Ten Tips for Writers’ Block

A number of you have asked about this problem. Here are a few suggestions. Add your own favourites in the Comments.

1.Go for a walk, do the laundry or some ironing, hammer some nails, go swimming, play a sport – anything that requires some focus and involves repetitious physical activities. At the very least: take a bath or shower.

2. Read the book you’ve been putting off.

3. Write in some other form: even a letter or a journal entry. Or a grocery list. Keep those words flowing put through your fingers.

4. Formulate your problem, then go to sleep. The answer may be there in the morning.

5. Eat some chocolate, not too much; must be dark (60% cocoa or more), shade-grown, organic.

6. If fiction: change the tense (past/present or vice versa).

7. Change the person (first, second, third).

8. Change the sex.

9. Think of your book-in-progress as a maze. You’ve hit a wall. Go back to where you made the wrong turn. Start anew from there.

10. Don’t get angry with yourself. Give yourself an encouraging present.

If none of this works, put the book in a drawer. You may come back to it later. Start something else.

47 Comments

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47 responses to “Ten Tips for Writers’ Block

  1. Doesn’t pfizer have a drug for this now?

  2. My problem is so often that I feel guilty for writing. I know I shouldn’t, but when I do get into writing everything else falls by the wayside. I don’t notice the passage of time, let alone little things like my dogs needing a walk or my husband wanting attention or perhaps to spend some time with me as opposed to in the same room as me when all my attention is focussed on the laptop.

    These feelings of guilt then generally end up blocking me. it can be discouraging but I usually end up getting into a state where I’m so unsettled that nothing but losing myself in my own fiction calms me down again – it becomes a minor crisis before I allow myself the space to just write. Slowly I’m learning not to do this, but it isn’t always easy.

    • Joleen, I think you should be incredibly happy that you’re able to find such peace when you write. Please please please don’t feel guilty about doing something that you love. If nothing else, think of it as a little “me” time. You are allowed to have some of that – pamper yourself! Its not as if you’re blowing money on a pedicure or expensive dress…you’re using your creative mind. And its important as you live your stressful life to keep that mind creative! It’ll keep you feeling young. :)

  3. I don’t know about #1. I thought that going for a walk, doing laundry, painting the stairwell, jacking up the back porch, sorting out the second drawer in the kitchen (the one where all the oddments and stray screws and elastic bands get shoved), baking brownies — because you need an immediate chocolate fix, ironing your underwear and giving the cat a pedicure were symptoms of writer’s block, not the cure.

  4. Also, reading other writers’ blogs….

  5. Jaime

    I think that #9 is great advice. I often end up with several endings to a particular chapter because I follow this practice!!!

  6. I think sometimes writers get hung up on trying to get the right words the first time around rather than to just let the ideas flow. When I get stuck, I just close my eyes and write. I don’t care if I misspell words or the grammar is incorrect. I want a flow of consciousness, of feeling. Half the time I may not even finish a sentence because I’ve gone onto another thought.

    Not worrying about the extra stuff about writing sometimes will get the flow moving, even if just a trickle. Then that trickle can turn into a river of words as you let go of the need to have everything right. Of course there is always editing. That’s when you can worry about all that extra stuff but by then, you great ideas are down on paper.

  7. Amy

    Handwrite something/anything.

  8. I whole-heartedly advocate #2: Read. Read, read, read.

    My theory is, reading stimulates the part of the brain that nurtures language. We take in language and process it, visualize it, feel it, absorb it, and that warms us up to reentering the realm of expression, even if it’s someone else’s expression.

    It’s kind of mystical, the way it works. But reading never fails me. I strongly recommend it.

  9. I agree with the longhand writing suggestion. Writing a little slower, writing in a different location, clearing your workspace, and remembering what you loved about the project are all huge. Most important is making the internal shift so that you actually want to. A lot of writers I know just sort of talk themselves out of it.

    Honestly, a good run, swim, or boxing match will get the spirits up again. Seriously. Have you guys considered shadowboxing instead of writer’s block? It’s my new preference. I’d love to hear if you try it out the next time a crummy feeling comes up in your writing. Let me know how it works out for you! I’m telling you — if you actually do it, you’ll see what I mean. . .

  10. I get down on the floor and stretch. Images or words appear when I do that. I’ll curl up into a ball and see a flock of birds, or do a forward bend and hear a young girl saying, “I’m blue.”

    The choreographer Twyla Tharp wrote that when she’s feeling out of ideas, she’ll scrunch her body up as tight and small as possible, then wait. Eventually she has to make a movement to get out of that position, and then another movement, and then another, and then she has a phrase to work with.

