Beating the Block: Five Tips for Overcoming Writer’s Block
Dr. Patricia Huston describes writer’s block as, “a distinctly uncomfortable inability to write.” Every writer feels some resistance when staring down a blank page but some authors experience near paralysis when it comes to writing. Somehow, any writer who has ever written has beaten the block. The good news is that there are ways to make your brain work for you when it comes to writing. Here are some tips to help you get past your own writer’s block.
Anxiety is toxic to creativity. So the more you wait to start a project, the more anxiety you’ll feel about it, and the less creative you’ll be when it is time to write. How do you combat this vicious cycle? Exercise creativity by writing daily. You might choose to write something fun, something you care about, or something you’ll have to submit on a deadline. Creativity works like a muscle. When you exercise muscles, you exhaust them so that they work more efficiently next time. When you practice any kind of creativity, including writing, it gets easier over time. In order for that to happen, creativity – like exercise – has to be habitual. Sometimes, what feels like writer’s block is simply your brains just settling down enough to write. You can expedite that process by training our brains to be creative by setting a clear time and space in which to do that. Do your writing when you feel most awake each day. For some people, that’s first thing in the morning. For others, that’s mid-afternoon. At this time, your brain is fresh and full of good ideas. You also work more efficiently to produce better writing more easily. Block off this time for your writing tasks and watch your ideas take shape on the page. Do this every day and you’ll never again feel that last-minute deadline stress.
Writing anything is really hard work and takes a lot of focus. Focus means reducing the amount of things your brain has to handle for a little bit of time. Whether you’re perfecting a poem, tweaking that plot twist, or rounding out your research paper, you can set yourself up for success by removing distractions during your writing time. Cognitive science tells us that humans are simply not good at multitasking. In fact, every time our brains toggle from task to task, we lose a minimum of five seconds of focus (and we often lose much more time than that). Check your phone 10 times in a twenty-minute period and you’ve lost almost a whole minute (at least) you could have been writing. In order to maximize your writing time and to let your ideas flow freely, remove all distractions from your work time and space. This may mean clearing your desk, turning off your phone, silencing notifications, or all three! I use an app called Self Control to block all Internet activity during my writing time. You can download it for free here.
Embrace the sloppy copy (rough draft)
The truth is there’s nothing scarier than a blank screen or a cursor blinking at you from an empty screen. You’ve got to start somewhere. Revision is far easier than new creation so just get something on the page. There is no expectation that your first draft comes out perfectly – just the opposite! When you begin writing each day, write whatever comes to mind. It can be in bullets, sentence fragments, or pieces of dialog: whatever works to get words on the page. Once you get cranking, you can continue the draft and spend time later on revisions. Bonus tip: start your writing time with five minutes of something fun and pressure-free to get your creative juices flowing. For a list of writing prompts, check out this link.
Small chunks of work
Bill Gates famously said, “Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.” This goes for writing, too. Many of us think that we can knock out that assignment if we had, for example, six hours of uninterrupted time. But you probably don’t have six hours of uninterrupted time anywhere in your schedule. And the truth is, we tend to be less productive and certainly less creative when we do a task for more than about 90 minutes. The solution? Plan small chunks of time over several days or weeks to do your writing tasks. Break your assignment down into several pieces and spend 20 to 40 minutes a day. Piece by piece, you’ll build a better product (with less stress!). I love the Pomodoro timer, which prompts you to work for 20 minutes and then to take a five minute break. There are may apps available but here is the one I use (and here is a web-based option for PC users).
Teamwork makes the dream work
Community is essential to writing. Writing partners serve many purposes: they provide accountability, they suggest new insights, and they might even revise your writing (if you’re really nice to them). Identify someone who has assignments similar to yours or someone who can offer impartial feedback (think parents, writers, and other educators you may know). Choose a date in advance of your deadline, tell that person how much writing you’ll have done, and meet that deadline. Voila! You’ve built in two advantages for yourself: you completed the work (or at least a draft) well before your actual deadline, and you’ll get the benefit of another writer’s input. Get ready to have a thick skin – sometimes writing feedback feels a little painful, but it’s worth it!
Dr. Lauren Bailes is an Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership at the University of Delaware. She teaches Ready, Set, Go! College Writing and Readiness and Writing Research Right: The Research Paper.