first draft sucks or about ruining a good idea
- Foggy vision: you’re uncertain what happens next in the story, or how in the world it’s all going to fit together in the end
- Boredom: you’ve lost that passion, that spark you once felt, and now the project feels like a chore
Whatever the cause, you can attempt to cure yourself of writer’s block by testing different antidotes.
1. Read other people’s stuff
Get your hands on a book or short story you’ve been dying to consume, especially if it’s by an author you admire. Pick up childhood favorites you haven’t read in decades. Spend time browsing books, and read first pages until one snags your attention, then gobble the whole thing down in a week.
If you’re looking for an ego boost, choose an easy read that you know is going to be a completely cliché, cookie-cutter book. These are the types of stories that will make you go, “Hey, I can do better than that.”
You might also explore nonfiction books — psychology, science, history, memoir.
Once you’ve chosen your reading material, highlight or take pictures of quotes that stand out to you. Then, after you arrive at the last page, write a book review for yourself.
With fiction, think about what the writer did well and what they didn’t, and list examples from the book to prove your point. If it was a bad book, how would you make it a good one? What strategies will you pursue or avoid in your own writing based on what this particular novel has taught you?
With nonfiction, you can list facts you learned or muse about the questions the book raised. How might you incorporate those ideas into your work in progress?
Reading is the ultimate panacea because it provides guidance and inspiration.
2. Read your own stuff
Look at an early chapter of your novel or a draft of a short story that you’re proud of. Read it slow. Soak it in. Fall in love with yourself. Afterward, pat yourself on the back and say, “Dang, look how much I’ve already written. If my past self can do it, then my present self can, too.”
If the writing sucks and you hate it, think about how you could improve that particular scene or story. Save the old draft, make a new copy, and revise it in one sitting or just add detailed notes for future revision. Then move on to write a paragraph of new material, using the confidence you’ve gained from your past self.
3. Imitate your heroes
Read a few pages from a writer whose work is similar to yours. If you’re struggling to write an action sequence, find one in their books. Analyze how they structure the scene. Then, write an action scene for your story as if you are that author. Wear their style like a well-fitted jacket.
You can read about this technique in more detail in my article on improving your writing style by imitating your favorite authors.
4. Write in pieces
My brain dislikes writing in sequential order, and I’ll often braindump entire dialogue exchanges and descriptions from random parts of the story into my notes. These are usually the juicy bits: tense conversations, cool action scenes, emotional reveals. I keep each of these dangling scenes in a document separate from my chronological manuscript, until I get to that point in the story, where I can then paste it into its appropriate slot.
If I write Chapter 16 before Chapter 11, I know I’ll have to bridge those parts, but it doesn’t feel as daunting because I have both a starting point and a destination — it’s just a matter of filling in the blanks.
I use this technique on a paragraph-to-paragraph basis as well. I’ll write the opening of the scene and the end of it, then jump around, barfing out whatever bits of dialogue and description come to me first. Then I write the parts that will bridge those moments into something cohesive. I have a better idea of where the scene is going because I’ve already written the end.
It’s like doing a jigsaw puzzle: the more pieces you connect, regardless of where they are, the better you can see the big picture.
You might write a random scene and later determine that it no longer has a place in the story. But oftentimes the kernel of an idea from these early scene drafts can be recycled and become a pivotal moment in the final draft. Any writing is better than no writing. Take Jodi Picoult’s advice to heart:
“You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”
5. Make a list
Making lists can be useful when you have no idea where the story is headed or the pacing is starting to drag.
- Open a new document.
- Write a question you’re struggling to answer, such as “Why does he decide to participate in the tournament?” or “What would make this scene more exciting?”
- Set a timer for 20 minutes, and list ten possible answers, no matter how stupid or “out there” they seem.
If your question is simply “What happens next?” be sure to come up with crazy things that would never happen. The sweet mother accidentally kills her daughter; the main character cuts his own finger off, on purpose. This exercise will help you move beyond the obvious paths and travel down one that makes you want to know more.
Just thinking about your story is like a hamster running on a wheel, treading the same path over and over. Your ideas need to leave your head in order to go anywhere.
Say you have only a vague idea of what needs to happen in a particular chapter. For example, the protagonist accidentally eavesdrops on his best friend and discovers he’s in cahoots with the villain. Expand on that summary. Write the play-by-play, as if you’re describing a scene from a movie, but include the character’s emotions, too:
“The chapter opens with a roguish knight named Taj sneaking through the halls of the castle, whistling casually as he slips down the corridor to his best friend’s chambers. Now, his best friend is also a knight and has refused to lend his awesome sword to Taj for a tournament, so Taj has taken it upon himself to ‘borrow’ said sword while his friend is out of the castle.
