Friday, June 17, 2011

Banishing Writer's Block: 7 Tips to Get Unstuck

Image via Microsoft Office
What Marvel Comics used to call the "Dreaded Deadline Doom" has descended upon me. It's Friday morning, and I'm bereft of content (which sounds I need a high-fiber diet or something).

I could blame it on having to grade 26 freshman comp papers (plus 14 more to go) this week, on having to make other deadlines for writing groups, or on general summer lethargy, but I won't. Instead, I'll direct you to one of my "greatest hits".

This article originally appeared at Banishing Writer's Block: Tips on How to Get Unstuck |

Writer's block can come on suddenly or slowly, and it's never pretty. Yet writers can get unstuck by following a few simple and daring steps.

A writer sails through her story. She has a clever idea, an exciting build-up, and a character who is going to set the world on fire. Then, midway through the first draft she realizes something: She has no idea what happens next.
She scurries back to her outline and reads what she had planned to happen. It sounded good when she wrote it, but now it reads like a kindergartener's plot! What was she thinking? Who told her that she could write in the first place? Maybe she should just throw it all out and start over. Maybe she should just throw it out, period.

If you find yourself assaulted by such thoughts, first realize that you are not alone. All writers have to deal with writer’s block sooner or later. Writer’s block—that feeling of suddenly reaching a dead end in the middle of your story—usually comes when the writer has expectations of himself that are too high, or expectations of the story that are not well thought out. Sometimes it comes from fear—the fear that one misstep will send the story plunging into a creative abyss.

If you find yourself getting stuck, here are a few suggestions to help stay the course: 


Take a Short Break

1. Go for a walk. Getting fresh air and physical exercise helps me feel better and makes it easier to tackle a writring problem with gusto.

2. Put the project aside for a few days. Getting away from the project can yield a fresh perspective on it. The only catch is that you have to come back to the project at some point. Having a "resume date" can make sure that the project isn't shelved indefinitely.

3. Discuss the problem with other writers. Sometimes, talking the problem out will help you arrive at a solution, and the perspective of other writers can provide a new slant on the story. One word of caution: Other writers may try to solve your problem for you or offer solutions based on how they would write the story. This is well and good, but understand that you are not asking fellow professionals for advice. You are merely using them as a sounding board (which may sound mercenary, but it's not. We all need a sounding board from time to time. They're usually called friends). When unsolicited advice is offered, listen politely but reserve all creative decisions for yourself.

Use Short, Crappy Writing (On Purpose)

4. Break the problem down into smaller problems. Writer Anne Lamott said that a writer needs two things to begin, one of which is a short first assignment. You can shorten your task by breaking the story down into acts and then into scenes. Focus on what must happen in each scene and how each scene contributes to the overall story. (Hint: If a scene can be removed without damaging the overall story, it should be removed.) You can do the same with your characters. Ask yourself how each character contributes to the overall story. (Hint: If a character doesn't make a significant contribution . . . well, astute writers can guess the rest.)

5. Write a crappy draft. The other thing a writer needs, according to Lamott, is a crappy first draft. (Well, she didn’t write “crappy," but this is an all-ages website.) This will be a draft that no one will see but you, and nothing is set in stone until the final draft is written (and sometimes not even then). Giving yourself permission to write badly liberates you from the fear of failure.

6. Skip the troubling section and come back to it later. Who says that every scene has to be written in sequence? Films are not shot in sequence. Comics artists often draw later parts of a script first. Writers can do the same.

7. Kill the main character! Again, nothing is set in stone. But by doing the unexpected, you can make the story exciting for yourself again. Back in the 1980s, DC's Suicide Squad comic book suddenly became much more interesting when central character Rick Flagg was killed off and replaced by secondary character Amanda Waller.

Whatever the cause, writer's block can be an opportunity to examine your story in greater depth, decide what is really important to it, and weed out the deadwood.

Above all, don't give up.

How do you deal with writer's block?

Lamott, Ann. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. New York: Pantheon, 1995.


Kristi's Book Nook said...

This is great information. When I get blocked I stand out on my balcony and catch a breeze.

Greg Gildersleeve said...

Sounds like a winner, Kristi. Fresh air can do a lot to get creativity flowing again.

Miss Good on Paper said...

Great tips about writer's block, if you believe in that kind of thing. =)

I'm also a comp teacher and I'm excited to find your blog.

-Miss GOP (your newest follower)

Greg Gildersleeve said...

Welcome, Miss GOP. Glad you liked the tips.

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