  11. I have a whole pile of tricks to get around this I use all the time:

    Writing Hacks part 1: Starting

  12. Mild cases: I read. Read and read and read until all the words fill my brain, rearrange themselves and are forced to spill out as writing. It works most of the time. Severe cases call for drastic measures. In a severe case, I do nothing – and I don’t mean that I don’t do anything about writers block, I mean that I do nothing. Nada. Zip. The vast emptiness of near complete idle.

    Theory is that eventually I will become bored enough to tell myself a little story, just to break up the desperate monotony and when that happens, that moment of self entertainment.. I can write it down. Works really well for me and I recommend it highly.

    There are only two drawbacks. One, if you are a highly curious and easily entertained person, it may be very hard to get bored. Two – this approach is not well understood by others as being an important part of a job- which I can sort of understand, since mostly it looks like lying on the couch wearing pink gnome jammies while drinking coffee and looking out the window. (To the uninitiated, this looks a lot like slacking off, which can cause marital bitterness if they have a job that requires proper clothes or a vertical component. Your call.)

  13. My solution to writer’s block is 15 Magic Minutes: commit to show up for 15 minutes (or 10 minutes or even 5 minutes, whatever feels small enough that you can do it no matter what). I’ve written about this in my blog, http://www.BaneOfYourResistance.wordpress.com (see May 2009 archives). Can I send you a guest-blog on the topic?

    • marg09

      Yes by all means!

      • The 1-2 Cure for Writer’s Block
        Guest post by Rosanne Bane, http://www.BaneOfYourResistance.wordpress.com

        In twenty years of coaching and teaching writers, the best cure I’ve found for writer’s block is two simple steps: 1) Expand your concept of what counts as “writing” and 2) Show up for 15 Magic Minutes.

        Expand What Counts as Writing
        Many of my clients and students start out thinking that “writing” only means generating or editing copy. But there are 6 stages in the creative process, and in only 1 of those 6 stages do we have pen on the page or fingers on the keyboard. We need to honor the work and time required to move through all 6 stages.

        To keep it clear that a writer’s work is more than just generating and revising, I call this “Product Time,” time working on any of the writerly activities that ultimately lead to a written product.

        Here’s why Product Time gives so many writers new freedom: as long as you show up and make yourself available for your writing and don’t do anything else – as long as you’re not sorting your sock drawer, looking for answers in the fridge, playing computer games or working on some other project – you honor the commitment to Product Time.

        No pressure. No demands. No expectations. You don’t have to produce perfect prose, you don’t have to write a certain number of words or pages, you don’t even have to write at all.

        It doesn’t matter what you do in your Product Time as long as it’s something you need to do for your writing. Not only can you draft, revise and edit, you can:
        • do research (on topics you’re writing about or about publishing or anything else that’s relevant to you as a writer)
        • moodle and incubate ideas
        • interview characters and write character sketches
        • read writing books
        • do writing exercises or try different writing prompts
        • meet with your writing group
        • take a writing class
        • surf the net and read the News of the Weird for ideas to write about (to make sure this doesn’t become a form of resistance, keep notes on the ideas you find and set a time limit)
        • catch up on the filing (that’s connected to your writing, not your personal or other professional stuff)
        • create a data base to keep track of what you’ve submitted to what editors and agents
        • and so on.

        You can even sit with your feet on the desk, staring out the window or at the place where the wall meets the ceiling wondering how the heck you’re going to get Character A to Place B, or organize that mess of material for that article or essay, or solve any other writing quandary.

        If you show up consistently for Product Time, you’ll move your writing forward. And you’ll move a lot faster than you will if you think you’re supposed to have your fingers on the keyboard every day.

        15 Magic Minutes
        The very best part of Product Time is that you commit for just 15 minutes a day. If 15 minutes seems like too big a commitment, commit for 10 minutes or even 5 minutes. You commit to an amount of time that seems small enough that you can do it and will do it no matter what.

        What you do in those 15 minutes is wide open as long as you’re doing something to advance your writing. There have been days when I had a heavy teaching and coaching schedule, completed a project by a deadline, had to clean up after a sick dog, go out to a social event and felt wiped out by 11:00 pm when I realized I hadn’t done my Product Time yet.

        Those are the days when I’ve done internet research – it’s amazing what you can learn about mules or distilleries (both of which appear in my novel) in 15 minutes – or daydreamed plot possibilities or just freewrote.

