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Why I Don't Get Writer's Block & How You Can Avoid It Too

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

Writer's block is simply writers lingo for "I don't have a clue what to write about."

It happens when you face a blank page, or the next paragraph, or even the next sentence and find that your brain freezes. You can't think of a single word to write next.

Or if you do think of something, you keep hitting delete because the words won't flow right or they sound clich├ęd or stupid.

There are even those who get blocked in the pre-writing stage—having a difficult time coming up with unique plot ideas and characters.

Whatever the case, writer's block is paralyzing to many writers and prevents them from making headway on their manuscripts.

Interestingly, in all my years as a writer, writer's block is one problem I've seldom experienced. Of course, I have plenty of other issues I deal with (like writing slow, repeating myself, having a difficult time with rewrites, etc.).

As I thought about why I don't struggle with writer's block, I came to several conclusions:

1. Before writing, I come up with pages of "what if" possibilities for my story. I make long lists of all kinds of wild and crazy ideas that I could include in the story. I don't limit myself. No idea is too stupid. I write down everything and anything. And while I'm writing down those ideas, usually my creativity kicks in and spins new ideas off the stale ones.

In other words, the process of brainstorming is fundamental to unleashing our creativity. Usually the first few ideas we have are somewhat boring and cliched. So if we stop there, we'll find ourselves frustrated. But if we list a hundred (or more ideas), then finally we'll start digging deep enough into the creative well to pull out fresh ideas that excite us.

2. Before writing, I have the end destination of the story in mind. It's hard to take a journey if we don't know where we're headed. We don't necessarily have to have every inch of the route mapped out. We can allow the story room to develop as we write it. We can take detours, extra pit stops, and even new routes altogether.

But we'll move along more smoothly if we actually know our destination. We need to figure out how we want the story to end, what changes we want to see happen in the characters, and where they'll end up. Once that's clear, then we can write more purposefully. When we get stuck, we can remind ourselves of our destination and get our characters back on the road to get there.

3. While I'm writing, I don't let the internal editor out of her cage (at least very often). The internal editor is a vicious, critical, condemning beast. And rightly so. She needs to be if we have any hope of clawing away all the dreck that ends up in our stories.

But when we uncage the beast too soon, she makes us second guess everything we're doing, chews up and spits out our confidence, and often rips our work to shreds before it has the chance to take shape.

Now, whenever I talk about keeping that internal editor locked up during the first draft, invariably some writers will make the point that they edit as they go and the process works just fine for them. And granted, every writer's process will be different. That style can work (obviously does) for some writers.

But for those suffering from writer's block, I suggest locking up the internal editor, putting duct tape over her mouth, and keeping her caged until the first draft is over. Just write. Don't think about whether it's good or bad. Don't worry about the word choices or the paragraphs of backstory or the cliched dialogue.

Let your fingers fly over the keyboard and don't stop to delete. Try that for several days, or even a couple of weeks. You'll find that gradually you'll begin to forget the internal editor is even there. She'll learn to stay in her cage—until the editing stage when it's time for her to come out and wreck havoc.

4. After years of writing practice, I've strengthened my creative muscles. I once believed that after publishing several books I'd have a harder time coming up with new ideas. But interestingly, my ideas aren't running out. In fact, the more I write, the more stories I seem to find. I just turned in a proposal to my publisher containing ideas for eight future books. And I have another 3 book proposal in the works.

Why do I have so many ideas? Because the more I workout my creative muscles, the stronger they get.

The principle is true of any muscles we use, whether we're jogging, lifting weights, or swimming. When we first start out, our muscles ache from the lack of use. We're weak, flabby, and tire easily.

But once we begin using our muscles on a regular basis, putting ourselves on a daily or weekly workout schedule, we find that eventually the muscles become limber and stronger. The workout becomes less taxing, we can go faster, and do more than we ever thought possible.

Constantly using our creative muscles is the key to keeping them in shape and preventing writer's block.

What about you? Do you ever suffer from writer's block? What are some ways you keep your creativity from getting blocked?

Used with permission from Debbie Ridpath Ohi at Inkygirl.com


22 comments:

  1. I wouldn't say I suffer from writer's block often but I definitely have. When this happens a lot of times I find myself wasting time (going on facebook, surfing the web) instead of forcing myself to write.

    But one technique I have found that helps me when I can't think where to go next or I think what I'm writing sounds so dumb, is I go back in my writing to a scene or chapter that I love, that I'm proud of and re-read that. It inspires me and lets me know that I CAN write something good and it feels so good when I do. It's inspiration to go forward even if what I'm writing at the moment isn't so good. Then when I come back to it later with fresh eyes I see its potential. It's just a start and I can always come back and "fix" it later. But if you don't even write you have nothing to even "fix."

