Coming Unstuck: Ten tricks to kick writer’s block

Step one: MOOD WALL.

Margot McGovern confronts the Dread Monster Writer’s Block. 

When I tell people I’m a writer the first thing they ask is not the obvious ‘What do you write?’, ‘What have you published?’, ‘Which publication(s) do you write for?’ or even ‘What are you working on?’ (In fact, in my experience, people tend to interpret ‘writer’ as code for ‘frustrated bookshop worker with a god complex’ or similar.) Placing their erroneous assumptions aside for a moment, the question they do ask (in hushed, conspiratorial tones) is almost invariably: ‘Do you ever get writer’s block?’

The answer: no. Never. Regardless of whether I’m tapping out a tweet, email, review or chapter, the instant my fingers make contact with my keyboard the words begin to flow clear and lyrical—an unstoppable torrent of divine inspiration. I don’t even need to do a second draft. I’M JUST THAT GOOD.

Actually, after a few casual conversation with friends much careful research, I’ve found that there are two kinds of writers: those who suffer writer’s block, and those who lie about it. And it’s not just professional writers who fall victim to this crippling scourge. Whether crafting a future Man Booker Prize winner or updating a Facebook status, everyone is, at times, lost for words.

This is incredibly frustrating, especially when, for many of us, writing (in whatever form) is something we love but not something we have the luxury to pursue full time. And yet, more often than not, that precious time we carve out for writing is also the time when the Muse conveniently decides to bugger off.

A conversation with myself at two a.m. this morning when I couldn’t sleep More diligent research has confirmed that, at least for me, writer’s block has three main causes:

  1. The monster in my head. The one who greets me every morning with a cheerful: you suck! And then proceeds to prattle incessantly all day with variations on a theme: no one wants to read your work. People who do read it secretly think it’s shit. But don’t worry, no one is reading it. You’re almost thirty, shouldn’t you be more successful by now? Also, you can’t spell. Or use commas correctly. This inevitably leads to a full- blown existential crisis, frantic Googling of how to apply for med school, the realisation that while being a double doctor would be SERIOUSLY AWESOME (in a completely nerdy way that only people who still use ‘awesome’ without irony will fully appreciate), I’d be up for another decade at university. Also, I faint at the sight of blood/am crap at science so med school is not in any way a feasible option. My professional life is a disaster, etc., etc. Until at some point I’m crying/hyperventilating under my desk and the only way out is to remind myself that it’s all bloody meaningless anyway and we may as well do what makes us happy. Except that I’m an adult, and this is not a particularly adult position to take. Actually, it’s a simplistic view that only someone with a grandiose sense of entitlement and privilege would subscribe to, and what makes me so special? Blah, blah, blah. And so the cycle of anxiety and over thinking continues WITHOUT A WORD BEING WRITTEN.
  2. Lack of coffee (or whisky after nine p.m.)
  3. An off day. We all have them.

If you suffer the same, here’s what I’ve got: 1. Probably requires therapy. 2. You can fix yourself. 3. Is something I can help with. If you’ve stuck with me this far, congratulations! As reward for your loyalty, I shall bequeath you my most reliable writer’s block-busting strategies.

Make a mood board

Yes, I am fully aware that this sounds like something a writer might do in an effort to legitimise hours spent dreamily scrolling through Pinterest as ‘research’. Whatever. Works for me.

Get something, anything, down

Writers who extoll their love of the blank page (So fresh! So clean! What a challenge!) are full of shit. A blank page is white death, and we all know it. Just put some words—any words—on it. I often start with notes. If I’m working on a review, I’ll jot down dot points I want to cover, key quotes to include, etc. If it’s something creative, I’ll start with an outline for the scene: what key action(s) is/are needed, what’s the mood, etc.

Of course, the best way to combat the BLANK ABYSS OF DOOM is to approach each piece of work with a plan.

Give yourself a word count

Make it achievable. I aim for 1,000 words a day. Don’t get up and, more importantly, don’t look back until you’ve reached it. Setting a lowish word count also means that on those rare good days when you are A FREAKING WORD MACHINE you feel extra proud for writing 300% more than you needed to. On those days the doubting monster in your head can SUCK IT. #smallvictories

Work to a deadline

If you’re lucky, an editor has already given you one of these. If not, set one yourself. I find competitions make great deadlines. They’re also a good way to put your work in front of potential publishers and editors. If there’s no pressing need to complete a piece, other priorities will push it aside and it’ll end up languishing half-baked in some forgotten folder on your desktop.

Talk it out

Be careful how you approach this one. Talking to other writers sometimes makes the situation worse—they all appear so productive and successful, not a bad word to be had between them. But often a good natter with fellow creatives is the best way to get your mojo back. You can listen to each other’s problems with a sympathetic ear, help each other work through those issues and generally offer support and inspiration.

Should no other creatives be available, go to the mirror and talk through the problem you’re having with yourself. Yes, you will look crazy, but only the cats will know and sometimes just giving voice to a writing problem can help you find a solution.

Do your research

Sometimes if you’re really stuck it could be because you haven’t done enough groundwork. Usually when I struggle with a book review it’s because I haven’t read the text closely enough. Or if I can’t decide on a clear position to take in an article, I probably haven’t got all the necessary information. Research is your friend. Do as much as you think you’ll need, then double it.

Stay off social media

Yes, you need to have an online presence, but keep your writing time just for writing. Social media is a huge time suck, but more than that, if you’re feeling blocked, scrolling through everyone’s highly-edited, carefully filtered and seemingly oh-so-perfect lives will only make the problem worse.

Run away

Literally. Put on your sneakers and go for a jog, or a walk if jogging? yogging? isn’t really your thing. Exercise provides a wonderful endorphin boost and is a great way to clear your head. It also gives you space to think through problems without the pressure of the blinking cursor. If I’m working on something big, e.g. a novel, I’ll also make a playlist for the work and listen to it while I’m exercising. Bonus tip: take a smart phone or notebook with you: ‘ah ha’ moments have a tendency to strike mid run.

Don’t look back

A number of writers will disagree with this one, but for me a first draft is about getting the ideas down and hitting the word count. Needless to say, my first drafts generally suck. But that’s fine. If you agonise over getting the words perfect before you’ve really figured out where a piece is going a) it’s going to hurt a hell of a lot more when you inevitably have to kill some of those darlings and b) your chances of completing the piece fall considerably. Give yourself permission to keep moving.

Toast the wins

Writing doesn’t offer a lot of instant gratification. It can be months or even years before your work reaches a readership, and by the time a piece is published you’re often so absorbed in another project that you feel disconnected from it. That, or it goes online only to become fodder for some ignorant, arse-bucket trolls. Brilliant. So on days when you feel you’re not getting anywhere, treat yourself to a little ego boost: crack open the brag file, reread a few flattering emails and take stock of your achievements. Remind yourself that, while there’s work to be done, you got this.

That’s it. Sum total of my writer’s block-busting wisdom. If you have more tips, share them in the comments, my friend.

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