6 Fixes for Writer’s Block, Even if You’re Not a Writer

March 16, 2011 •

Whether or not you call yourself a writer, you’ve probably experienced writer’s block. It can attack at any time: when you’re writing a 500 page novel, a blog post, an email to a client, or even a tweet.

You know how it feels: you sit down to write, and get that sinking feeling in your stomach. You stare at the screen. Get up for coffee. Sit down. Stare at the screen. Get up for a snack. Sit down. Stare at the screen.  Yet another victim to the cycle of caffeine, calories, and anguish known as writer’s block.

Never fear—you can fix this. Start with one of my tried and trusted ways to break through any case of writer’s block:

1. Write $**tty first drafts. Paralysis due to the fear of low quality writing is a far mightier enemy than low quality writing itself. That’s why I follow Anne Lamott’s advice to write “$**tty First Drafts.” How it works: write anything to get started, knowing that you don’t have to attach that file or push that send button until after you’ve revised your awful first draft. You can fix low quality writing (most of the time), but you have to write something in the first place. As Lamott says, “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts.”

2. Skip the intro. The first sentence can be the hardest to write. If you’re stuck on the first sentence, don’t sweat it, skip it. For example, I started this blog post on point one, and circled back to write the intro later. Sometimes, you don’t know where to begin until you’ve reached the end.

3. Write an outline. An outline? That thing from high school? Yes. Outlines. They work for emails, blog posts, articles, novels, web copy, proposals—ok, maybe not tweets, but you get the point. Dashing down a couple bullet points about what you want to write by the time you’re done can help you start.

4. Mess around on the internet. Sure, for me, messing around on the internet normally results in browsing pictures of cute dogs for so long that I start talking in barks. Sometimes, though, exploring the internet can lead to inspiration. Change your preferences on StumbleUpon to see cool sites similar to what you’re writing about, tie in something topical from Reddit, or study the style used by your favorite bloggers. Turn that roaming mouse into a research tool.

5. Change your setting. Get up from the desk and move your body and your computer to the hallway, to the couch, to the coffee shop, to the roof. Work from home for a day, or even take a trip to the library (imagine that!). Changing your immediate surroundings can give you a fresh perspective on what you’re writing.

6. Don’t look, just type. I use this only in the direst cases of writer’s block. The method: tear away at the keyboard with no regard for grammar, sentence structure, punctuation, or typos. Include rants about why this particular writing assignment is the bane of the universe. When the pounding on the keyboard slows, maybe you’ll have a few usable sentences, maybe not. Either way, now you’ve got that essential “something” on the page that makes it easier to start.

Those are just a few of the many strategies I’ve developed to defeat writer’s block over the years. Please, share your personal methods in the comments, and together we can win this war.

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About the Author

The Marketing Trenches blog provides thought leadership from actual marketing practitioners, not from professional thought leaders. Designed to help business leaders make more educated marketing decisions, our insights come directly from our experience in the trenches. You can find more from Right Source on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+.

  • Mike Sweeney

    Great tips Tracy. Here’s one that I use for blog posts. I go back and read 3 posts I wrote that took off. I try to recapture not only the mindset I was in, but also try to understand which factors led to its success. Then I write that $**tty first draft you refer to.

    • Thanks Mike! That’s a good one–will have to add it to the repertoire. Sometimes, though, I think that looking at past successful writing can be discouraging. The thought goes: “I’ll never be able to write like that again!” And then more writer’s block follows. It’s all about finding what works for you.

  • Suzete Davis

    Thanks, Tracy! Good advice, even for those of us who are now writing for fundraisers, charities, etc.! Will pass this around to my colleagues. Suzette Davis

    • Thanks! Yes, I’ve used these methods for a wide, wide range of writing. There’s a few more that I didn’t include, like listening to the same music every time you work on a particular assignment, or (a poetry professor’s actual suggestion to her college class) drinking a glass of wine to lower the inhibitions. The latter is in after hours cases only, but it works pretty well on the worst cases.

      Glad you enjoyed the post!

  • Blair

    Great suggestions, Tracy; I’m definitely gonna use some of them for a writing sample that I have to provide for a job ap…I’ve been having some major blockage. You rock! (-:

    • Thanks Blair! Good to know I could be of help, job apps can be so hard to get through. Let me know if I can help, you rock too!

  • Kait

    Great post Tracy!

    The writing a $**tty first draft is a very helpful suggestion that I’ve been using to write a recent grad school assignment that isn’t exactly very interesting to me. I find I get writer’s block when the topic or assignment doesn’t strike my fancy. Does that happen to you?

    Also a huge believer in outlines! I write very detailed ones before tackling any major project.

    Another helpful fix that works for me is old-fashioned pen and paper brainstorm sessions. I write down all the ideas I have floating in my head on paper and then draw circles and lines to connect them all. This works for us visual learners.

    Love your posts as always,

    Kait

    • Thanks, and glad it helped! And yes–in my experience as well, writer’s block is often brought on by boredom or disinterest. Or sunny weather outside.

      I’m not a big outliner, and even when I do make them, I generally stray from them by the time I’m done writing. But when I’m really stuck, they’re great as a change from my general routine.

      I almost included writing with pen and paper in this post–glad you brought it up in the comments! There’s something about the tactile and flexible nature of what you can do with a pen and paper that computers can’t quite capture. But as far as doing some of that stuff on the computer, have you ever tried Prezi? It beats Power Point for visual learners any day.

      Thanks for the love, Kait!

      Tracy

  • Great tips here Tracy, thanks. I’ve been writing professionally in one form or another my entire life and I’ve learned that just showing up is half the battle. Your points about sh.tty first drafts, skipping the first line etc. to jump start the process are great. I’ll look forward to reading more of your blog.

    • Thanks Billy! Absolutely–it’s impossible to write professionally and love everything you write at the first jot. Persistence and the ability to deal with a hearty amount of self loathing is essential.

  • Outlines… yes, that is my favorite. It’s a trick I learned in high school (thanks to Microsoft Word 1.0) and something I use to this day.  Outline the main points and then fill in each point with details.  Before you know it, it’s a complete article!

    • Just like magic, right! Making the outline can be quite painful sometimes, ha. I’m in favor of whatever gets you moving past the blank page!

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