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    1. Hi Shelly, It's so nice to see your comments bright and early every post! :-)

      I love your technique! Also, I think re-reading some of the earlier parts of our manuscript can help remind us of where we're headed, re-spark the creativity, and get the ideas flowing again.

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  2. Oh funny! I love the little cartoon. And I've got to say, a lot of times if I leave the computer and start doing dishes or whatever, a scene for my novel will come to me, and I won't feel stuck any longer.

    You know, I've written down lists of all the possible crazy things that could happen in my story before, but didn't do it for this last novel. Sure enough, I did get a little stuck and ended up rewriting 3 chapters. I need to write a list like that before I start book #4.

    I also don't write my novels in order. I write them mostly in order. But sometimes I'll be writing one scene and get a brilliant idea for a follow up scene later in the book. Then I skip ahead and write parts of that scene. So I often end up with a bit of a skeleton for my rough draft.

    And yes! I do go back and edit along the way, but I'm not a big plotter. I know where the story starts and where the story ends, and I put the middle together like a puzzle. So yeah, sometimes I've got to step back from scrutinizing the tiny puzzle pieces and make sure the whole of what I have is right. Otherwise then I second guess myself and probably would indeed get writers block.

    But you're right in that everyone is different what works for you might not work for me. My crit partner and I write our novels completely different. And we both end up with good stories, and still work together with our crits.

    Okay, done rambling now. Good post Jody! ;-)

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    1. Oh goodness, there was a point I'd intended to make above and forgot. I think that skipping ahead to a different scene can help prevent writers block sometimes. I know not every writer likes skipping ahead, but it works for me sometimes. As does going back and taking a few days to edit or reread what's already written.

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    2. LOL, Naomi! Thanks for the addendum! :-) I think it's a great point. I imagine skipping ahead to a more exciting part or scene that we already have playing in our head, can sometimes refuel our ideas for the earlier parts that we're having trouble with, perhaps even give clarification for how to write that troublesome scene. I'm not sure, since I don't skip around, but it certainly makes sense! :-) Thanks for sharing!!

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  3. I don't get blocked but there are times I get stumped about which direction to take with my characters or the plot.

    A walk or reading great work always seem to do the trick.
    ~ Wendy

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    1. Hi Wendy! I like the word "stumped." That's so much prettier than "blocked." :-)

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  4. I keep this quote from Daniel Pink on my desk: Writer's blog is bunk. It's simply a sad excuse for not confronting the blinking cursor and your own inadequacies.

    I have another of his quotes readily visible: Muses are for amateurs-- the rest of us just show up and get to work.

    Well. That certainly takes away some of the more mystic excuses we come up with for not writing or "feeling" in the mood. Show up and do it.

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    1. LOVE the quotes, Julie!!! Thanks for sharing them! You're right! I never wait for the mood. I just always just show up and do it. By the time I have to quit for the day, my mood is usually catching up to me and I don't want to have to stop! :-)

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  5. Great tips. I love the making list one. I've always been someone who jots one liners about things I see, people I meet, and events happening around me. When I traveled extensively for my job I loved to just sit in airports and jot thoughts about the people coming and going. Those one liners have given me a plethora of ideas for my manuscripts. Thanks for a thoughtful blog.

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  6. Jody Asked: What about you? Do you ever suffer from writer's block?

    Carrie Answers: I do sometimes struggle with what to do next with whatever story I'm working on.

    But the larger problem I face is choosing which option is best for any given situation. In other words, I rarely have too few ideas about where the story should go next.

    I often have way too many!

    Your thoughts on brainstorming before you begin writing struck a chord because I'm right in the middle of that process. But it doesn't conclude when I begin writing. Regardless of how much planning I do before writing (and I often spend weeks at it), there always comes a time when I as the writer and my characters stand at a crossroads. Usually, it's not a simple 4-way intersection either. It's more like a spider web!


    Jody Asked: What are some ways you keep your creativity from getting blocked?

    Carrie Answers: A couple of things I do that probably find their source in the painter side of my brain are to change the colors of my font each day. For example, if I start out with red, I'll work my way through the prism (or rainbow) day-by-day. Sounds odd, I know, but working with a different color of text every day is almost like painting with words.

    And after a week or two, you end up with the most colorful documents!

    Another thing I do is to start with a fresh document every day, no matter what I'm doing. Whether planning or writing, every day's writing goes into a separate document. As chapters are finished, I copy them into a master document and I never (well, hardly ever) look at the master document other than to paste in the next chapter.

    I also rarely refer back to the previous day's work. Even if I need a detail I don't go back. Instead, I insert a note in that place and will deal with finding the answer when I review the first draft.

    I'm one of those writers who used to always read the most current chapter and do light editing as a warm up exercise, but I've found I don't really need that. Having every day's work in a separate document makes it a lot easier to move forward without the temptation of looking back.

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  7. Jody Asked: What about you? Do you ever suffer from writer's block?

    Carrie Answers: I do sometimes struggle with what to do next with whatever story I'm working on.

