Guest author and blogger Jane Struthers is the author of over twenty non-fiction books on a range of subjects, including Red Sky at Night: The Book of Lost Countryside Wisdom and Beside the Seaside: A Celebration of the Place We Like To Be. She lives in a rural corner of East Sussex.
You know how it is. You’ve spent ages thinking about what you’re going to write, anticipating it, feeling frustrated because other things are getting in the way of it. Finally, you clear a couple of hours from your busy schedule, switch on your computer or get out your pen and paper and … nothing. The words won’t come, or they seem laughably trite or clichéd or flaccid. You’re gripped by the urgent need to wash the kitchen floor, track down a sock that’s been missing for the past five years or surf a favourite website. Hey, maybe you could call that research.
Or maybe you could call it procrastination. Or writer’s block.
It’s an insidious business because the more you allow it to happen, the more often it will happen. So how do you stop it? Here are some of my favorite tips.
9 Tips To Conquer Writers’ Block
1) Sit Down and Show Up
As Mark Twain so famously said (and as other writers have echoed since), writing is all about application: the application of the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. Don’t give in to those internal urgings to tidy up, sow some lettuce seeds or do anything else that will curtail the agony of sitting there and not writing. You’ll never make any progress if you don’t get those words down. Sit it out!
2) Cut Out the Internet
If you find that you’ve spent two hours at your desk but most of that time has involved writing emails or surfing the web, then the only answer is to switch off your Internet connection at its source before you start work. If you don’t, you’ll be drawn to the icon of your chosen browser sooner or later. Don’t give yourself that temptation.
3) Write Something Else Instead
If the words really won’t come, write something else instead. Write about how you’re feeling. Write a letter to your dog. It doesn’t really matter what you write, as long as you write something. (But don’t write anything self-defeating, such as telling yourself how pathetic you are. That won’t help.) Write for ten minutes and stop. Switch to your current project and start writing that. Don’t think about it. Just do it.
(Julia Cameron created a whole creative practice built on this called “Morning Pages” and it can work really well even beyond breaking writers’ block.)
4) Embrace the Mess
Writing is an untidy business, but published books rarely reflect that. If they’ve been edited and produced in a professional manner, the prose is seamless. It flows in a way that may make you tear your hair on a bad day. Don’t let yourself be intimidated by this. The raw manuscript of your favourite novel was probably just as messy as yours is right now. That’s OK. No one is going to see it. You aren’t completing an exam paper.
5) It Doesn’t Have to Be Perfect
If you want every sentence to be perfect as soon as you’ve written it, or you fret that your grasp of apostrophes isn’t all it could be, you will probably agonize over every word so much that the flow will soon dry up. Right now, you need to get the words down. The editing stage can come later. And if there really is room for improvement, maybe you could start teaching yourself grammar, spelling and syntax in your spare time.
6) Take Notes for Later
If you aren’t happy about a word or a sentence when you write it, and you keep coming back to it instead of moving ahead, highlight it so you can come back to it later and keep the flow going in the meantime. If you use Microsoft Word, get into the habit of using Track Changes. This allows you to insert a comment into your text at the relevant point, so you can flag whatever is necessary. Track Changes also remembers your editing in case you have second thoughts about it and want to revert to your original text.
7) Set an Achievable Goal
If you’ve only got half an hour of writing time, there’s no point in telling yourself you’re going to write 1000 words. It’s unlikely to happen, which will be discouraging. If you are really struggling, aim to write a single paragraph. Then, if you’ve got time, write the next one.
8) Give Yourself a Stopping Point
Some writers like to stop work when they reach the end of a chapter. Others always stop mid-chapter or even mid-sentence, so they can plunge straight back into what they were writing because they’re excited about what happens next. Figure out where it feels good to stop, when you know that you’ll have something exciting to come back to — because you’ll be setting yourself up for success tomorrow.
9) Write at the Same Time
Ideally, try to write at the same time each day. This makes it part of your daily routine, so it becomes a habit. If you show up every day for the muse, the muse is more likely to show up for you.