Every writer has felt that moment of overwhelming frustration when staring at a blank page unable to string together words in the perfect order. Even the most notable writers in history have struggled with writer's block from time to time, but there are plenty of methods for conquering this creative slowdown.
Sometimes, it can be as simple as taking time out of your day to write in your pocket journal. Other times, switching from your typical medium can spark inspiration — if you normally write on the computer, you might try picking up a special fountain pen and some paper, for example.
When you’re feeling stuck and unimaginative, test out some of these tips and tricks famous writers have used to overcome their mental blocks.
Writers often put too much pressure on themselves when they feel as though they’re not producing quality work, which can lead to frustration and even stunt creativity and productivity. During these moments, many authors recommend stepping back from the writing itself. Allow your mind to wander away from thoughts of everyday life and the burden of writer’s block.
English author and two-time Booker Prize winner Hilary Mantel practices this very method when she struggles with writing. “If you get stuck, get away from your desk,” she says. “Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.”
A similar strategy comes from award-winning graphic novelist and short story writer Neil Gaiman, who suggests taking this trick even further by putting your writing aside for several days. Do your best to avoid thinking about the work. When you return, he instructs, re-read the piece from the beginning, making plenty of notes and changes along the way.
Writing for pleasure and writing for business are two very different exercises. The words tend to flow onto paper much more easily when a writer is creating for the sake of creating, but the added stress of writing for payment can cause your brain’s writing muscles to tense.
Famed “Of Mice and Men” author John Steinbeck found it easier to imagine writing to someone he knew personally rather than the editor. “It is usual that the moment you write for publication — I mean one of course — one stiffens in exactly the same way one does when one is being photographed. The simplest way to overcome this is to write it to someone, like me. Write it as a letter aimed at one person. This removes the vague terror of addressing the large and faceless audience and it also, you will find, will give a sense of freedom and a lack of self-consciousness,” he said.
For many professional writers, there is nothing more important than ritual. Almost every writer has one, whether it’s using a favorite ballpoint pen, drinking a cup of tea or listening to a certain type of music. Your surroundings are essential to your focus and success as a writer. Toni Morrison advises her students to envision their ideal writing space — what does it look like? Are there sounds? If so, what are they? How are you most comfortably positioned?
While writing at a desk provides a sense of purpose and organization for many people, Mark Twain was known to write in bed along with other famous authors and speakers Edith Wharton, Winston Churchill and George Orwell. If you’re experiencing a lack of imagination, simply changing your surroundings, developing a ritual or making yourself more comfortable can help those ideas to follow more freely.
When you’ve hit a roadblock with your writing, it’s easy to avoid your notebook, computer or tablet. No inspiration means nothing to write, right? But many famous authors actually suggest that you try writing every day, no matter how mundane you may think it is, until ideas finally break through. There are several ways to test out this tip: Research some writing prompts to get started, try doing a timed freewriting exercise or simply sit down and write about anything that comes to mind until you feel as though you’re making progress.
Beloved poet, writer, and civil rights activist Maya Angelou once said that when she’s hit with a severe case of writer's block, she just keeps on writing even if she recognizes its poor quality. “I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.’ And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.’”
Recognized as the New York Times bestselling author of “Help,” “Thanks,” “Wow” and “Bird by Bird,” Anne Lamott also teaches writing classes in the San Francisco Bay Area and has plenty of tips for writer's block. She encourages students to attempt writing 300 words every single day. This short passage can focus on something as boring as what you ate for breakfast or as complex as how the universe was formed — so long as you’re writing every day, your skills and ideas will develop.
Similar to Maya Angelou’s advice to just write, Charles Bukowski once said, “Writing about a writer’s block is better than not writing at all.” Essentially, he was encouraging people to write about whatever comes to mind. Sometimes writers need to purge all their thoughts before they can begin writing the real story. Many authors suggest writing in a journal as a way to clear your mind of everyday distractions. Having a unique journal intended only for your writings is an excellent way to organize thoughts and record prospective ideas. Let go of the pressure to write something groundbreaking and simply allow the words to flow. As Margaret Atwood once said, “If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.”
The most important thing about breaking through writer’s block is to find a process that works for you. Every writer works differently and finds inspiration in different ways. Don’t be afraid to try new things and experiment with strategies — once you find something that works, you’ll be amazed at how well the words flow!
About the author:
Chris Napa serves as the Global E-commerce Experience Manager for A.T. Cross Company, LLC. Chris oversees the customer experience on Cross.com from the Providence, RI headquarters. Before joining A.T. Cross Company, LLC., Chris was the User Experience Lead at FootJoy, part of the initial team that launched their E-commerce site in 2016, and the Ecommerce Project Manager at TaylorMade Golf Company. When not thinking about enhancing customer's online experiences, Chris can be found cycling, golfing, or bowling.