The nightmare begins something like this:
You’re in your groove, typing or scribbling away. The words are flowing beautifully, then, suddenly… nothing. You’ve hit a wall. All momentum vanishes. You can’t focus. You can’t think. Your frustration boils over, and the words are abandoned.
Pretty scary, huh?
Every writer has moments like this. Maybe you’re stumped about what comes next, unsure of how to move forward. Or perhaps your motivation is gone and you can’t make yourself move forward.
Writer’s block is a common complaint. And although some experts say it isn’t real, that it’s just an excuse we give ourselves once the going gets tough, it sure feels real when you’re in the middle of it. And it can be demoralizing. But there are ways out.
Problem 1: Not sure how to proceed
In your nightmare, the woods ahead are dark and scary. There are many paths forward, but it’s impossible to tell which ones lead to “happily ever after” and which ones lead right into a burning building. It’s easier to make no choice at all than to make the wrong one, so you freeze in place. Not good.
So how do you decide which way to go? Look at the writing and planning you’ve already done. If you don’t know where the story is going at all, it may be time to step back and do some big-picture plotting. If you know where you need to go but not how to get there, open a new note and try these techniques:
- Skip ahead. There’s no rule that says you have to write chapters in order. If you’re stuck on one scene but have ideas for a later one, write that instead. You can always fill in the gaps later.
- Think backward. Imagine your story at the next milestone, then walk it back one step at a time. What needs to happen, logically, to get your characters to that point?
- Change your perspective. Write from another character’s point of view, or leave the main narrative and try a flashback.
- Give yourself a prompt. Take one element from what you’ve written so far (like a person, a room, or the town where your story takes place). Write about that in as much detail as you can. Maybe you can use this material later, or maybe not. But it gets you thinking about the story in new ways.
Problem 2: Lack of motivation
Back in nightmare-land, you’re in real peril. It’s not that you’re having problems with the story, it’s that you can’t seem to stay in the writing chair. Life is stressful enough, and the pressures of writing aren’t making things easier.
Before you go over the edge, ask yourself why you’re not motivated:
Do you have story fatigue? If you like the piece you’re working on, but you’re tired of thinking about it, set it aside for a little while and write something else, like a blog post or some flash fiction.
When you come back, think about the story as a whole instead of the little details. Remember that great idea you had at the very beginning? The one that got you started in the first place? Go back there, play with the idea, and get excited about your story all over again.
Are you physically exhausted? Brains are energy hogs, and they need downtime. Set your story aside and go for a walk or get a good night’s sleep. A fresh mind is a productive mind.
No time to write? You surely know all about this one. You’re juggling some combination of work, family, and a dozen hobbies, and every time an email or tweet shows up, the phone chirps, and you just have to look. Sound familiar? You can’t write if you’re distracted. Luckily, there are many ways you can build focus and discipline.
Do you think your writing is bad? This is almost guaranteed to come up at some point on your writing journey. Give your “inner editor” a vacation. You can edit, revise, and improve your writing all you want… after you finish your rough draft. But you can’t fix it if you never write it.
Are you not feeling creative? You’re not alone. Feeling like you’re not creative enough to keep (or even begin) writing is a common struggle. The key is to take the focus off of your block. Here’s two of the more popular ways to work your way through this:
- Indulge in other creative activities—the more fun the better. Visit a gallery or art museum. Go to a concert. Build a Lego kit. Not only will this help remind you of how much you enjoy creativity, you’d be surprised at how easily this starts jarring loose stray ideas.
- Write something—anything—else. Write a haiku or a song lyric about how you don’t feel creative. Help a friend craft a cover letter. Recount a failed high school crush and write a happy ending for it. Using your creative skills on something that has lower stakes is a great way to help you prime the pump.
However it manifests for you, writer’s block is a common and perfectly natural experience. The important thing is not to let those nightmare moments turn into days, weeks, or worse. We hope these suggestions will help you get back on track when the going gets rough.
And when you’re feeling back on track, take a look at our Creative Writing page for tips on how to use Evernote to improve your writing and conquer your writers block.
This post was originally published on November 16, 2017. Updated on November 14, 2022.