Like a really bad cold, writer’s block prevents you from getting your work done, and you have to ride it out, probably in bed, watching TV and sniffling, until it’s over.
I went to a really teeny college with one big requirement: to graduate, we had to do a masters-like thesis. I studied writing and literature, and among other projects, I chose to write a novel. Thus, obtaining my BA hinged on my ability to, you know, actually write the novel. This was in addition to the usual demands of papers, papers, papers. Writer’s block was not an option, so when I felt the symptoms beginning—the boring sentences, the strange word that had no synonym, the plot hole with nothing to cover it—I had to react fast.
Similar to taking vitamin C to get over a cold, there are things you can do to fight writer’s block, and prevent recurrence. When you’re in the throes of it, close that Netflix window and try one (or more) of these:
1. Free write
Open a new document and just go: write about what you’re thinking, write about your surroundings, write about what you’re eating for dinner, or what’d you be eating for dinner in an ideal world (only cheesecake). Don’t overthink it, don’t edit, just go. Eventually, your brain will stumble on or make its way back to your topic or story.
2. Read something inspiring
Maybe a favorite article for your topic, maybe a chapter of a book in your TBR pile, maybe an essay on writing. Anne Lamott’s essay, “Sh*tty First Drafts,” from her book Bird by Bird is my go-to. It’s so comforting to read a seasoned writer telling it like it is: first drafts are sh*tty, no matter who you are and what you’ve written. A quick dose of someone else’s words are often all I need to get inspired, get humbled, and get going again.
3. Change it up
Your main project will take up most of your time, but it helps to have other side projects to work on, too. While writing my novel, I was also working on a video project and multiple critical papers, which allowed me to take a break, chip away at something else, and come back. The key here is coming back: whenever I completely abandoned my book in favor of my papers, I always felt even more blocked the next day. Switch it up for a few hours, exercise a different part of your brain, and then tackle that toughie again.
4. For creative work, use a writing prompt or game
There are so many great prompts or nuggets of inspiration out there: on the interwebz, in books, in toy stores. Try a prompt that can add something to your story, or give yourself a mini vacation from your big piece, and write some shorter pieces for fun. Sometimes you just need a break from your story and characters, to allow yourself to miss them a little.
5. Take a real break
It’s important (but startling) to occasionally emerge from the writing cave, blinking at the outside like, “Where am I?!” My most successful breaks get me away from my computer: going for a walk or a run, meeting a friend for tea, experiencing the world somehow. Again though, when the break is over, I make myself return to write, even if it’s only for a little while.
6. Reward yourself
Writing during a bout of writer’s block is pretty painful, but if you can push through, you’ll feel pretty much like Queen Elsa singing on top of a mountain. Sometimes you need a quicker incentive though, and that’s where positive reinforcement comes in. Set a goal of how many words or minutes or hours of writing you want to get done, and then decide on some sweet victory prizes: a fresh cup of tea or coffee, a snack, some internet/chill time, peeing (yes, I have used getting up to pee as a reward). Or, try writtenkitten, which rewards you with pictures of kittens/puppies/bunnies when you reach your word goals and is kind of the best invention ever. (Make sure to copy and paste your stuff into a document, though. Writtenkitten is amazing, but doesn’t host your work for you.)
And here are a few precautionary exercises to keep writer’s block from starting in the first place:
1. Journaling, with a real pen on real paper
I love my laptop, and clicking away on a keyboard brings me an enormous amount of satisfaction. But I’ve found that regular journaling, slowly writing down my reflections, goals, wants, guilts, keeps my writer-brain in shape. I’ve had stories and ideas pop out while I’m writing (quite dramatically) about the mundane aspects of my real life.
2. Work on your pieces every day
Apple a day, right? When I started writing at least 1,000 words a day, everything changed for me. I didn’t feel so nervous when I sat down with my computer and I wasn’t terrified of opening the document. It became routine to face the horrifying abyss of unwritten words in my head. Write, edit, even work on your character descriptions or take notes for your research. Work on it every day, and writer’s block germs will recognize you as an impenetrable force and flee.
3. Don’t stop at the end
This was some excellent advice from my excellent professors: although it feels satisfying to stop at the end of a section of your paper, blog post, or creative piece, it’s always harder to start at the beginning the next day. Try to end on a good note, when you’re in the middle. This advice is so real: even a few sentences of the next section make my future self thankful when she doesn’t have to start from scratch the next day.
4. Read everything
There are some weeks when I feel like it’s OK to take a break from reading just to focus on my own writing. Such bad logic! Reading and absorbing language is so important. Being awe-inspired by others’ writing makes me antsy, in a good way, and I want to add my voice. I want to express all the ideas bouncing around in my head, set in motion by other people’s brilliant insights and stories. Find some good stuff, and just read, read, read. Let the author’s enthusiasm make you so excited to write, that your writer’s block will hurry past you on its way to plague someone else.
All of this helped me finish my book, and papers, and, you know, graduate. I hope some of these tips can help you the next time you’ve caught writer’s block, or feel it coming on. These techniques continue to help me now that I’m out of school and writing on my own. Of course, there will always be moments, no matter what I do, when I just can’t shake writer’s block. And then I cry in the shower singing “Let It Go” and feel a lot better. While I offer this as my last cure for writer’s block, singing Frozen under a stream of hot water is pretty good for colds, too.
Molly Booth is obsessed with Shakespeare, Joss Whedon, and cats. She works as a social media assistant for both a mental health organization and for Storymatic Studios, the creative writing game company. If you want to see the inside of her soul, you should check out her Tumblr and follow her on Twitter @mollygbooth.