10 tips to beat writer’s block
When life conspires against your writing, how can you fight back?
Disclaimer: This article cuts deep quickly but then gets deeply practical (I hope).
Thanks to reader Sophia for recommending the topic. She recently wrote:
One of my problems is just staying the course. We all stumble when life happens (sick husband, visiting in-laws, doctor appointments, etc.)
Some days just seem to go on and on and on. The last thing I have on my to do list is write.
That just seems backward to me, but how do you respond to writer's block? Or unforeseen life events that seem to take over?
I dashed off a thought in reply, but here’s what poured out when I sat down to consider how I’ve handled similar issues.
Sophia (and others, of course), may this be encouraging and helpful.
When life prevents writing
Let’s start with a necessary caveat: some days—even some years—you may have to hang up your proverbial pen out of necessity.
Taking care of a loved one, taking care of yourself, or any of the hundreds of other responsibilities that life throws our way are all legitimate reasons to stop writing for a season.
A writing life requires sacrifice; sometimes the sacrifice is writing itself.
If you’re able to find spare moments during the hard times of life to simply write what you’re enduring, that historical record could later become a worthwhile article or book. Don’t worry about saying the right words; just get the words down.
Speaking from experience, I found that just getting the racing, swirling thoughts out of my head and onto paper did wonders for my mental and emotional health. And even though I wasn’t writing for an audience—and no one will ever see that document—I was still writing.
Even though I felt like I was losing much, I never lost my identity as a writer.
I didn’t mean to start this article off so heavily.
But I felt the need to address that life is hard and we are sometimes forced to forego our writing.
Whatever you may be enduring these days, don’t let it outright steal your writing. Just remember that you will eventually return to writing and the writing will return to you. Just don’t despair if you’re there right now.
Your writing may be on the shelf but it’s never out of reach.
Now let’s get to some practical tips to beat writer’s block.
10 ways to beat writer’s block
1. Shrink the goal
If you’re pressed for time to write, set a smaller goal.
Maybe it’s less about writing a book than it is writing a captivating article.
In some seasons, maybe it’s less about an article than it is a compelling social media post.
Maybe it’s writing a letter to a friend.
For many of us as writers, we seek the big goals: a published book, a book series, a literary career. Such foci aren’t bad, but if you find yourself stymied to write because your eyes are only on the finish-line prize, you may need to reset your goals.
For example, author and lit agent Mary DeMuth aims to write 2,000 words per day and colorfully tracks her progress for every 1,000 words. She’s written more than 40 books.
2. Set a schedule
I wrote more extensively about this in “The perfect daily writing habit.”
If you find yourself wanting to write but never seeming to find the time to do so,then make the time.
Carve out 30 minutes to an hour to just sit in front of a blank screen. You may have to wake up earlier or go to bed later to make this happen.
When possible, schedule it for the same time and place every time. It doesn’t have to be daily (though I’d argue that’s best), but it should be regular.
When I wrote my first book, I stuck to such a schedule. Even on the days when I didn’t know what to write about, my mind and body were eventually Pavlovian trained to know what they were supposed to do in that moment.
Let’s assume you’ve set a writing schedule and you’ve managed to stick to it for a few weeks. What about that day when you sit down and the blinking cursor mocks your blanking mind?
Just start writing what you’re thinking.
I’m sitting at my computer and have no idea what to type. What I wouldn’t give for a great idea right now. If only my dog would stop its yapping. If only I would have remembered to get more K-cups. I guess I have a lot of distractions . . .
In fact, writing down your distractions may help you better tune them out. And your freewriting may eventually lead you back to what you should be writing about.
At the very least, you’re writing. Call it a win for that day!
4. Ask AI for help
I haven’t tried this yet, but I see its value: Use Google’s Bard, Bing’s AI, or ChatGPT to help you brainstorm ideas.
Notion also has built-in AI that includes a “Continue writing” option.
You’ll first need to know how to craft a helpful prompt. See:
Then see if our new robot overlords have something worthwhile to unstick you.
Note: Please, please, please—if you directly use AI writing in your work, let the reader know. I feel like that should be a common courtesy in these wild times.
Related: Is ChatGPT creative? An exploration with book titles.
5. Gamify your writing
Take 17 seconds and watch this TikTok video.
Find your “little treat” reward for meeting your writing goal.
Maybe you buy a new book for every 5,000 words written.
Maybe you go out for coffee.
Maybe it’s just sitting in silence for five minutes.
Whatever rejuvenates you, tie that into your writing goals.
In the immortal words of Donna and Tom, “Treat yourself.”
6. Take a hike
When the words aren’t coming and nothing seems to help, get up from your computer and take a walk.
Or a shower.
Try not to think about what you’re writing.
For a deep dive on why we have epiphanies during showers, see “Why We Have Our Best Ideas in the Shower: The Science of Creativity.”
From that article, here’s a brief explanation, via Jonah Lehrer: “It’s not until we’re being massaged by warm water, unable to check our e-mail, that we’re finally able to hear the quiet voices in the backs of our heads telling us about the insight. The answers have been there all along–we just weren’t listening.”
Pro tip: Take the shower after the walk.
7. Copy the greats
Open a book by your favorite author.
Copy what they’ve written.
Become a method-actor writer.
If you eventually start to feel creative, take their narrative in another direction—but maintain their voice.
See if their words spark your own.
8. Increase and diversify your reading
We can sometimes feel stuck for ideas because we’re too narrow in focus or too ensconced in our respective echo chambers.
So grab a book that looks intriguing but is outside of your typical reading fare.
Ask others what book was their favorite recent read.
Read wide and read often.
Let the astounding accumulated wisdom of humanity inform and inspire your own.
9. Get in a writers group
This can be a dicey suggestion. Mileage can greatly vary when it comes to writers groups.
I’m suggesting it because the few writers groups I’ve been in have been fantastic, full of good-natured people who are serious (but not too serious) about bettering their craft.
If you’re not sure where to find one, ask around at your local library.
If you’re unable to attend one in person for any reason, do your due diligence in online research to find a virtual option.
If you currently belong to a writers group and want to promote yours, please do so in the comments.
A writers group can provide the impetus you may have been lacking because you will need to produce regardless of how you feel.
And then you will have to present it.
In front of people.
And not just people.
10. What’s your writer’s block tip?
Tip #10 is up to you.
Please leave a comment with a proven way you’ve overcome writer’s block.
If you’re currently blocked, may the season you’re in be swift, and take solace in the fact that being a writer is who you are.
The words will come again.
P.S. I’m on Substack’s Notes, which you’ve likely already heard about. It’s Twitter but less Twittery. If you subscribe to this Substack newsletter, you can already see my notes. I like it so far, but the days are young. Give a holler if you’re also testing it out.
P.P.S. If you have a question for me about writing, editing, or publishing (both traditional and self), just reply to this email. I’ll reply, and it may just become a future article.
Yes, I wanted to use the word foci because how often do you get that chance?
No, I’m not insinuating that you’re in need of one.
Here’s yet another nod to the Substack “Let’s Read Nonfiction” and its accompanying book club, the aptly named “Nonfiction Book Party Club,” of which I am a member, is free to join, and is getting me out of my reading ruts.
If you’re new and have yet to subscribe, please consider doing so.
Tip #10: switch writing medium and tools. Stuck writing on a keyboard? Try pen and paper. Stuck with pen and paper? Try your phone's Notes app. Writing doesn't cut it anymore? Try dictating the ideas and transcribing them.
(Still waiting for those writers' groups recommendation if anyone got any!)