He gets to the room with no problem and is awfully proud of himself, but then he can’t find the damn sword. Taj tries to brainstorm places his friend might hide a valuable item. Under the bed, he finds some questionable reading material, but no sword. There’s also an unspeakably disgusting smell coming from the bottom dresser drawer that he really doesn’t want to know the origins of, but he checks anyway. Still no sword.
Just as Taj is about to leave, he steps over a dragonskin rug and notices a peculiar creak in the floorboard, one that he had heard when he walked in but paid no mind. He moves the rug to find a trapdoor, and thinks, ‘How cliché.’ He pops open the trapdoor and voilà, there’s the sword. Then two voices echo down the hall, one of which belongs to Taj’s friend and the other to a stranger. Taj knows he has to either hide or get caught stealing, so he jumps into the pit and closes the trapdoor above him.”
I always discover new details as I’m writing the summary that would have never occurred to me with the thoughts floating around in my head. By forcing myself to convert a nebulous mental image into something concrete that another reader could visualize, the scene became much clearer in my own mind.
If I were to translate this into a scene, I’d come up with specific details to describe the type of “questionable reading material” and the horrible smell. I’d ensure that Taj’s smugness came through in his movements and the narrative voice. This scene outline allows me to not only see the big-picture path from Point A to Point B, but also pinpoints places where interesting sensory details and humor could be added.
The key is to summarize the scene into something that can be visualized — then it’s just a matter of translating that outline into description and dialogue.
7. Surprise yourself
This strategy is for when you’ve lost your passion for your work in progress. What discovery would make you view one of your characters in a new light? Would you be surprised to learn that a religious figure was once an atheist? Maybe they reveal that in a conversation. Does one character harbor an unexpected crush on another? Show how their behavior changes when that person is in the room. Use this new information to keep things interesting and move the story forward.
Find ways to get immersed in your world again, too. Regardless of genre, you could create an odd tradition specific to the setting or characters. Add an event that shakes the community to its core, like the death of someone important who meant different things to different people.
If you need to write an interaction between two characters but you’re stagnating, add a third character or change the players involved in the scene and see if that makes you write more. If you have two lovers meeting for a tryst, shove their nosy neighbor into the mix to add humor and conflict. Or try changing the setting — instead of a bedroom, they could be trying to have sexy times in a cemetery and it’s really not working out.
Give yourself something to look forward to writing, especially in terms of conflict between characters.
8. Talk to other writers about your writing
Describing your story problem to someone else forces you to mentally organize your ideas, and with organization comes clarity. A good critique partner will provide honest and detailed feedback. They’ll help you see what you’re doing well and what you need to work harder on.
When asking for feedback, be sure to ask specific questions about your concerns:
- How can I improve the believability of the plot?
- How can I make the protagonist more likable?
- What do you think is going to happen next in the story?
In addition, other writers may provide suggestions that you would’ve never come up with by yourself, and those ideas can lead the story in new and exciting directions.
9. Get organized
Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the number of possibilities and edits I need to make. That’s when I know it’s time to declutter.
Use an organizational tool like One Note or Scrivener to create different “compartments” for each scene, as well as for each character or world-building element. Keep a log of changes you plan to make for each chapter so that you can reference it later.
Whenever I organize my notes, I inevitably add to them and accidentally write snippets of scenes in the process.
10. Research relevant topics
Most writers tend to fall down a rabbit hole while trying to Google the best way to dispose of a body or what have you. This is a form of procrastination. However, every so often, give in to the urge:
- Set a timer for two hours.
- Open as many tabs as your browser can handle and start a fresh document.
- Summarize the most useful information in bullet points.
- After you’ve compiled all your notes, organize them by subtopic.
Say you have a character who’s on the verge of starvation. You might research the physical effects, the mental effects, and personal accounts. You would use those subtopics to organize your notes. Then you can write a passage from the lens of your character using those details you’ve uncovered. Starvation often causes hallucinations, for instance, so what would this character in particular hallucinate about?
Use targeted research as the jumping-off point for writing a scene.
Journal about what you’re stuck on. What do you love about your work in progress, and what’s bothering you? Talk yourself through the problem.
You can also identify your strengths and weaknesses as a writer. What parts of the writing process do you want to get better at, and what steps can you take to improve? Maybe you struggle with setting descriptions. Challenge yourself to add more sensory details to your next scene. Focus on that one aspect during the draft, then go back and edit with other elements in mind.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer amount of stuff we have to keep in mind while writing; we have to ensure the characters are consistent, the dialogue sounds realistic, the conflict is interesting, and a thousand other things. So, narrow it down, and choose one aspect to focus on.
