We’ve all been there — you finally have some time to work on a writing project, whether it’s a school paper, blog post, marketing material, story, or magazine article, etc. You have great intentions of making this project awesome and you feel like you have a lot to say. But you sit down, put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and the words just. won’t. come.
Or consider another scenario that most people have probably experienced once or twice. You write a line, a sentence, a paragraph or two. You read it over and immediately feel self-conscious, say “this is stupid,” and then delete it and repeat that process over and over.
Both situations point to “writer’s block.”
I’m not sure if there’s one solid definition for “writer’s block,” but it’s characterized by the fact that you desperately want to write or need to write, but something is holding you back… whether it’s a lack of motivation, insecurity, an absence of ideas or inspiration, or just not knowing how to say what you want to say.
There are various strains and degrees of writer’s block because every writer is different, and every writer writes with different goals, insecurities, backgrounds, skills, etc. There are lots of great resources out there with suggestions on how to work through this creative slump, but here are a few tips that have helped me immensely. Hopefully they’ll help you surmount writer’s block the next time it rears its ugly head so you can keep on writing.
Do more research.
When you’re sitting there, staring blankly at your screen or notebook, consider this: do you really *know* what you’re wanting to write about? Do you have enough information to make an argument? Do you have enough background information on the subject to be able to explain it to someone else?
If not, you really have nothing to work with. Writing is, in part, organizing ideas and thoughts into a way that others can follow with ease. If you aren’t even sure of or well-versed in the ideas and thoughts you want to put into a piece of writing, your project isn’t going anywhere.
It’s my belief, based on lots of experience, that you cannot write about something unless you know it fairly well — unless you’ve spent time familiarizing yourself with the subject to the degree that you are able to form an opinion or explain it to someone else. So if you’re stuck, you may need to go back to step one and spend more time reading and understanding before you can spend any time writing.
Create a thorough, detailed outline.
I have a rule for writing that has always served me well: outline before writing, and do it well. Not sure what to write? Take a look at your research (see above) and make an outline it first. I can’t overstate how much I believe in this technique. The more you outline — the more time and energy you put into organizing your thoughts and determining how you’re going to present your ideas — the easier it will be to write. Outlining is, in my opinion, the hard work of writing — organizing your ideas, figuring out which pieces of information you’re going to use and where you’ll put them and in what order so you can make your point.
I would argue that ANYONE, including me, would likely have horrible writer’s block if I sat down to write a blog, a paper, an article, etc. with no outline or at least a rough list of how I was going to organize my thoughts. If I didn’t outline my writing before beginning, I’d have no guidance, no framework from which to build, no direction for my writing. My ideas would be floating around aimlessly with nothing to say where they should go so that they could be expressed clearly. The task would feel overwhelming, impossible, and confusing, and it would probably never get done.
So if you’re stuck, go back to the outlining step of the writing process and spend an ample amount of time on it. Be precise about what you want to say and where you want to say it. Your outline can be messy as long as it makes sense to you. Outlining is where you hammer out the *ideas* you’re going to be discussing, and how you’ll discuss them. Writing out what you’ve included in your outline is just making it sound pretty.
Take a break.
Sometimes you just have to walk away from whatever it is you’re trying to write. From my experience, it’s definitely possible to stare at at Word document for too long. This should not be confused with allowing yourself to procrastinate. But if you’ve been working at something for a while and it’s just not coming together, take a break. Go for a walk. Work on something else.
Spend time *not* thinking about the writing project you’re stuck on. When you return, you’ll approach it with fresh eyes and will likely be able to approach it from a different direction and make real progress.
If you’re tempted to type/delete/repeat, start writing by hand.
Typing whatever it is you’re writing lends itself to the temptation to type, delete, and repeat. You’ve probably experienced this. You type a sentence, read it, determine that it doesn’t sound the way you want it to, so you delete and fight with that one sentence for a solid 5-10 minutes. Eventually you’re ready to throw in the towel.
It’s a vicious circle and leaves you with a blank Word document. To remedy this, write your outline by hand, and start writing whatever it is you’re writing by hand. DO NOT erase or cross out anything. Just keep moving forward. You can go back and edit thoroughly later. Even if your writing sounds clunky, just keep moving forward. Commit to what you’ve put down on paper and go with it.
In my own experience, when I’m having trouble putting words together coherently, I need to spend more time reading. There are also studies that have shown the connection between prolific writing and frequent reading. And it also often helps to get inspiration by reading the words of others. By reading more, you can also pick up on techniques and strategies that other writers use to convey their message well and employ these in your own writing.
Writer’s block is a real problem for many people — and it’s a dreaded headache for those of us whose careers have us writing every single day. But it’s not impossible to overcome! Try a few of these strategies the next time you find yourself staring blankly at a Word document or notebook, and see how far they take you in overcoming your creative slump.