We’ve all been there. You’re supposed to write a thank you letter, or a paper for school, or just about anything that’s not part of your daily routine, and you freeze. You stare at the blank paper or screen and there’s nothing in your mind. It feels impossible to make progress, your inner critic telling you that everything you’ve just written or thought of writing is simply, “Not good enough”.
So, there you sit, the mocking emptiness of screen or page in front of you, your thoughts, words and ideas completely worthless, or so you feel. You don’t know what to write, you don’t know where to start. That’s writers’ block and there are lots of easy things you can do to get out of the funk and get writing.
Because truly, the hardest bit is getting to the screen or page. Once you’re there, all you need to do is write. Don’t worry about quality or quantity. That will come with the re-writing and the further re-writing process.
Let me tell you a secret. All writing of any strength comes from re-writing. I’ve sometimes gone back and toyed with things I’d thought complete years ago. And the reason is, each time you read a piece of your work, you can tighten, improve and change it. It is a never-ending process.
So how do you quieten that pesky inner critic? Well, usually, one of the things to do is a displacement activity.
1) Do the washing up.
Seriously. Not only will having a bit of tidiness in the kitchen help you feel like you’ve accomplished a task, it will also help the writing process.
Just this past week, on the night before my father’s twentieth death anniversary, as the house quietened down for the night and my husband went upstairs to work on his project in the study, I went to do the washing up. I was missing my dad, and I was feeling really down, thinking about how it was twenty years since he’d died in my arms. As I did the dishes I bawled my eyes out. And I started to think about the words I’d use to describe the loss I was feeling.
By the time I’d finished, cleaned and wiped down the counters, the poem was complete, in my head. I then just had to sit down and write it out on paper. A couple of read throughs and I was ready to type it out, and with a few more re-writes on the screen, it was done. I’d written a poem about my loss, I’d gained clarity and done something positive with my feelings of grief, and I’d made myself feel a whole lot better. It might not be a very good poem in the grand scheme of things, but it was real. It allowed me to share my feelings of loss with those that mattered to me, and I felt like I’d done something to commemorate his loss.
Sometimes we’ve got cobwebs on our mind and a quick, brisk walk does the trick. It doesn’t even have to be to anywhere special or particular. I’ll pop to the post office or the supermarket and look at the people I’m passing on the road. The turning colour of the leaves as autumn approaches gives me something to add to my writing. Sometimes, I’ll have a conversation, like I did recently with a friend I’d met outside the library, and that will give me the germ I need to write. So, go for a walk. It will get the good chemicals going in your brain and inspire you.
If you are lucky enough to actually have nature around you, so much the better. I’ve not got much green around me, so that’s a little bit more of a specific walk on my part. But when I do get out into nature, that always gets me in the right frame of mind to write.
3) Set aside a block of time each day or week and just do it.
Creating a habit of writing is always the way forward. Don’t worry about the quality and quantity. Just do it.
I try and write when the house is quiet after the breakfast dishes are rinsed and my husband has left for work. In that space when I’ve not yet got meetings to go to or prepare for, I will write. And because it is my usual practice to write every morning from about 10.00 or 10.30, it just happens. Right this minute, the time is 10.34 in the morning. I’d begun this article on Saturday, so the skeleton was in place, but I’d deliberately not worked on Sunday.
So, after kissing my husband goodbye as he cycled off to work, I’ve sat down to write.
4) Turn off the social media, television and anything that will completely distract you.
Facebook, for example, can suck hours of your time. It does mine. So, when I’m writing, I’ll close the tab on my computer. Nothing too difficult. It just takes doing.
I also don’t watch television. I haven’t watched television since the 25th of December 2002. We don’t have a television licence and I’m oblivious to what’s going on. If I do want to watch something, I’ll try and see if it is on YouTube, but if it isn’t, I’ll shrug and forget about it.
Because I don’t watch television, I read. I read copious amounts and if I’m doing something else like a craft, I’ll keep myself company with an audiobook. Not only do you get the best and the fullest expression of what the author wanted to impart, it just means I’ve already read the story that’s at some point going to end up on television.
5) Listen to music.
Music doesn’t consume me. It might you, in which case don’t do this tip. But, for me, and perhaps for you, it might give you a word or phrase to start the process of writing. And if the lyrics distract you, listen to classical or jazz tunes instead that have no words to make you forget your writing.
If I’m feeling particularly stuck, I’ll listen to Vivaldi. I love “The Four Seasons”. It is my go to piece for inspiration. Sometimes, just hearing the opening notes or the first few minutes of Autumn will get me writing. And once I’m writing, the music is so much background noise.
6) Tidy the house.
This is on the same spectrum as doing the washing up. But if I’m really stuck, I’ll go attack the piles of mess that somehow always end up on one corner of the room or another. Or I’ll fold and put away the laundry. Or I’ll do the vacuuming. The clarity I feel when I tidy always translates into clarity for writing. My mind always clears as the house clears. Sometimes, it is just putting away a few odds and ends, like the boots I’d worn that were on the floor and needed to go into the shoe cupboard, or paper that needed to go into the recycling bin. But whatever it is, the act of tidying the house, helps the writing process. Don’t believe me, the next time you’re staring at that irritating blank screen, go do the tidying. But don’t do the tidying mindlessly, allow your mind to dwell on your writing.