        If I had to write for more than 15 minutes on those days, I’d like to think I’d do it, but I know it’s more likely I’d just give up and promise myself I’d get to my novel ‘soon.’

        Before I discovered the magic of a 15 minute commitment, I’d tell myself I couldn’t write when I was so busy, that I would do it tomorrow when I had more time. But I never seemed to have any more time the next day. Sound familiar?

        Since I started committing to just 15 minutes, I can do it. Day after day, week after week, year after year. I commit to 15 minutes of Product Time five days a week. (Don’t commitment to more than six days a week or less than three.)

        The 15 minutes are magic because they aren’t intimidating. It’s not a big deal. And because it’s not a big deal, you can do it. Just 15 minutes, heck that’s not even worth getting nervous about. Before you know it, you’re so used to this 15 minute thing, you’re often slipping your writing in under the resistance radar that triggers writer’s block.

        Showing up for just 15 minutes a day gives you momentum. Even when you’re not consciously thinking about your writing, your unconscious is working on it. It’s easier to start writing each day because it’s fresh. The longer you stay away from your writing, the harder it is to come back.

        You get into a habit of showing up for your writing and habits hang on long after ‘self-discipline’ and ‘willpower’ have faded. You’ll get so much more writing done in 15 minutes a day, three to six times a week than you ever will waiting for the day when you have “all the time you need” because that day will never come.

        The key is that the time commitment is so small, you can do it no matter what. If 15 minutes is a big deal, make it 10. If 10 minutes is still a little scary, make it 5. Eventually, you’ll want to stretch those 5 minutes into 10, maybe 15. But you never commit to more than 15 minutes.

        If you want to keep writing after the 15 minutes, go for it. But the commitment is never more than 15 Magic Minutes.

        Let me know how the magic works for you.

        If you want to know more about busting writer’s block and other forms of writing resistance, please visit my blog http://www.BaneOfYourResistance.wordpress.com.

  14. When I’m stuck, I go to a coffeeshop or park and write about the people around me – what they’re doing, how they’re interacting, sometimes what they’re saying. I don’t always see the benefit immediately, but I’ve drawn on these notes often for later stories. It also helps if I go someplace where I can’t possibly be distracted by the internet!

  15. I have had a creative writing block for an incredibly long time now, yet I write every day. I’m starting to think I only have a knack for the non-fiction stuff, which is slightly disappointing for someone who used to write nothing but poetry and short stories.

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  17. I entirely agree. The “15 Magic Minutes” concept is exactly the strategy I used to finish knitting a 10-foot scarf before I had a chance to abandon the project.

    And in writing…we’re intimidated by the (potential) greatness of the finished product, intimidated right out of the first step.

    15 minutes? 10 minutes? 5 minutes I can do. And it’s almost inevitable I’ll keep going beyond the minimum.

    Fine, fine article, Ms. Bane.

    • Thanks! Yes, the secret magic of 15 minutes (or less) is that it’s not scary so you do it and in getting started, you get past what I call the Initial Inertia (there’s a post about that on my blog, briliantly titled Initial Inertia I think) and you keep going for much longer. But you can’t expect to go longer than the commitment — that breaks the magic.

  18. I get down on the floor and stretch. Images or words appear when I do that. I’ll curl up into a ball and see a flock of birds, or do a forward bend and hear a young girl saying, “I’m blue.”

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  20. Roque Santeiro

    I like playing games when I’m struggling with writer’s block. A recent one involves the photography site Flickr. For example:

    1) go to Flickr and click on the “Explore” tab. Choose “Most recent photos”.

    2) Pick a photo you like (or don’t) from the page and study it for about a minute.

    3) Write about what you see in the photo, or anything else that comes to mind related to it.

    Another favourite game of mine is to ask my online blog readers to randomly select a sentence from a book near them and give it to me. Once I have everyone’s sentences I try to string them together into a narrative piece. It sounds difficult but lots of interesting connections always appear!

  21. Pingback: Writing with Flickr « Succès de scandale

  22. I have writer’s block, and came to your website for inspiration, ironically enough. I am completing a course on fiction writers, and Margaret Atwood happens to be one of the authors we are enjoying. I am working in generating an idea for my final paper. It can basically cover whatever we chose. I am thinking about the mother figure in three stories: Significant Moments in the Life of My Mother, Unearthing Suite, and The Boys at the Lab. I am taking care not to develop a thesis which includes any notion that these mother figures represent your own mother. I feel as if through the narrator in all the stories, the reader learns that she (the narrator) is not really anything like her own mother. Does this make her envious? Does she feel her mother is naive to the complicated lives women lead today?

