What’s the difference between a professional and an amateur? A professional can do great work even when they don’t feel like it.
It feels like a platitude, but it’s true…but that’s not much help for the days you feel like you can’t write a word. It’s also true that the muse speaks to us in volume (both amount and loudness) one day, and another day it sulks like a cat you wouldn’t let eat your dinner. When your muse isn’t speaking to you, here are a few great techniques for getting the words to flow anyway.
I know, I know. Every time you say “outline” there’s a great disturbance in the force as though millions of pansters cried out and were suddenly silenced. But here’s the thing. Half of writer’s block is getting stuck in a position where you’re not sure what you’re going to write next.
Outlining eliminates that problem. With a good outline, you always know what to write next, so you’re never stuck figuring out what that’s going to be.
But there’s more to it than just outlining helping that symptom. The other thing outlining does is it means you always have something to write. If your outline is just a few paragraphs of notes, outline the individual chapters. If your outline is at the chapter level, but you don’t know what to write for this paragraph, outline the chapter at the paragraph level. Don’t worry about prose, just make the bullet points.
By observing the rule of “write, and if you can’t write, outline” you eliminate the last excuse to not write when you promised yourself you would write. There’s a magic superpower in that, which will help your writing across the board.
2. …the Night Before
Although this technique sometimes gets in the way of what I said about outlining when you’re blocked during your writing time, many writers I’ve worked with find it helps them a lot. It works like this: set two writing sessions for each day.
One writing session happens during your regular day, and it’s when you do your actual writing. The second happens just before bed, and it’s when you outline and plan what you will write the next day. Many writers find that doing so sets the next day’s writing tasks to percolating in their brains. They think about it as they fall asleep, maybe even dream about it.
Come morning, they find they’re excited about getting to the actual writing, a state of mind that never fails to call the muse to heel.
3. Work Out First
Richard Branson famously claimed than 30 minutes of exercise improves energy and focus so much that he gets 2-3 hours of extra work done over the rest of the day. He provided no facts or figures to back it up, but even if he’s exaggerating, a light to moderate workout in the morning helps in several ways:
- It does wake you up and energize you, so you’re at peak performance during your writing time
- It alters the hormone mixture in your brain, which usually improves your mental health while writing
- It improves focus, so you’ll be less likely to accept distractions instead of getting to work
- It lets your mind wander and work on your writing programs while the rest of you is focused on the exercise
There’s another, more complex way this helps, too. Writer’s block can be a downward spiral. It starts with a day of rough writing, from which you emerge feeling like a bad writer. Bad writers don’t deserve to succeed, so the next day you’re more susceptible to writer’s block. You emerge from that session feeling like an even worse writer, and down and down you go.
Getting your workout in, especially early in the morning, increases your sense of self worth. If you’re the kind of person who exercises, you’re the kind of person who deserves to get their writing done, too! It’s strange how consistently we’re wired that way, but strange that works is still useful.
4. Write Something Else
Sometimes, a hiding muse isn’t really a matter of not being able to write. It’s not being able to write a particular thing. We’ll look at some of what that means a few entries later, but for now there’s a simple solution.
Always come to your writing time with an A plan, a B plan, and a C plan. If you can’t write your plan A material, shift immediately to plan B. If that doesn’t work, out comes plan C.
You can combine this with the outlining advice above, making outlining plan B or C, but that’s not the only option. It could be that plan A is writing the next chapter in your book, while plan B is working on the exciting climax, and plan C is revising already written chapters. It might be that plan A is writing the chapters about the protagonist, and plan B is writing the chapters about the antagonist (who you find more interesting anyway).
It can even be that plans A, B, and C are different books you’re working on, or that plan A is working on your book, plan B is working on your blog, and plan C is writing your subscriber newsletter.
Whatever works for you. Just be writing something, and plan for several options so you’re never stuck with nothing to write.
This one’s short, sweet, and sometimes fun. Cuss when you write. I don’t know why, but if your first few sentences include a blue streak of foul language (which you later edit out), it’s easier to start. Once you’ve got your momentum, you’ll find the curse words taper off and you’re back into your regular voice.
I’ve found this same concept applies equally well to getting out of bed and starting my workouts, too.
Pro tip: if you do this for business writing, be absolutely sure to edit very, very carefully before sending it in.
