This is a guest article by Edwin Henry. If you want to submit a guest article of your own be sure to read the guest article guidelines.
A lot of people want a magic bullet to either motivate them to start writing for the first time, or a method to get around a mental block. Writers’ Treasure has talked about this before, with Idrees relating his solutions for shaking off stagnation and mixing things up.
There is a romantic idea that inspiration is something that strikes you, and after that light goes off, you’ll dive into your magnum opus and come out the other side with a complete work. The reality is, writing takes work, and if you’re blocked, it feels like that work is impossible to follow through with.
That paralysis can really jam up your creative track and make you struggle to get even a couple of words out onto a page. Especially if you have an inkling of what you want to talk about, but feel kind of stuck on how to achieve it.
Here are the things that have and continue to help me. Some of them are based on when I first started writing, when blocks are powerful things because self-doubt is hard to counter because you may be lacking evidence to dissolve it.
1. Write smaller.
This was a big one. I don’t mean “only write five hundred words a day,” either. That’s part of a routine for later, when you’re unblocked. Set small project goals. I prefer to use word counts over pages, because its concrete and doesn’t lose meaning depending on the medium. If you switch to pen and paper, word counts will translate while pages won’t.
Instead of feeling trapped because you’re unsure of how to get from the first page of your masterpiece to the last, take a step back and begin a smaller project. I like 3000 words. If you’re just starting, this will be daunting, but not impossible. If you’re getting back into practice, it’s good for keeping your form tight and easy to revise.
2. Evaluate and Reflect.
This is easier when you’re writing smaller. You might not realize you have problems wrapping stories up if you are always trying to attack behemoths.
As Idrees said in a previous article, take a look at why you are not very excited about your writing at the moment. Is the scene boring? Are characters not doing what you want them to do? You’re in control. It’s easy to lose that feeling of power when you get really swept away in a story, so when characters start acting out of sorts or the action is lagging, start cutting. If you’re bored writing it, readers will be bored reading it. Cuts are your friend.
3000 words is a healthy chunk. You are pressured to jump into the action as soon as possible, and it makes reviewing technique easier later. Find your problem areas: is it grammar, sentence construction, pacing issues with dialogue and action? Focus on one at a time per piece. You’ll be surprised what you learn or overcome.
“This is an area we often gloss over in our busy, harried work lives… Resist running to the answer. See what it generates.”
Analysis and revision is the key to any successful poem, book, or play. If you want to improve as an artist or a person, you have to reflect. Like Piotrowski says, you might not always have the answers, but that doesn’t mean the questions aren’t important.
3. Set a time limit and stop
This is a final kind of technique that can help if you’re jammed up. This is an extension of the idea of stopping a thought mid sentence when you finish your writing for the day. When you come back, you’ll see the half-finished sentence or paragraph and feel kick-started to dive into the work.
Similarly, set a timer or word limit. This is different than a goal, and here’s why: instead of struggling to reach your goal and feeling bad when you don’t make it, you set a limit instead and force yourself to stop when you hit it. You’re saying to yourself, “I’m deciding to stop right now.” You don’t want to burn yourself out by breaking through your block, writing 10,000 words, and feeling jammed up again.
If you’ve ever found yourself stuck in a rut, what helped you climb out? Did you stop writing, and for how long? Just remember, the difference between a writing problem that everyone struggles with and a writer problem is one has a paragraph on the page. Make your writer problems into writing problems. Just transferring the mental load can help.