Like all writers, our founder Erin McKean dreads writer’s block. “But,” Erin says, “I think real writer’s block is rare: you worry about having it a gazillion times more often than you actually have it.”
So how do you get past the dread of writer’s block and keep motivated? Here are nine ways that may help.
1) Don’t be so hard on yourself
“I hate writing, I love having written.” Dorothy Parker
You’re a writer; you should love writing and want to do it all the time. But the truth is not all of us do.
At the keynote of the San Francisco Writers’ Conference, best-selling author R.L. Stine compared his writing style to that of a friend, also a successful novelist. For each of his books, Stine creates an outline, then simply fills it in. “I love the process,” he says. But his friend needs to berate and “call himself every name in the book” to motivate himself to write.
Don’t beat yourself up for not always wanting to write. Some pros feel the same way.
2) Write anything
Erin says she fights the “writer’s block heebie-jeebies” by just writing. “Something, anything,” she says. “A list counts; a line of dialogue counts; a description of the mess on my desk or what I had for breakfast or the last beautiful dress I saw counts.”
Erin also suggests writing prompts to get started, such as asking yourself a “what if?” question; writing a letter to a historical figure (“Napoleon! Dude! What’s up?”); or a conversation with someone from your past (“I never thought I’d see you again, [insert name here] …”).
The Wordnik random word generator is also a fun prompt tool.
3) Start anywhere
Confession time: I had trouble starting this post. Yes, I had writer’s block about how to defeat writer’s block. What was blocking me was the intro. Do I start with my own experience, something more general, Erin’s quote?
Recognizing what was blocking me, I skipped the intro and started on the body. I had a general idea of what I wanted to say and jotted down phrases and half-sentences. I wrote without worrying about order and format, knowing I could fix it later. After I was done, I was able to write the intro, and smooth over and reorganize my content.
4) Stop in the middle
You’d think the end of a scene would be a logical place to stop writing. However, it will also make starting again the next day more difficult as you’ll essentially be starting from scratch.
If you stop in the middle, the next day you’ll know what’s coming. The momentum will still be there to finish the scene and start the next one.
5) Trick yourself
When I began a new exercise routine last year, I had trouble sticking to it. So I tried the fool myself method. “You only have to get your gym bag ready,” I told myself. Then, “You only have to put on your workout clothes.” Then, “You only have to put on your sneakers.” At that point I thought, “I might as well go to the gym.”
This helpful piece from Lifehack suggests “telling yourself that you only have to write for five minutes,” and that chances are you’ll write for longer than that. When I’m feeling unmotivated, I tell myself, “You only have to write one sentence,” and that usually leads to several more.
6) Limit writing time
This is another good suggestion from Lifehack:
Instead of giving yourself an entire day to write an article or report, restrict yourself to just two or three hours. Sometimes knowing that you have a whole day to complete something will only succeed in giving you an excuse to slack off.
Limit writing time or squeeze it into small increments: that hour before leaving for work, the 30 minutes on your train commute, 15 minutes before you go to bed. All those small increments add up.
7) “Punish” yourself
Instead of rewarding yourself for writing, punish yourself for not writing. As I worked on a long-term project, I set up a “penalty” deal with a friend: for every scheduled writing day that I didn’t write, I gave him $10. This money wouldn’t go to charity (in that case, I’d have had a “good cause” as an excuse not to write) but straight into my friend’s pocket. Because I’m a cheapskate, I was very reluctant to give up the money.
We set up a further deal that if I finished my project before the pot reached $100, I could have all my money back. When I finished, $60 was returned to me, which told me I had only missed six scheduled writing days. This surprised me since it felt like many more.
The penalty deal gives you incentive to hang onto your money and tracks how many writing days you actually miss. It’s probably fewer than you think (see Don’t be so hard on yourself).
8) Knock out the cobwebs
On the television show, Mad Men, ad man and woman, Don Draper and Peggy Olson, go to movie matinees to “knock out the cobwebs” before writing copy.
There are a number of ways you can do this. Take a walk, exercise, do housework. Read, listen to music, or even meditate (though try not to think about your writing while you do so).
Also be sure to allow yourself at least one non-writing day during the week. Just like with exercise, you don’t want to burn yourself out, and the goal of writing every single day may be difficult to maintain. Missing a day may lead you to feeling discouraged and quitting completely. (Check out this article from Study Hacks about how writing every day is actually a bad idea.)
9) Write the way that’s best for you
I was once told that the morning was the “best” time to exercise, and that if I couldn’t do it in the morning, to not bother at all.
Don’t let anyone tell you how you “should” write. Some writers insist writing first drafts in longhand is the best way while others prefer only typing. If you’re a morning person, write in the morning. Write at night if you’re a night owl. Write six days a week, 1,000 words a day, like Stephen King, or write only on the weekends. Just be consistent.
The “best” time to exercise is the time you’re most likely to do it. The best writing routine is the one that keeps you writing, no matter what it is.
And these 10 suggestions? They’re only suggestions. They may or may not work for you, but as you’re trying them out, you may stumble across one that will.