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10 Tips for Overcoming Writer’s Block

Here are some tips for dealing with writer’s block, based on my own [tag]writing [/tag]experience and the most common patterns I encounter with coaching clients.

Although this post concentrates on writers, many of the tips can be applied to other kinds of [tag]creative block[/tag].

Let me know if you find them useful!

Tips

1. Make a deal with your [tag]Inner Critic[/tag]
All writers have an ‘Inner Critic’ or editor at the back of the mind. We need one, to maintain quality control. The purpose of your Inner Critic is to make you a better writer – but sometimes s/he gets a bit carried away, and starts pulling your draft to pieces before you’ve even got it down. So every time you try to write, you end up listening to a nagging inner voice telling you everything that’s wrong with your work and why you’ll never cut it as a writer.

If this starts happening, imagine sitting down with your inner critic over coffee, and make the following deal:

  • Thank the Critic for trying to help – but point out that the criticism is having the opposite effect
  • Ask for time and space to write the draft first – save the critique for afterwards
  • Ask to hear about what’s right with your work as well as what’s wrong
  • Ask for feedback that is specific (what needs to be improved?), action-oriented (what can you do to improve it?), and focused on the writing, not the writer (don’t make it personal!)
  • Promise to make time to listen to the Critic and review your work. Keep your promise!

If the Critic starts interfering with your work again, remind him/her of the deal. Once s/he realises you’re not going to start mailing any old rubbish off to editors, and you are taking time to review and rewrite, s/he usually relaxes enough to get on with the job.

2. Remember who you’re writing for
Writers get stuck when they forget their real audience. They get sidetracked into thinking how the book will look to editors, book reviewers, the ‘literary world’, posterity, etc. And it introduces a false note into their writing.

Who is your ideal reader? What does s/he look like? How does s/he feel as she listens to you? What do you want to say to him/her next?

A block

3. Sit down
Kingsley Amis said ‘the art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair’. Sometimes we get distracted by so many ‘important’ things that we don’t give enough importance to writing. If this is happening to you, set aside a regular time to sit at your desk. Even if you ‘can’t write’, stay sitting at the desk. Eventually a thought will come to you, or you may even start writing as a distraction, to relieve the boredom of just sitting there.

4. Stand up
Or you may have the opposite problem – you have been sitting at the desk too long, banging your head on the proverbial brick wall. Your body feels tense, heavy, fidgety. Give yourself a break. Get up, make a cup of tea, wash the dishes, walk the dog or nip out for a pint of milk. Whatever you do, make sure it’s something that engages your senses and reconnects you with your body. And whenever you catch yourself thinking about your writing – STOP!

I remember this happening to me a few months ago – gradually it dawned on me that I had been sitting hunched over the keyboard for too long. I heaved a sigh of relief as I got up from the desk and wandered down the corridor to the kitchen. I started chopping vegetables and heating some oil in the pan, taking care to focus on the textures, smells and sounds of cooking. As I fried up the food in the pan, trying to get the right balance, I suddenly realised where I had been going wrong with my writing – and found myself running back along the corridor to my desk…

5. Imagine you’re having a drink with a friend…
You’re in a bar, on your second drink. You’re telling your friend about the book – what inspired you, what you’ve written so far, and which part you’re stuck on. What do you say? How do you make it clear? Is there a simple analogy you can use?

Now write down what you just said.

6. Forget about being a writer
Stop worrying about what kind of writer you are, whether you are cut out to be a writer, or whether you are a ‘real’ writer or a ‘good’ writer. When you are thinking about ‘being a writer’ you are not thinking about your writing. We all want fame and money, but that comes afterwards (or not), and has nothing to do with the actual writing. Focus on writing – the next word and the next – and it becomes its own reward. Anything else is a bonus.

7. Leave the house without a notebook
Writing can be a paradoxical experience. Sit at your desk, try to write and the inspiration dries up. Carry a notebook around and it stays empty. Or you can be out and about, with no pen to hand – and that’s when an idea pops into your head. Don’t worry about forgetting it – if it’s good enough, you’ll remember.

8. Get trigger happy
Why do students take lucky gonks into exams? Why do sports players have lucky shirt numbers and pre-match rituals? Why do some writers work in the same place, on the same paper, the same make of computer, with the same pen or drinking the same drink? Are they all mad?

Or have they just noticed that these little triggers make them feel a bit better, sharper, more focused? Because our minds work by association – reproduce the trigger and the feeling comes back. What are the triggers that work best for you? A particular pen? A favourite kind of paper? A different font on your laptop? A special place to write? Music? Coffee? Deadlines?

9. Talk to other writers
Friends and family may be sympathetic but they don’t really know what it’s like. Meet up with your writer friends to swap stories and remedies for writer’s block – or even just to have a good moan. Sometimes it makes all the difference to know you’re not the only person who has experienced writer’s block. The more writers I talk to, the more I realise that the occasional block is a normal occupational hazard. If you don’t know many writers, look around for a good writing class or group in your area.

10. Have some fun!
When was the last time you really enjoyed a piece of writing? What was it like? How did it feel? What were you doing differently on that occasion? Why not do that again?



[tags]creative writing[/tags]

Comments

  1. You’re right, this can be applied to many forms of art. I will print it out in case of future art block 😉

  2. Thanks Nela, I hope it’s useful!

  3. Hi Mark,
    I like the freshness of your writing tips–not the same old suggestions I’ve seen before. My company sells blogsite services to businesses. Our clients, who typically are not writers, also wrestle with the task of writing for their blogs. I recently suggested they seek out material in their inbox. My post is at: http://blogsite.com/public/blog/102736

    -Carol

  4. Thanks Carol, and I like you’re tip re the inbox. I don’t know if your post has moved but it looks like it’s here now: http://blogsite.com/public/item/162374

  5. Mark,

    I like the tips you suggested. I believe the key to getting back on track is something to change our focus for a while. Like a breath of fresh air and then let our creativity start a new.

    Rick

  6. Thanks Rick, yes changing focus is usually the key to getting unstuck. Your blog looks great -love the splash paint effect, impressed that you get it running over (under?) the ads as well!

  7. Nice list. I like number 10, that is really the most important one. There are a number of online tools out there to help you get some inspiration, check out WordStorm. It is a visual brainstorming tool, it makes a map of associated words. It is a great way to get inspiration or some completely new ideas. I’ve used this tool in some recent articles I wrote, it helps a lot when you get stuck.

    Keep up the good work.

Trackbacks

  1. […] If you’re looking for more inspiration, you might like to read my post 10 Tips for Overcoming Writer’s Block, and the article I wrote for Magma, Poetry in Practice: Creative Flow, for which I interviewed poets Paul Farley, Myra Schneider, Matthew Sweeney and Susan Wicks about their writing process. […]

  2. […] Posts on Wishful Thinking: If you’ve #1 scanned Mark’s Popular Posts and #2 read DWB for the past few weeks, then you’ll already know that there’s a good chance that I’d choose 10 Tips for Overcoming Writer’s Block to start. But since I’ve worried the subject a bit, I’ll move on (hitting my de.licio.us tab before I go). […]

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  4. […] 101. 10 Tips for Overcoming Writer’s Block Another article on this perennially troubling topic, to the tune of: make a deal with your Inner Critic. Remember who you’re writing for. Sit down. Stand up. Imagine you’re having a drink with a friend. Leave the house without a notebook. Get trigger happy. Talk to other writers. Have some fun. [Tips: Writing] […]

  5. […] 10 Tips for Overcoming Writer’s Block Another article on this perennially troubling topic, to the tune of: make a deal with your Inner […]