6. Use Placeholders
Sometimes you get slowed down in the middle of a sentence, paragraph, or scene by a particular detail you can’t get right. You know what you’ll write next, but the wording is escaping you for what you’re writing right now.
Fix this by setting up a placeholder. I use “@@”. Put those in with a couple of relevant notes, and move on to what you know to write. For example:
- John drew the pistol and pointed it at her, its @@ (find out which gun and describe) catching his full and undivided attention.
- Mary knew what she would need to do. But first she had to @@ (something about coming to terms with the aunt thing), and do it soon.
- Back in @@( confirm the date), Bangkok suffered its biggest flood of the modern age.
You can also do this with whole sections. For example, I’ve found that I write action scenes better if I’m in a certain mood, and dialogue better if I’m in a different mood. So I’ll often just put @@ — great big fight, and move on with a chapter instead of trying to write the action scene just then.
Once you’ve finished the chapter, section, or book, do a find/replace for your placeholder, then go back and add what you need to add.
7. Change it Up
There’s an old saying: “a change is as good as a rest.” I doubt very seriously that it was originally coined by anybody who works two jobs, but there is some wisdom to it. Especially for writers.
If the muse isn’t coming to you at your desktop, go to the living room with your laptop. If it isn’t coming at your laptop, grab a journal and head to the park. Write outside on the patio, or longhand on a napkin.
Writer’s block is often a matter of subconscious habits and cues. If you’ve had a long run of rough writing time at your desk, you program yourself to expect to have a rough time at your desk in as little as three days. If you go and write someplace else, it bypasses those negative expectations and you start running a new program about writing.
Besides, it’s kind of fun to go out into the world and write. Writing is such a lonely profession most of the time.
8. Find the Problem
One possible cause of having trouble writing is that you shouldn’t be writing what you’re trying to write. Maybe the scene you have in mind is a bad scene for the book, or relies on the protagonist acting out of character without justification, or the pacing is all wrong.
You might not realize these things consciously, but in the back of your mind you might know it. Sometimes the muse won’t come out to play because you’re trying to play the wrong game.
This is usually the culprit if you’ve tried the other things on this list, have no trouble with other parts of your book, but keep feeling blocked whenever you come back to a particular section. Spend time thinking about it until you find the problem…then fix the problem.
9. Quit Mid-Sentence
This is one of my favorite hacks to keep your writing pace moving, and if you read this blog often you’ve probably seen it before. It’s so good, though, that it bears repeating.
When you come to the end of your writing time, resist the temptation to finish the sentence. Just take your hands off the keyboard and walk away.
Here’s why that works.
Half of the trouble with writing is figuring out what the first words you’ll put on the screen are. Once you get that initial sentence down, you’ve established momentum and you’re off and writing! If you finish your sentence the night before, you have to come up with a new sentence. You might even need to start a fresh paragraph or an entire chapter.
But if you break in the middle of a sentence, you know exactly what you’re going to write the next time you sit down. For lots of us, the incomplete sentence has been nagging at our minds all day. Get that sentence down and you’ve already established momentum. The next one usually comes easier.
This is Jedi Mind Trick territory, I know…but try it for a week. You will be amazed.
10. Write in the Morning
After 12 years of writing professionally, I’ve discovered something interesting. Most writers are not morning people…but most professional writers are.
I’m pretty sure that’s because if you want to prioritize something, you need to do it in the morning. For every hour past 8AM you schedule something, you have an hour in which some part of the day can blow up your schedule and make you cancel. Even if that doesn’t happen, writing in the afternoon or later means writing tired. Writing tired is harder than writing fresh.
There’s a second benefit to writing in the morning. If you write in the morning, you have to get up earlier. Getting up earlier is unpleasant for most people. Doing unpleasant things because they help you achieve your goals is a muscle it never hurts to build…and coincidentally a muscle that helps with all aspects of writer’s block.
Legendary Mystery Author Robert B. Parker Once Said…
…in response to being asked about writer’s block. “Has your plumber ever called to say he can’t fix your toilet because he has plumber’s block?”
If you want to make a living as a writer, you need to internalize that. As a professional, it’s your job to churn out the words whether you want to or not. Start by trying the tricks and tips above.