Overcoming Writer's Block
Created | Updated Jun 25, 2009
The founder of h2g2, Douglas Adams, once said that writing was 'Easy - all you have to do is stare at a blank piece of paper until your forehead bleeds'.
He was describing the dreadful curse that is writer's block - a condition that brings great distress to many sensitive souls whose chosen career means they have to do a lot of creative writing. Mr Adams was a chronic sufferer from the condition. Getting work done on schedule was often an impossibility for him. As he put it:
I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by'.
But it's difficult to be that good-humoured about the block if your job, or your success at university, depends upon getting writing done promptly. It can cause severe stress which, in itself, tends to make matters worse.
Writer's block is a particularly unpleasant ailment because it's cumulative. It feeds on itself. You have a piece of writing that must be completed soon. You stare at the blank piece of paper, or the blank computer screen. You can't think of a thing with which to fill that empty space, and you start to feel more and more inadequate, frustrated and panicky. The more anxious you get, the less likely it is that you'll relax enough for the ideas to start flowing.
So how can you overcome this unpleasant condition?
The answer is that there's no definitive answer. Different strategies work for different people. This collaborative entry gathers together some of the various methods of beating the block that have worked for h2g2 Researchers.
Just Write Something...
This seems to be one of the most popular routes out of a creative paralysis. The idea is simply to start to fill that frightening empty space with some sort of something. Your first ideas might not be that great, but the train of thought they begin may lead to something better.
As one Researcher says:
When I have deadlines, I just write anyway. On the subject, maybe asking questions, but I keep on the subject in a journal type mode, until it clicks in. I then delete most of the first few paragraphs, because it's babble! It does seem to click you in, though!
Luckily, most of my writing is now self-generated. I often stop for weeks at a time, until I feel that itch in my head and my hands. Then I sometimes write for days on end, until it's gone again!
Another Researcher suggests approaching the same method, but by a more circuitous route:
As simple as it sounds: get your mind off the topic, and think of other things. Gardening, your third serious relationship, why the horizon is always someplace else when you're trying to reach it. That sort of thing. Listen to music, bake a cake, call a friend.
By the time you've done all that, you will feel alarmed about still not having written anything - and the paper is still due tomorrow.
Well, postpone the writing a little longer! Take a walk outside, count the number of red BMW's driving by (hey, ever seen a red BMW?).
Then sit down and write... something. Not the opening paragraph, maybe not even anything related to what you are supposed to write. Just go ahead. And as you do it, you home in on the actual subject.
And if that doesn't help... get drunk and make an excuse!
Sometimes, if it's the apparent importance of the work you have to do that's causing the problem, then writing something else entirely can get your creative juices flowing. This technique works for one Researcher:
I have a number of stories that I never intend to have published or shown to anyone. I call them my 'self-indulgent' stories. I write them, where I don't have to be embarrassed about bad writing, when I have writer's block. That works pretty well, too!
This Researcher sometimes ends up with two stories instead of one, as a result of an unusually productive form of writer's block:
When I have writer's block, I find that I have different ideas for writing to the story I'm writing. So I write out the story for my new idea, get writer's block on that, then I find that my writer's block for the original story I was writing has disappeared... and I have fresh ideas for that!
I think writer's block comes when another idea comes and smothers your original idea. It's not that you can't think of anything - it's sort of like your imagination sidetracking you on to something easier!
One advanced version of the 'just write anything' technique is 'free association' - just writing whatever comes into your head. The much-missed singer-songwriter Ian Dury1 found it useful, and this Researcher also finds it effective:
Free associate, preferably on paper with what Ian Dury called 'a fast pencil'. Works for me!
Alternatively, you can take a chance on pure chance - simply picking words out of a book. The author William S Burroughs and singer-songwriter David Bowie are just two writers who've used the cut-up technique - cutting words out of a book or newspaper, drawing them out at random, and seeing what interesting combinations emerge.