    But the larger problem I face is choosing which option is best for any given situation. In other words, I rarely have too few ideas about where the story should go next.

    I often have way too many!

    Your thoughts on brainstorming before you begin writing struck a chord because I'm right in the middle of that process. But it doesn't conclude when I begin writing. Regardless of how much planning I do before writing (and I often spend weeks at it), there always comes a time when I as the writer and my characters stand at a crossroads. Usually, it's not a simple 4-way intersection either. It's more like a spider web!


    Jody Asked: What are some ways you keep your creativity from getting blocked?

    Carrie Answers: A couple of things I do that probably find their source in the painter side of my brain are to change the colors of my font each day. For example, if I start out with red, I'll work my way through the prism (or rainbow) day-by-day. Sounds odd, I know, but working with a different color of text every day is almost like painting with words.

    And after a week or two, you end up with the most colorful documents!

    Another thing I do is to start with a fresh document every day, no matter what I'm doing. Whether planning or writing, every day's writing goes into a separate document. As chapters are finished, I copy them into a master document and I never (well, hardly ever) look at the master document other than to paste in the next chapter.

    I also rarely refer back to the previous day's work. Even if I need a detail I don't go back. Instead, I insert a note in that place and will deal with finding the answer when I review the first draft.

    I'm one of those writers who used to always read the most current chapter and do light editing as a warm up exercise, but I've found I don't really need that. Having every day's work in a separate document makes it a lot easier to move forward without the temptation of looking back.

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  8. Great suggestions, Jody! "What If" are two of the most powerful words a writer can use - either coming up with ideas, or figuring out what to do with the ones you have.

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  9. I ended up here because I'm in the middle of a block! Perfect timing, Jody!

    I find my mind works when I do other things - so yesterday I cleaned the family room (love the cartoon!), and so far today I've gotten caught up on my Bible reading. If this block continues, I'll start on the living room this afternoon :)

    I know my brain will work out the problem (as long as I stay off the computer!), and I'm not sure how many rooms will get cleaned before I sort this one out, but I know once I do the words will fly onto the page.

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    1. LOL! This was perfect timing, Jan! I think the internet can be a huge problem for writer's these days. It's all too easy when the words are flowing well to be distracted by social media. I can only imagine the problem is much worse when having writer's block.

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  10. I especially like the idea of making a list of "what ifs", because then you can develop the story from answering those questions that you might not have considered before.
    I read somewhere that when fighting writer's block, it's good to do things like visit a museum, take a walk outside, or watch a play. The first and third ones in particular help me because when I see evidence of other people's creativity, it inspires me to get back to work on my own stuff.

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  11. The best advice is definitely to keep the critic caged (duct tape and chains are also helpful). There are people who edit as they go, but their critic doesn't sound as negative and demeaning as min, I guarantee it. My muse will hide when the critic comes out.
    I also like the idea of writing down lists of possibilities. I think the real hurdle in being blocked is mental. When I think too much, I have a hard time letting the creative juices flow.
    Also love the muscle metaphor. It's true with everything we do, the more we do, the more we can do. If you don't use it, you lose it.
    Thanks for the helpful post. I have really enjoyed the reader angle one day and the writer angle on the other day.

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    1. Thanks, Sharon! I'm glad you're enjoying the little bit more diversity with my posting! I've really liked having a different angle too! :-)

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  12. I just started trying the second tip and at least partially mapping the route I want to take in the story. I know it has kept me much more focused and less likely to daydream.

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  13. Love the muscle analogy! I always thought writing was a lot like training and exercising. Great tips. Thank you, J!

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  14. For me, Jody, writer's block is REAL, and while I know it doesn't have to halt progress for good, like getting published, you can't always skip over it.

    Watch the video below if you just KNOW your writer's block is all too real-

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=QMxX0DD573M

    I encourage Jody, and others who don't personally believe or have writer's block, to watch this video, because even if you don't face this issue, chances are you know or will eventually meet a writer who does, and understanding the various forms writer's block can take will make you a more understanding friend.

    After all, you might turn away a writer who could be great to tag team promotion with, or who has tech know-how you don't but could use, all because you didn't see his struggles with writer's block were REAL.

    I've also endured "Reader's Block" when I couldn't read books in my genre because I struggle with feeling weighed down by what's come before me.

    While some writers say it doesn't matter, for me, at some point, it DOES. There are times I just want to read without thinking of it as self-study.


    As I mentioned in Jody's post about audiobooks, I often turn to audiobooks to bring joy back to my reading process, something that can be at risk when you're trying to learn to do what you're reading, something we can forget if we're working so hard to improve our skills.

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  15. Love these tips! I attended a class with Candace Havens where she shared some plotting tips and tools for writing and it really helped me overcome writer's block. I also love doing twitter word sprints! Good way to hang with writer folks and get your word count in!

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