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On Writing

Breaking Writer’s Block

Writer’s block. Arguably one of the greatest banes of a writer’s life. It doesn’t care what kind of a writer you are, how many books or articles or whatever you’ve written. It doesn’t care how long you’ve been practicing your craft. It lurks in the shadows for the right moment to strike.

Personally, writer’s block has taken many forms for me, but the main form I’m going to address is the one everyone generally thinks of first: plotting block.

This form of writer’s block surfaces as “What do I write next?” or “I don’t know what happens to draw these plots together” or similar daunting thoughts. I feel like writers tend to get too scared of these questions…partly because I am one of them.

But the more I’ve worked on my writing, done research, gone to classes, attended conferences, and just written, the more I’ve realized that while writer’s block is very scary, daunting, and makes me want to drop my pen and head for the hills, it is not insurmountable.

Just like any barrier, there are ways to get over it. Or around it. Or even underneath it. You just have to be willing to work and get a little creative on your approach.

Strategies for Breaking Writer’s Block

Strategy 1: Change Your Writing Medium

This is one of the easiest, low-barrier-of-entry things you can do to give yourself a leg up on writer’s block. I’ve found that if I’m struggling to produce words or get a scene correct, I need to change the way I’m writing.

For example, if you usually do your writing on the computer with a word processor, try switching to your phone or other mobile device. Another option would be to pull out a pen and paper and pound out your scene that way. 

Changing around your method of writing works because it indicates to your brain a switch in permissible quality. Things written on a computer feel like they should be more polished, whereas writing on a phone lets your brain lower the quality of material output. My all-time favorite method is the pen and paper because it gives me freedom to get messy and make mistakes (thanks Ms Frizzle!).

Strategy 2: Write It Wrong and Keep Going

Much like “gutting it out,” this strategy works a bit like sheer willpower. I got the idea for this from Brandon Sanderson’s 2011 National Novel Writing Month pep talk. He says, “Soldiering on anyway can often solve each of these problems. I have a lot of personal experience with this. I often have to write something poorly before I can write it well. I go through a scene once, knowing that I’m doing it wrong—but searching for the answers, exploring the story, as I actually write. I don’t break momentum that way, and I find that once I’m done, nine times out of ten I’ve figured out how to fix the problem. I can toss aside that poorly written scene and try again, this time doing it right…If you find yourself doing the scene over and over, however, stop and just move forward. You may not be able to fix the problem until you’ve worked out the next ten chapters.“

I gave this a shot when I was struggling about the second week into National Novel Writing Month last year. It was so encouraging to think the problems I had or the ideas that didn’t feel quite right at the time could be fixed and that they didn’t need to be fixed right away (turns out that is what second drafts are for!). By remembering this, it can give you enough momentum, or at least permission to be wrong, to help you get over the block and make progress regardless.

Strategy 3: Decision Trees

I discovered this technique worked great as I was trying to decide between a few different ideas and I wasn’t sure which idea would move the story along in the way I needed it to. I pulled out my writing notebook, wrote out the scenarios that I was deciding between along the top, separated them with vertical lines, and then wrote a flow chart showing what would happen in the story moving forward. What I discovered was shocking.

Each tree had a super different flow of events, and I could tell just by looking at them which made more sense for my characters and felt like the most natural occurrence for the plot flow (bonus lesson here, guys: never underestimate your writerly intuition).

Story Decision Tree Diagram

Try this for yourself. Give yourself a full sheet of paper and start writing out possibilities that your story could take. They can be as wild as you would like. Then start writing out a flow chart of what would happen for each of them. Once you are done, take a look at them all side by side and figure out which makes the most sense for your story and then roll with it. 

Strategy 4: “What If?” Brainstorm

Just a few weeks ago while reviewing my notes, I found this little beaut hiding in the beginning pages of my notebook: 

Idea Brainstorm Diagram

While I was trying to figure out what the future of this book held, I threw together a “what if” brainstorm of all the ideas that hit my brain to help me get some clarity and direction. The result was awesome, even though most of the ideas I wrote down I have since trashed. But the exercise triggered a waterfall of ideas that I was able to use in my story. 

This works because it is like priming the pump. You gotta get the ideas flowing, including the bad ideas or the wrong ideas, before your brain starts digging deeper and giving you the goods.

Strategy 5: Reverse Engineering

I learned about reverse engineering at the Life, the Universe, and Everything writing conference this past February. The idea behind it is to help you figure out where you went wrong and hopefully, in the process, give you a leg up on what is supposed to happen next in your story.

For me, this manifests as I grind to a stop during my drafting session with the feeling I wrote myself into a corner and the characters are acting, well, out of character. The trick is to retrace your steps through what you wrote back to the last place where your writing felt natural and flowed. Then, highlight everything back to that point and delete it. 

Yep. Just delete it. 

If you’re really attached to it, you could send your work to a different document, but clearing all that work out helps you get a fresh start and write something better that feels more correct. Every time I have done this, I have found myself better able to get into the flow of the story and the ideas came so much clearer and better.

Now I’m interested in hearing from you! What strategies have you used to help yourself overcome writer’s block? Let me know in the comments section below!

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