    Then, there is the possiblity of exploring the significance of stories, and why the mother figure in the three short stories enjoys being a story teller herself. I am stumped…. There seem to be too many ideas running through my head, and I can not nail one down.

    By the way, I spent about an hour outside, in Northern New England this afternoon, doing something I have not done in years: Tubing with my father. Just him and I, enjoying the fresh air as we used to, climbing up the snowy hill in order to once again descend down. We had a blast, however I fear my 26-year-old-body is going to be screaming at me tomorrow. Good for the soul, yet I still have writer’s block :(

    • Good news Jennifer! In my professional (yet still humble) opinion as a creativity coach and teaching artist, you do NOT have writer’s block. Many of the people who talk about how going for a walk or reading (about something unrelated to what you’re trying to write about) or doing other things like those Ms. Atwood’s suggests in #1 are NOT blocked.

      You, and they, are in Incubation, which many people mistake for writer’s block. You aren’t putting pen to paper or fingers on the keyboard drafting your paper because you aren’t ready to draft your paper. Drafting comes in Stage 5 Verification; you’re in Stage 3 Incubation.

      You’ve got all this information from your research (Stage 2) but you haven’t created your own associations and connections between the information yet — this is what Incubation is all about. When you do find that creative new connection, you’ll have the joy of Illumination (Stage 4, everyone’s favorite) and then you’ll be ready to draft. Until then, your conscious mind has to surrender to your unconscious mind (the source of new associations and connections).

      Going tubing was a great idea. So is going for a walk, doing something physical, staring at a fire, meditating or doing something else to switch your conscious mind off for a while. If that makes you nervous and you think you must “do something,” try Tony Buzan’s mindmapping technique (you can download free software or check out Buzan’s book, The Mind Map Book, from your library). Mind mapping is great for bringing new associations to the surface.

      Be patient. The creative process is unfolding. (This is why it is vital that writers understand the creative process and start a project early enough, so they have time to be patient without the deadline breathing down their necks.) You will get your A-Ha moment and drafting will be easy.

      If you want a PDF that explains the 6 stages and recommends what to do in each stage, send me an email at Rosanne@RosanneBane.com.

      • P.S. I’m happy to send the PDF to anyone else who’s interested.

      • Rosanne, after reading your “Creative Stages,” I’ve come to the conclusion perhaps we writers are too hard on ourselves. :) That’s a sure way to stifle our creativity.

      • 8aw8

        Incubation? That is Marvelous! It’s a necessary state that we all have to go through (whether in writing or not) that is terrifying because, “What if I can’t make any connections? What if what I think of doesn’t have enough substance? What if I can’t…?” I might very well be “too dimwitted,” but I’m either going nowhere or abandoning ship thinking like that because it’s terribly demotivating and stressful. I resign myself to being “stuck” and I’m done for. Incubation, though…that is downright promising. And believable! So, thank you very much Ms. Bane!

        By the way, there are few things I enjoy more than a good pun. If I could, I’d give you a hug, or maybe a high five for “The Bane of Your Resistance.” That made me happy.

  23. Is it OK if I re-post these tips on my blog?

    Clearing some clutter helps me. And walking. Trips abroad (I know, I know) or even within my county or country (Ireland) help hugely. Fresh scenery will always spark a little something. (I find.)

  24. Hollis Williams

    Chocolate is the best cure.

  25. 8aw8,
    I too love a good pun and Bane of Your Resistance making you happy makes me really happy. Thanks!

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  28. I’m a bit late for the party, but wanted to thank you for posting it. And for your body of work, while I’m at it! Thanks.

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  30. Pingback: Margaret Atwood’s tips for writers who are temporarily stuck « WRITE 398 2010

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  33. I am suffering from a writers block/procrastination so this helped me get halfway there! Just need to write a post on how to stop procrastinating haha :)

  34. Pingback: Is it Writer’s Block if it’s Just Bad? « the dog ate my novel

  35. I actually blog as well and I am posting a thing
    alike to this excellent post, “Ten Tips for Writers Block | Margaret
    Atwood: Year of the Flood”. Would you care in the event that I
    reallyuse a number of of your personal suggestions?
    Thanks for the post ,Genesis

  36. “Ten Tips for Writers Block | Margaret Atwood:
    Year of the Flood” was in fact a great blog.
    If only there was significantly more sites just like this one on the the net.
    Anyhow, many thanks for your time, Reva

  37. Pingback: Overcoming Writers Block | Keeping Up With The Times

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