How you can beat writers block every time
You know the feeling: you stare at a blank page and it just stares back at you. You’re not sure where to start writing, and when you do, every word you put down feels wrong.
So how can you get past writers block?
I should know, because I’m a professional writer. I aced High School English. I have a swag of degrees.
That’s what you’d think from looking at my LinkedIn profile.
Now here’s the truth.
I should know, because 15 years ago, I ran headlong into writers block so bad it stopped me dead in my tracks.
You may run into writers block when you sit down to pen a blog post, or draft an email.
For me, it was trying to write my novel.
I was 23, launching into an Honours Degree in Creative Writing. I fixed a cup of tea, sat down at the desk in my dressing gown and opened up MS Word, ready to start.
And found nothing there. No ready-made structure. No essay question to bounce off. This was worse than staring at a blank page. It felt like walking into a snow-storm.
Each morning, I would charge in, typing up a blizzard in the hope that if I just wrote fast enough, I could punch a hole through the writers block and shoot out into clear space.
Each afternoon, I came back and read what I’d written. “This is terrible. Who’d want to read this?” Maybe I was being too hard on myself. “Okay, so which parts are worth keeping, and which parts are rubbish?” I couldn’t tell, so I trashed what I’d written and started again.
That lasted the best part of a year.
Somehow I hauled myself through it. Right at the end, the novel came together. I wound up with a first-class honours degree in creative writing and the university medal in English.
Sounds like a happy ending, right?
I don’t think so. The cost was just too damn high. I didn’t write creatively again for more than six years.
Fifteen years on, writers block is mostly behind me. I sit down at my desk to write, and the words usually do what I tell them to.
How did I get to this point?
I’m going to share two tactics that help me get past writers block, every time. One of them is dead easy and one of them is hard – but not for the reason you might think.
How do you get past the fear of a blank page?
Simple: don’t start with a blank page.
What terrified me back when I was trying to write my novel was the total lack of prompts – nothing to respond to. That’s why essays were so much easier; I had a question to answer, and a ready-made framework.
You can go to town on structure, and mindmap on a whiteboard, or you can just jot down a few points on paper.
What matters is deciding what you want to say before you start trying to say it. Don’t make the same mistake I did with my novel, and charge in blind.
Here’s how a structure helps your writing:
1) You can test the relationship and flow between ideas ‘on the plan’ before you start building. Altering the flow between paragraphs you’ve already written is about as easy as rearranging the rooms of your house.
2) You gain a place to hang your ideas. When you have the basic structure, you can let your creativity off the leash. Jot down preliminary ideas and half-thoughts, then slot them into the place where you think they belong.
3) You break the task of writing into achievable chunks. When you sit down to write, you’re not staring down the long tunnel of a 160,000 word novel. You just need to write this one section.
4) You get out of your own way. The logical, organising part of your brain does the structure, then goes and grabs a coffee. Meanwhile, the writing part of your brain can go to work and create the draft without logic brain sticking its nose in.
But I hate planning.
“Planning a structure won’t work for me. I need to write to figure out what I think.”
“I’m a freewheeling creative type. Planning hurts my artistic soul.”
I get it. I’m both of these people.
If you need to write to figure out what you think, that’s 100% okay. Do the scribble. Get it out of your system. Then come back, extract the structure and check the flow.
If you’re a creative type, look at this way. Structure and organisation is the scaffolding for the creative process. I wasted the best part of my Honours Year floundering about. It wasn’t creative. It was torture. With structure, you have more energy and time to doing the real creative thinking.
2. Be bad.
As you probably know already, Real Writers are directly connected to the universal water supply of unlimited creativity. When they sit down at their mahogany desks, Real Writers simply turn a tap in their brain, and pure, perfect prose pours out.
Every pro writer I’ve met will tell you one thing about their first draft: it’s awful. Not just ‘rough diamond with potential’. I mean earth-shakingly, gut-clenchingly bad.
We write something terrible. Then we improve it.
That’s where starting with an outline saves our bacon. We know that however abysmal the first draft is, at least it’s pointing in the general direction of what we want to say. We can see what the finished draft will look like from where we stand, even if we have to get out the binoculars.
Once again, allowing yourself the freedom to be bad is about getting out of your own way.
Your editing brain is a critical bastard. They’re terrible company at parties, but when it comes to improving content, you’re glad they’re around.
You’re in the middle of the creative phase, and the editing brain rings you up. “Hi. Thought you should know that this sentence sounds like a pre-schooler wrote it with a crayon, left-handed.”
Tell them to come back later.
When you look at it this way, writers block gets turned on its head. Writing awkward, self-indulgent prose is the whole point. Have you just written something that you know needs improvement? Good. That means the first draft has done its job
You can speed up the editing phase if you what your bad habits are. What to look out for. For me, the first draft I write usually suffers from:
- Being way too wordy
- Using vague pronouns
- Plain old making no sense whatsoever
When I see these habits, I don’t beat myself up anymore than you’d beat yourself up for spotting weeds in the garden. They’re undesirable but expected. “Oh, you again,” I say. I kneel down, get to work and pull them out.
Your list of bad habits will be different to mine. Know them. Write them down. Then come back and pull them out.
Why is this so hard?
Telling your editing brain to come back later is easy for me to say, but very hard to do.
Every time you sit down to write, your editing brain will be there waiting. They’ll keep sticking their nose in.
Truth is, you can’t ever completely silence the editing brain. You have to write, knowing that it’s bad, not stopping to fix it. Even if it means writing fragments, clichés and false starts. Just get those words down.
That italicised sentence about noses I just wrote? Here’s the first draft.
“Our editing brain will keep sticking their piping up to voice their criticism with some criticism.”
It’s incoherent, but it’s a start.
When I’m coaching people on their writing skills, helping them make friends with self-criticism takes time. It’s worth it, though, when I see people get a clear run at writing their way.
If you want help getting past self-criticism and seeing what better writing looks like for you, let me know. I’d be glad to help.