7 Tips for Overcoming Writer’s Block

By Mark Nichol

A would-be teacher was assigned to tutor a boy who was not just reluctant, not just resistant, but actually hostile to reading. The first day, the tutor took the boy aside and asked him to read the first sentence of a book. The boy did so, slowly, haltingly, but he reached the end without much difficulty.

Before he had a chance to throw up his hands and go into his “I can’t read!” act, however, the tutor stopped him, thanked him, and brought him back to his classroom. The next day, the student was permitted to read only two or three sentences before his tutor stopped him. This pattern continued for only a few days before the boy asked to be able to continue reading.

What is this, the chorus-of-angels moment in a mawkish TV movie? No, it’s a true story, and it’s an intriguing idea for writers as well as readers (and the first of these seven tips): If you have writer’s block, sit down and write one sentence. One sentence. Even if you want to keep going. The next time, allow yourself two sentences. The third day, stop after three sentences.

Avoid the urge to leap to an impressive word count right away. Try for 100, 200, then 300 words. Only then, after about a week, should you set a more ambitious goal.

2. Establish a consistent schedule that you fail to keep only in the case of an emergency. You have commitments and responsibilities, certainly, but if you can watch TV or surf online or exercise each day, you can write each day. Do it on your lunch hour or during your commute if you have to, but do it.

3. Commit to achieving a word count, not persevering for a certain amount of time. Try for 500 words, and then ramp up to 1,000 if you feel up to it. Those counts may not seem much, but at those rates, you can write a substantial article or a short story in a week or two, a short nonfiction book in a month, a novel in a season. (Revision is another matter, and another post.) If your writing requires ongoing research, cut the actual word count in half (and do the writing first), or set aside a given number of days a week to just fact finding.

4. Don’t rewrite until you’re done. If your project is a book, give each chapter a single pass but then move on, and don’t review it again until the entire manuscript is done.

5. There’s no law that says you have to write something in the order in which it will be read. Sketch the beginning and the end, whether it’s an essay or a novel, but tackle the parts you’re itching to get to first. But don’t evade troublesome or onerous sections by repeatedly reworking completed portions.

6. Juggle more than one project. If you weary of one article or story or book, give it a rest and run with another one for a while.

7. Remember the only readership that matters: You. Your goal is not to write the greatest article or poem for how-to guide or epic novel ever created. Your goal is to satisfy yourself. Author Toni Morrison once said, “If there’s a book you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” And you must do so because you want to read it. If anybody else does, too, that’s just icing on the cake.

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7 Responses to “7 Tips for Overcoming Writer’s Block”

  • Krissy Brady | Sell Crazy Someplace Else

    What a wonderful and thorough post. I highly agree with all of the tips that you’ve mentioned. I struggled this month at first to finish chapter 4 of my novel (it is my goal to write one chapter per month), and it’s so important when feeling stuck to get your creative energy back little by little; pressuring yourself will only delay you even more. Even just writing “Chapter 4” at the top of the page was a big step for me when I first started. I looked over the reasons why I felt stuck, worked on different areas of the book I was more confident about to keep my mind on the project, and then came back to Chapter 4. I find writing a general outline of what I want to happen in the chapter, even if I’m not sure how to word it yet, and then fleshing it out as I feel inspired really helps too.

  • Samar

    The writer in me rebelled at the idea of stopping after writing one sentence and increasing the count on a day by day basis. But then I realized how brilliant this method actually is!

    We want to do what we’re not allowed to. By stopping ourselves at sentence one, our brain automatically rebels at the idea and want to write more.

    Working on more than one project is a great way to overcome writer’s block too and something freelance writers make good use of. A downside however is that if you’re not enjoying writing a particular piece and like doing another, you never want to come back to the first one and writing it becomes even harder.

  • Rebecca

    I participate in the Creative Copy Challenge to keep my writing ‘juices’ flowing. I write every day and try out different styles, tones, and voices. It’s good to mix it up now and again.

  • Terry A McNeil

    Call it a trick. A simple way. Or just a logical way to tap the creative areas of cognitive space and time. But its a lot of fun.

    First pick any word.

    Turn it into a person.

    Assign charater attributes.

    Define its history.

    Understand its inner feeliings.

    Know its ambitions.

    Its dreams.

    Who are its friends?

    How does it relate to its friends?

    And much more.Too many words to have so much fun with. The result. Boredom cries with discontent in its lonelly village.

    Another one for fun ..

    The heart of destiny trembled when it was confronted by the endless ambitions of knowledge. Destiny understood its fate was already determined by the ruthless traits of knowledge. Such is the sad fate of destiny.

    So wherei s the last universe of ideas? The universes collectvely wonder with fear if their very existence rests solely in the good hands of ideas. I wonder too.

  • Christian

    I like the idea of juggling more then one project. It seems that when I’m most tired or struggling for ideas in a certain topic; I can run like mad in another niche.

  • Ken

    Well said, Mark. I really like Tip. 7: I feel that way.

  • Janalynne Rogers

    #4 was huge for me. I spent so much time re-reading what I had written the day before that by the time I got around to actually writing, I’d be out of time. Trust in what you have written and just keep going. You can revise once the story has been told.

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