Write scenes that utilize your strengths, too. If you’re good at writing romance, jump into a kissing scene between characters, even if it doesn’t happen until later in the story. Don’t worry about whether or not it will make it into the final draft. Just write.
12. Change your environment
Writing somewhere else can signal to your brain, “Okay, this place is a writing space. Get to work.” You could try your local library, a park bench, or a café. Libraries are my favorite because you’re surrounded by books made by people who also once agonized over writing a sentence.
Let yourself be a cliché and hang out at Panera, Starbucks, or Barnes & Noble. Sometimes even just writing in another room will help your concentration. Pretend there’s been a power outage and write by candlelight in your bathtub.
If you don’t want to lose the freedom to write in your underwear, you can change your virtual environment instead. Make the font size huge so that you feel like you’re writing more pages, or super small so you don’t keep re-reading it. Change the font style to match the mood of the story, whether it’s Book Antiqua or Calibri. Write with pencil and paper instead of a keyboard.
Draw your attention to the act of writing by shaking things up.
13. Start a new project
If you’re feeling truly burned out, give yourself permission to explore another idea you’ve been dying to write.
- Develop an outline for a new novel in a different genre from the one you’re working on.
- Draft a 4,000-word short story and polish it until it shines.
- Write a 50-word story and submit it to microfiction sites like… 50-Word Stories.
Prove to yourself that you can finish something, and never doubt your mind’s capacity for creativity.
14. Use music to set the mood
Choose one song to play on repeat that evokes the emotions you’re looking to write in a particular scene. Let the images play through your mind, then jot down ideas and draft the scene you’ve envisioned.
For a fun, adrenaline-filled action scene, you might choose “He’s a Pirate” from the Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack. While writing a bittersweet goodbye scene, I listened to “Happy” by Marina and the Diamonds on a loop.
Try not to distract yourself by skipping through your music library; keep your focus on the writing and the mood you’re trying to evoke.
You know how your brain sometimes starts going crazy with ideas at super inconvenient times, like right before you go to sleep? Replicate that effect by letting your brain relax. Free your mind from a computer screen and let your thoughts flow where they may:
- Go for a run or a hike, play your favorite sport — anything that gets you heart racing and distracts you.
- Take a long shower or bath.
- Clean your closet or your bookshelf or your car — any low-effort task that puts you in a productive mood.
Refresh and start your next writing encounter with a clean slate.
16. Live life
Stories are inspired by the real world — our experiences, our emotions, the people around us. So go out and do things.
- Take a look at your local event calendar.
- Learn about mushrooms on a guided hike through a local park.
- Take a carpentry class.
- Visit art exhibits or listen to live music that’s not normally your cup of tea.
- Volunteer and meet new people.
- Take a day trip somewhere and try out the local attractions and restaurants.
Afterward, you can journal about the experience in a free verse poem. Capture the sensory details and feelings of the experience so that you can channel those emotions into a future story.
17. Consume some writing advice
Exactly like you’re doing right now! Books, blogs, podcasts, and videos about writing can help you view the process in a different light.
When looking for advice, target the specific problem you’re having. If you’re worried your character is flat, find resources on how to create three-dimensional protagonists. If you’re new to writing in first person, learn the pros and cons.
There are countless resources out there, but here are a few of my favorites:
- Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark (book)
- Fiction University by Janice Hardy (blog)
- Writing Excuses (podcast)
- 52 Ways to Get Unstuck by Chris Mandeville (book)
As novelist Erica Jong says:
“All writing problems are psychological problems. Blocks usually stem from the fear of being judged. If you imagine the world listening, you’ll never write a line. That’s why privacy is so important. You should write first drafts as if they will never be shown to anyone.”
In other words, focus on generating ideas, not judging them.
Whatever you do, keep writing.
When faced with writer’s block, experiment and find what cures work best for you. Some might be duds and others, well, they might just be magic.
I’ll leave you with one more of my favorite quotes about writing:
“Remember that you can find the most inspiring teachers in every book you love.
Remember that you can be awash in doubt and fear and still write.
Remember that the way out of doubt and fear is through them, one word after another.”
I’d love to hear about your current project in the comments.
This post was adapted from a video on my YouTube channel Quotidian Writer. You can watch the full video below!
If you liked this post, treat me to a cup of coffee on Ko-fi.
Read my list of published and forthcoming works here.
Hire me to edit your novel or short story.
Follow me on Twitter for writing updates.