But, as this Researcher reports, you don't necessarily have to destroy your source material to use this method. You can simply pick words out of a book:
Another method I find useful is a bit of randomness (as in Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect dipping in the bag of letters). You can use anything that comes to hand - a dictionary, a Bible or any other book. It seems to work most of the time.
Have a Cunning Plan
Other writers swear by the virtues of having a plan for the piece of work you're going to do and sticking to it. It might not produce the most spontaneous writing, but for some, it definitely helps to get the job done:
For essay writing, read plenty on the subject well in advance and make notes on what you've read. If any thoughts occur to you while you're reading, jot them down in your notes in a different colour. I use blue pen for making notes on articles and green for jotting my own thoughts. (I think these colours are more gentle and pleasant than black and red.)
Then file these papers away until you need them. The note making will have fixed the gist of the articles in your mind and you'll find that when you are doing activities that require no concentration (eg, travelling on a bus, washing up, hoovering) ideas just pop into your head.
Just make sure you have a notebook to hand to jot these thoughts down. When you finally sit down to write you'll find that you've got nearly all the information and ideas that you need. Use your notes to formulate a plan, then see where the gaps still are.
I think writing is a circular rather than linear process. Ideas evolve from other ideas, reading is suggested by doing other reading. I never sit down and actually write anything formally until the end. By the time I get to actually writing, I have everything I need. It's just a matter of finding the inclination to sit down and write, but once I do I can just write the whole thing in one go and it needs no re-writing, just the grammar and spelling tweaking.
Another Researcher believes in even more rigorous premeditation:
My advice would be to plan what you want to write down to the smallest subheading. Never start with a blank piece of paper - always have notes, plans, and other doodles before you reach that stage. This is something I've learned from hard experience.
And of course, before you can provide answers for your readers, you have to decide what questions you're asking:
For me, writer's block comes from not knowing what I'm going to write about, before I sit down and actually put pen to paper. It helps if you can focus on one or a few key points. It also helps if you have a framework to write to: a set of questions that must be answered and satisfied.
In journalism, you've got the five Ws and the H: who, what, where, when, why and how. You can also use the three Whats: So What, What Happened and What Next.
The Block and the Blues
The relationship between writer's block and depression is a complex one. Lethargy and apathy are among the typical symptoms of depression; so if you're having trouble motivating yourself to write, it may be that your writer's block is just a product of a deeper problem for which you should seek help. Depressed people often suffer from a lack of confidence and low self-esteem, which can obviously make creativity pretty difficult. If you don't like yourself very much, then you're unlikely to have much faith in your writing.
Paradoxically, many distinguished writers and artists have been chronic sufferers from depression. The poet Sylvia Plath, who made great art from anguish so acute that it eventually drove her to suicide, is one extreme example illustrating the way that depression can actually spark creativity.
One Researcher admits:
I find the best stimulation for being able to write is severe depression. Both quality and quantity are easy when in the slough of despond.
For some people, writing is a means of releasing emotional pain, and thus finding relief. A poetic Researcher explains the process like this:
When I write poetry it externalises the emotion. I quite literally cannot feel the emotion again, and I can only touch it by re-reading the poem.
When a poem wants to be written, it bangs on the inside of my skull, demanding to be let out. I was in a relationship last year, and was very aware of the physical aspects of it. I wanted to write a poem, but it just would not let itself be written.
It was not until several months after the relationship was over that I realised that the physical and the emotional were metaphors for each other. Duh! When I did eventually write the poem, it took me seven minutes flat!
Feed your Head
In their classic 1960s hippy anthem 'White Rabbit', Jefferson Airplane advised, 'Remember what the dormouse said/Feed your head'. This was widely interpreted as a call to ingest the kind of illegal chemicals that might well leave you thinking that you'd been getting sound advice from a dormouse - a course of action that a responsible Guide like this one could not possibly advocate.
