Beating Back Writer’s Block
One time, I was on a freaking gorgeous hike through a redwood forest, on my way to see my first real in-person waterfall.
This was in Northern California, and after years of drought, the rains had finally come. The falls promised to be roaring and spectacular, well worth the 12-ish miles out and back.
Somewhere around mile 6, just shy of the falls we’d hiked so far to see… we came upon a downed redwood. The recent rains had soaked into the dry ground and the roots couldn’t hold this massive tree up anymore. It had crashed down, right on top of the trail.
We’d already come that far to see the falls, so I’m sure you can guess what happened next. Sliding on the ground on our butts, covered in mud… crawling between tree branches and over the top of the massive 6-ft diameter trunk.
We got to the other side, picked up the trail, and made it to the falls (which were every bit as spectacular as promised).
Now… I tell you that story for a reason.
It’s probably the closest analogy I’ve got to how I think about writer’s block.
I won’t go as far as to proclaim writer’s block as something that doesn’t exist at all… because it does. But it’d serve you well to start thinking of it as an obstacle to get around, vs some immovable object in your path. I promise it’s all in your head, and getting to the other side is so worth the effort.
So how do you get around such a massive obstacle… one that very well could tempt you to turn around and go back and quit before you get where you’re going?
I wanted to share some tricks I developed during my time with an in-house copy team… because there were plenty of times where the copy had to roll whether I was in the right headspace or not, and I couldn’t wait around for inspiration to strike.
Here are 5 tricks I use to beat back writer’s block:
1. Change the scenery
The beauty of being a writer in this day and age is you’re very portable. Take your laptop (or other preferred writing medium) and physically move yourself somewhere else. Before pandemics and quarantines were a thing, I’d go to a local coffee shop or the library. But you can move from your desk to your couch. Or go sit outside in the sun. The point is – find a different spot to physically move your ass to.
I’ve found that a change in scenery is often enough to tap into that inner muse and find a way forward. Just that simple perspective shift can help you get rolling again, especially combined with your favorite focus music or white noise.
2. Bust out the pen and paper
Don’t be afraid to shut off the computer and write things out by hand. These days, we’re so addicted to screen time, it’s easy to be intimidated by the blank page… and suddenly you look up from a Facebook/Reddit rabbit hole and wonder where the last 3 hours went.
When I’m feeling overwhelmed or stuck, I usually turn to the Dean Jackson 50-minute Focus Finder. That’s where you set a timer for 50 minutes (yes, 5-0) and write (using pen and paper) until the timer goes off. Just you and your brain for the better part of an hour. The first 10 minutes will probably fly right by… then it starts getting good as stuff you’ve buried in the back of your mind pops up. It’s a beautifully effective way to essentially brain dump everything that’s been floating around in your head, taking up space.
If you set a timer for that long and commit to writing, you WILL think of something – it’s not like you’re just going to have white noise in between your ears for 50 whole minutes. Something about sitting down with pen and paper signals your brain that you’re here to write.
3. Turn off your inner editor
One of the fastest ways to shut down the whole production process is trying to operate in both your creative brain AND your analytical brain at the same time.
DO NOT DO THIS TO YOURSELF.
I’m telling you here and now, you have permission to crank out a shitty first draft. The fact is, most of what you write is likely to be crap and will never see the light of day. And that’s the BEAUTY of it! No one sees your first drafts unless you invite them to (and I don’t know why you’d do that to yourself unless you’re a total masochist). So give yourself the OK to churn out some pure and utter crap.
This is called freewriting. You can set a timer and jump into a word processor and jot down every errant thought that pops into your head. Even if you’re writing down “this sucks, I have nothing” for 10 minutes straight, eventually your brain will snap out of it and find a shiny thread to follow.
There are even web-based writing programs out there that are designed to help you get in the habit of freewriting. One even has an “insane” mode that will start deleting stuff you’ve written if you stop writing/start editing.
And you can also tackle the parts that don’t really require much thinking – easy stuff like the guarantee. Because making SOME progress on the overall draft really helps you feel like you’ve got forward momentum.
Remember – no one else sees the first draft. Laugh at yourself. Have fun with it. The faster you get the crap draft out, the faster you’ll get to the gold.
4. Do a little more research
I don’t know about you, but for me one of the hardest things about getting started is staring down the blank page.
Where do you start? Beginning, end, bullets?
That’s why sometimes I make sure I’m deliberately starting from a NOT blank page. I’ll start digging into the topic a little more, looking for interesting articles, paragraphs, and one-liner commentary on whatever I’m writing about. The key here is not to get sucked down the research rabbit hole as a stalling tactic.
Grab a few interesting things about your topic, literally copy and paste them into a doc. Then delete everything but the best few lines, and treat those lines like the seed of an idea that’ll help you kick it off. Make sure you’re putting everything in your own words of course – the world and I frown upon copyright infringement. But since writing is rewriting, sometimes it helps me a lot to start with the rewriting when that shitty first draft just won’t come out.
5. Try a “walk and talk” approach
What a wonderful time to be alive… in an era where you can pull a phone out of your pocket, talk to it, and watch words appear on a page in real time.
If all else fails and your pen won’t write and your keys won’t clack… grab ye olde smartphone and take yourself out for a walk. You can pretend you’re on an important phone call!
Walk around the block, or down your favorite path… and try to talk the problem out, you and your phone. The beauty of this trick is you really can’t edit speech-to-text reliably, so what you say will wind up on the page. For people who can’t write or type fast (or for people who have trouble getting out that shitty first draft), this will help you start from a full, editable page. Just make sure your inner red pen enthusiast is prepared to scrub the draft for glaring errors.
Remember, it’s OK to suck.
In fact, I urge you to give yourself permission to suck, and to not be so hard on yourself. Even for prolific writers like Stephen King, I’m willing to bet the first draft is almost always crap. Most if it will never make it to print. But the good news is it’s yours, it’s private, and the more crap you turn out, the more gold nuggets you’ll find buried in that crap. Get out them waders and start diggin’, y’all.
If you’re an aspiring freelancer who’s working up the courage to leave the day job… good news! I’m sharing all the things I WISH I’d known before making the leap so that hopefully your journey goes a little more smoothly than mine.