Yes, boring old ironing helps with writers’ block. I don’t have very many clothes that require ironing, but we do use old-fashioned handkerchiefs, and I love ironing those, and napkins we use at meal-times. Sometimes, on the rare occasions when I’ve allowed the pile of handkerchiefs and napkins to grow, after the loads of laundry have been folded and put away, I’ll get up early morning and iron. It is almost like a Zen meditation exercise for me. I’ll iron and think about my writing, I’ll allow ideas to germinate and by the time breakfast is over and I’m ready to sit down, I’ve figured out what to write.
I don’t have a garden, but I do have a yard, and, especially in summer when the weather is nice, I’ll open my back door and look out onto our roses and herbs growing in the many, many pots we’ve crammed into our space. And if I’m feeling really stuck, unable to figure out what to do, I’ll go do the weeding. That’s a job that’s always waiting for any gardener, no matter the size of garden, yard or balcony. The feeling of earth on my fingers, the act of touching leaves and flowers, picking strawberries, is an amazing aid to writing. I’ll always feel inspired. I’ll always want to come say something in my journal or notebook. Our dream next home is definitely going to have a garden. I’m longing to get digging again as I did with my mother growing up.
9) Cook or bake.
This is especially helpful if you’re trying out something that requires concentration and the following of a recipe. The art of weighing and measuring, the act of following guidelines does the trick for me. I’m not being creative, I’m following instructions, which allows my creative brain to think about what I’m writing. I’ll have conversations with my characters, flesh out situations and scenes which may or may not end up on paper. But it does get me thinking in new and different ways. Often, when I’ve been cooking, food will end up in what I’m writing, my characters sometimes have fabulous feasts. Why not? They deserve yummy food, just as much as I do.
10) Change the place where you write.
If you normally sit at the dining table, move to the sitting-room. If you work in your study, try sitting outside or at the kitchen counter if you have such a space.
I wrote my PhD in our study. But I don’t and can’t seem to work there any more. It’s as though my brain equates the study with that time period, and now, I can’t work there. I work at the dining table, on my laptop. If not, I work in the sitting-room, on my corner of my sofa. Yes, I know, my husband has one that’s his, and I have one that’s mine. They are our special places!
So, move about. It just might be that the place you think most conducive to writing, no longer is.
11) Work in a place that’s slightly distracting that will quieten the inner critic.
I must admit that this is not something I’ve tried in a while. But when I was writing up my thesis, I used to get days when I just couldn’t get anything done while being at home, a hermit, hiding out in the study. So, I’d go to the PhD room at university. The buzz of other people, the conversations, the feeling of others concentrating, focusing, used to help. I’d gain a little bit of clarity, and I’d stop feeling like every bit of research I’d done was worthless.
A writer friend of mine says she does some of her best writing in cafes. The distraction of people around her quietens her inner monologue of criticism, and allows her to focus on her writing.
JK Rowling famously wrote in cafes and trains, too. If it worked for her, well then, that’s a tip worth trying, don’t you think?
12) Brainstorm and make bullet points.
This is seriously helpful. Sometimes, like with this article, I’ll just sit and brainstorm and jot down bullet points and notes. I’ve done the same for fiction I’m working on. The bare bones, the skeleton is down. It allows you to then go back and fill in the flesh, add the sinews and the juice to get the story going.
You don’t, of course, have to use everything, or even anything in the end, but the act of getting all the junk that’s in your head out, really helps. It is there, on paper. You’ll have spent time writing, thinking, focusing and condensing. By the time that’s over, at least one of those bullet points may give you a place to start.
13) Play with plots and random characters.
Give yourself room to experiment. It doesn’t have to be good, right or proper. But this is the place to play and try out things. Make lists of people you’d like to meet, imagine them talking, eating, relaxing. What happens? Perhaps with a bit of name-changing you’ll have got something going that’s worth keeping at the end of it. And if not, that’s okay, too. The act of playing with words, plots and characters is so helpful for getting out of the “I don’t know what to write” rut.
14) Freewriting for fifteen minutes every day.
This is wonderful if you are in a deep black hole and nothing seems to work. Even if you just sit and write, again and again, “I don’t know what to write, everything is shit,” you are writing. And eventually, you’ll get bored of putting that on paper and will start to think of more creative swear words, thoughts, complaints and you’ll be writing in earnest. Freewriting is a gift. As is having a safe place to do it in, like your journal.
15) Have a journal.
Yes. Have a journal. If you want to write, if you want to create anything, have a journal. I can’t stress enough how important it is to have a place to jot down and collect all the rubbish that’s in your head. And I use the word rubbish with thought, because often, we all have a lot of that, but out of the rubbish come the gems, out of the stones and pebbles emerge the hidden diamond that can be polished, faceted and turned into something beautiful.
16) Knit, crochet or do embroidery.
I do all three, depending on my mood. And they are my go-to tools when I want to write. I’ll have the germ of an idea for a chapter or an article, but I won’t know where to take it. So, I’ll jot down the bones, and then, leave it. I’ll listen to an audiobook, often one I’ve heard numerous times before so that if I miss a bit, as I write a bit more down, I won’t mind and I’ll knit, or crochet or embroider. It is soothing, repetitive. And the act of doing it gives my critical brain something to focus on so that my creative brain can get on with the act of thinking and planning subconsciously.
Often, at the end of a day of crochet or craft, I’ll sit down and write, and what I want to say will flow out of my hands, onto the screen, almost fully formed.
So yes, these are my tips on how to beat writers’ block. I hope they help.
Please give me a shout at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to talk about anything I’ve said, or comment below. Happy writing!
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