Nevertheless, there is much to be said for the idea of 'feeding your head'. The right nutrition is necessary for creative health as well as physical health, as this Researcher points out:
Another possibility, perhaps also related to certain types of lethargy and depression, is proper and enhanced nutrition. Certain supplements, such as vitamin B-12 and phenylalanine, and other 'brain foods,' can stimulate creativity quite remarkably.
Some recommend the herbal extract, ginkgo biloba, as an all round 'brain enhancer'. Also, the technique known as 'inversion therapy,' can be useful. This is commonly called, 'doing a headstand'! Basically, it all boils down to what the dormouse said!
However, the same Researcher points out that even the pills you buy from a health food shop can be unhealthy if you overdo it:
Some individuals have pre-existing medical conditions or allergies and may exhibit undesirable side effects from over-enthusiastic dosages of some vitamins - or even herbal teas.
Avoiding the wrong foods and drinks can be just as important as getting the right ones, as this Researcher says:
Another frequent cause of lethargy is milk products. Try cutting them out for a couple of weeks and see if things improve.
Vitamin C is good, too - it's an antioxidant. Echinacea is also good, but shouldn't be taken for long periods, it's more of a short term solution.
And getting a regular quality and quantity of sleep helps. Lots of people suffer from progressive sleep deficiency - it's our lifestyles.
When it comes to dietary supplements, could it be that the traditional British remedy is best?
Have a cup of tea. That is the solution to all problems, especially writer's block.
With a Little Help from your Friends
In very different ways, some Researchers have found that keeping the right company can banish the block. One finds that talking things over helps:
If it's creative writing, discuss the 'situation' you have reached with some friends. They may be able to chip in ideas that can free up the block.
Meanwhile, this Researcher has a more mischievous method of getting inspiration from friends:
I do the literary equivalent of doodling. For example, I might describe my friends as if they were characters in a story - and then laugh about how they would never recognise themselves!
Another Researcher found inspiration when with some quiet types, and suggests:
Go on a silent retreat. I wrote three poems at Christmas when I spent 40 hours in silence with some Buddhists.
This suggestion has the qualified agreement of another Researcher, who advises:
You don't need to go on a silent retreat (although they are good for you). Regular meditation helps the creative process. First thing in the morning works best for me.
On the other hand, maybe the best companion to have when seeking inspiration is a good book - or even a bad one?
One other technique I have found useful is simply to read a good book or article written by someone else.
I imagine reading really terrible literature may also serve as inspiration, from sheer annoyance that such a piece of tripe got published!
Then again, perhaps the best company for writing is your own company. This Researcher has found complete solitude stimulating to the creative process:
Avoid contact with humanity for a week. Lock yourself in your apartment. Eat and drink very little. All alone with yourself and the chaos in your head, you begin to project outwards, like slides on the wall, the pictures therein.
Liberate your cranial cavity of all socializing forces, find freedom in hallucination, and go mad!
Now, we would never actually recommend that you turn to alcohol for inspiration. But it has to be admitted that many writers have done so - sometimes successfully, and sometimes disastrously.
Often, the relaxation brought on by a couple of beers can help the words start to flow along with the beer. But many writers seriously overdo it. Dylan Thomas is just one great wordsmith whose relationship with strong drink might have provided him with some ideas, but also almost certainly shortened his life.
Journalists have a reputation for being serious boozers, and the relentless pressure of deadlines surely has much to do with that. And, of course, what seems like visionary work when you're inebriated can look much less impressive when accompanied by the next morning's hangover. One Researcher confesses:
Actually, that was a technique I utilised as a student. I'd get totally drunk, and then essays and mathematics problem sheets were whisked into the done tray in no time.
Unfortunately they didn't bear up to marking when sober!
If nothing else helps, could it be that all you need is love? A romantic Researcher thinks that's possible:
Sit it out - or, if pressed by a deadline, have sex with your significant other. It helps sometimes...
That last method might not cure your writer's block - but it should certainly take your mind off it!