How to turn the tables on writer’s block

Writer’s block can take several different forms. The most common is paralysis at the keyboard. You sit, fingers poised, and practically nothing happens. For days or even weeks at a time.

But writer’s block can present in other ways. For some people, it is the inability to force yourself to sit down at the computer. Everything else—anything else—seems more important. You can always find a reason not to write.

Writer’s block can also show up in conversation. It presents as a pathetic eagerness to discuss your book with anyone willing to listen, whether or not your audience has asked to hear about it.  This is often a substitute for writing.

The fourth most common form of writer’s block is devilishly deceptive. You have no trouble putting words on paper. You turn out page after page of grammatically correct sentences and paragraphs. But when you look at it the next morning, you can see it is nothing more than lifeless, unimaginative babbling—drivel, to use the technical term.

(This, by the way, is how I experience writer’s block. It is not fun.)

Writers’ blogs often talk about this debilitating literary malady. They often suggest solutions. Among the most common: taking a break, going for a walk, eating—or drinking—something, exercising, taking a nap. Etc.

Such techniques are quite useful if you’re momentarily stuck or simply tired, But they’re no more able to fix writer’s block than chicken soup is to cure tuberculosis. They are ineffective, because all of them are based on a misunderstanding of the nature of writers’ block. They assume you’re having a problem with your ideas gland—it’s run out of steam, or it’s on an unauthorized vacation, or it needs some time off.

But writers’ block is NOT a problem with the ideas gland. Your ideas gland is probably as good as it ever was. If you’re suffering from writers’ block, you have a problem with access to the ideas gland. And you can get access to your ideas gland only if you have sufficient juice in your confidence gland. Without confidence, you cannot write, and the more confidence you have, the better you can write. Confidence is to writers as breath is to singers.

What causes a shortfall in confidence? Rumination, frustration, failure to meet your own goals. How can you get it back? As I’ve said, the usual writers’ block remedies—rest, distraction, exercise, etc.—won’t work. A shortfall in confidence can be cured only one way: by accomplishment. Almost any significant personal accomplishment will do, but literary accomplishment is the quickest and most effective cure.

About now, you’ve probably concluded that I’m suggesting the impossible. What can you accomplish—especially in a literary mode—if you have writer’s block? More than you think, it turns out. In fact, much more than you think.

In order of difficulty…

1. Read, not for pleasure (or not just for pleasure), but analytically. Keep track of your emotions as you read and figure out how the writer did that to you. Read a book similar to the one you’re writing and note the similarities (and differences) between the author’s way of handling a scene or solving a problem and your way. Pick up a best-seller and analyze its appeal. Read a classic and figure out why it has endured. Keep on with it until you know you’ve come up with genuinely valuable insights.

2. Research. Get your Google going. Explore your book’s setting and timeline. If your book is set in anything but the present, check out the technological developments of the day, as well as the geopolitical situation. Study the difference in social customs and relationships. Research food, clothing, commerce and anything else that could impinge on your story. You may not use a lot of what you find—you don’t want to write a book that reeks of Googling—but you’ll find an abundance of story and character ideas. Identify them. Make notes.

3.      Work on your outline. Go over it with care, adding useful tidbits and subtracting useless ones. Look for plot holes and fill them. Make sure everything is in the proper order. Unless you’re writing experimental fiction, in which case all bets are off, you can’t tell your reader about C before you’ve told him about B. Check each continuing character’s timeline. They shouldn’t disappear from sight for so long the reader forgets who they are. Polish your outline, but don’t try to do any writing. You’re working on the blueprints here, not the interior decoration. Keep on with this until you feel your outline is significantly more solid than it was before.

4.      Develop your characters.  Got a case of writer’s block you can’t break through? Okay, stop trying. Instead, put your mind to work fleshing out your characters, giving them a back story, developing a distinctive appearance or way of speaking or dressing. Figure out how they related to each other before page one. Don’t try to write this. Single words and short phrases will do. Diagrams are all right too. But don’t stop until you’ve added a couple of layers of depth to your main characters.

You’ll probably be able to think of variations on these ideas that fit into your own writing habits and preferences. Go with them. But don’t try to write again until you have really finished one or more of these tasks, until you genuinely feel a sense of accomplishment. Challenge your determination and your intellect. Ask yourself, “Have I improved my book?” If you can genuinely answer “yes,” you’ve got your writer’s block on the run.

But let’s say that you have a truly severe case of writer’s block. You are unable to tackle any of the literary remedies I’ve suggested here. Well, there are still ways to get out of your writing funk, other methods of rebuilding your confidence.

I know one writer, for instance, who broke through his writer’s block by doing his taxes. After discovering he was going to get a $1200 refund, he opened bookfile1.doc on his computer, stretched his fingers and, like magic, the words began to flow again.

Other tasks can also create a sense of accomplishment: changing the oil, building a shelf unit, chopping wood for the fireplace, correctly hooking up the speakers in your sound system, even cleaning the house. Take on something difficult, even distasteful, but ultimately rewarding or useful. Anything will work as long as you truly feel you have accomplished something useful, as long as you have been productive.

How will you know if you’ve truly put your writer’s block behind you? You’ll be thinking of something else, or perhaps nothing in particular, and you’ll come up with a patch of dialogue you need to put on paper, or the description of a character, or perhaps some action, and you’ll be driven back to the computer because you have work to do. And you’ll take up your work and you’ll do it.

Oh, one last thing: don’t tell yourself you’ve conquered writer’s block forever. It will attack you again. But know this: you’ve beat it before and you can beat it again.








About Harvey Ardman

I’m the author of twenty published books¬ including two spy thrillers, a popular history, and a number of ghost-written biographies, self-help books and similar non-fiction. I’ve also written many TV documentaries for PBS, the Discovery Channel and , A & E. In addition, I've written pieces for Business Week, the Atlantic Monthly and Esquire. I have a MS in journalism from Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and a BS in journalism from Northwestern University. My wife and I live in Maine.
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3 Responses to How to turn the tables on writer’s block

  1. Pingback: Blasting Through Writers’ Block Without Even Trying (Hint: Not Trying is the Key!) « A Writer's Query

  2. Pingback: Bent Wrists Lesson 8: Cure for Writer’s Block | Joy in the Moments

  3. Pingback: Literary Constipation ~ Overcoming Writer’s Block « theinspiredscribe

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