How I Beat Writer’s Block

Writer’s block is something I stressed a lot about before becoming published but have rarely thought of since. The block is nothing more than our inner perfectionists wresting control—we resist putting words on the page out of the fear they’re not going to measure up to our hopes and expectations. Spoiler alert: they probably won’t. Once you become a professional writer, you learn that the majority of your time is spent in revisions, not first drafts. It matters little, then, whether what you’re about to write sucks. You can and will improve it; you will rewrite it half a dozen times. What’s important is to get something on paper. Something can be improved. A blank Word document cannot.

With all of that said, there are certainly days I find myself lacking in motivation. There are days I get too in my own head about what I want a story to be and how far short it’s falling—my inner perfectionist taking the reins! On days like those, below are the tricks I use to get the words flowing.

1: Have a plan.

Before I start writing a novel in earnest, I figure out exactly how the beginning will go, plus a loose middle and end. As I research, the middle and end take a concrete shape. I continue getting more micro until I have a one-sentence summary for each chapter.* Once I have those summaries, then I start writing. My process is a chapter per day. I write each chapter number on a calendar day, and voila, I now know what I’m supposed to be doing every day until the first draft is completed.

If you don’t like to outline, you can still form a plan. It could be as simple as, at the end of each writing day, determining which scene(s) you’re going to write tomorrow.

When it comes to revisions, the output is less straightforward than with a first draft, where you’re writing X words or chapters per day. I like to plan my revisions around tasks instead. Usually I’ll read through the editorial feedback several times, then make a list of all the work I need to do. After that, I chip away at the list, item by item. This way, I’m never unsure how to spend the writing day.

*Often times, I end up moving these chapters around, combining or splitting them, etc. The point is not to set the plot in stone. It’s to provide a guide so that, for the moment, you know where you’re headed.

2: Write by hand.

Turn off your computer. Get paper and a writing implement. Go to town! This trick never, ever fails me. If I’m feeling stuck or blah at the beginning of the day, I’ll start writing in my Moleskine notebook with a pen. The writing will go slowly at first, but it’ll gain speed at some point. Once my brain is moving faster than my hand can, I’ll grab my laptop and pick up right where I left off from the notebook. At the end of the writing session, I’ll transcribe the handwritten part of the chapter into my Word document.

Studies have shown there’s a creative connection between the hand and the brain. For me, writing by hand feels more dreamy and fun, less like work. I quit being overly careful and jot down whatever comes to mind. Often I find the chapters I’ve handwritten are the ones that wind up needing the fewest revisions.

3: Write on your couch.

This is a variation of the “write by hand” trick. If I’m feeling lazy, a desk and office chair help me focus. But if motivation isn’t the issue, sometimes comfort is. When I’m in the ideation/brainstorming phase of a writing project, very rarely will I sit at my desk. I almost always prefer a couch or armchair; something about being comfortable gets the creative juices moving. Same deal when it comes to the actual writing. I do most of it at my desk, but occasionally, if I want to feel less rigid, I’ll switch up my workspace within the house.

4: Work outside your home.

98% of the time, I write at home. I like to work in near-total silence, and I get a little testy (my husband might say very testy!) when I’m interrupted mid-flow. That said, if I’m struggling to get motivated, sometimes I’ll head to the library. This approximates going to an office; if I’ve made the effort to commute somewhere, it’s unlikely I’m going to screw around on social media for two hours. For you, it might be a coffee shop or co-working space. For me, it’s the library—they’re quiet, free, and I’m surrounded by proof that books can be written. Including mine.

5: Keep a master list of ideas.

If the issue is not the writing itself but coming up with ideas in the first place, I suggest keeping a list of topics of interest. I use Padlet, which is a digital cork board. My ideas seem more intriguing and approachable when they’re scattered all over my screen vs. listed in a spreadsheet—which gives off very un-fun, un-creative vibes. Some of my notes are just a word or two (“cult” or “hermit”). Others are links to articles that have stuck with me. Still others are inspiring books and films. More than once, I’ve combined a handful of these notes to incorporate into one novel. Even if I don’t end up using the ideas, they’re a nice security blanket to prevent myself from staring at a blank page.

6: Start with the easy stuff first.

This is a revisions tip. Often times, a month or more will pass before I receive feedback from my editors on my most recent draft. When I finally do get those notes, the work ahead feels daunting, particularly when I haven’t occupied that world in weeks. If I feel something akin to dread on day 1 of revisions, I go easy on myself by starting with the quickest tasks.

What do I mean by that? It’s a lot simpler to address typos, awkward sentences, clarification issues, and so on than items like “this character feels flat.” If you’re motivated and ready to tackle the bigger issues, go for it! But if you feel like curling up in a ball and abandoning the project altogether, try starting with the smaller stuff. I usually find by the time I fix all of the teeny issues, I’m back in flow and ready to resolve the big ones.