Okay, I’ll come clean–I don’t believe in writer’s block. In my fifteen years as a writing tutor, I’ve worked with thousands of student writers, and in my experience, writer’s block is always a sign that one of two things is happening:
- You’re working on the wrong project.
- You’re working on the right project but with the wrong set of tools.
Wrong, in the arts, is a subjective term, and in my view, a method is only wrong if it’s not working for you. And if you’re feeling blocked, I’m sorry, honey—but it ain’t working for you.
Don’t panic yet, though. Either situation is fairly easy to fix—if you have a good coach, mentor, or tutor on hand.
But since that can be hard to come by at just the right moment, let me do the best I can for you over the internet. This post is based on a workshop I taught for years at Shoreline Community College. These strategies are simple tools that I’ve learned from teachers and fellow writers over the years. And now I’m going to pass them on to you.
- Understand the writing process.
It looks a little different for everybody. That’s good. That’s how it should be because your brain is different from mine. But the important takeaway here is that whatever it looks like, it’s probably not going to be linear. Don’t stress about it. Just keep going. To make art is to take the long way around. I know, I know—easier said than done. So what to do next? Brainstorm.
- Clustering or Mindmapping
I’m serious. Every time you feel like crumpling a page into a ball, clicking and dragging your draft to the trash bin on your desktop, or simply whining to your spouse that you’ll never be a writer, hang on there a sec. Before you go jumping off that cliff, try a brainstorming technique. My favorite writing teacher of all time, Robert Ray, swears by clustering. It’s perfect if you’re not the linear type. Take a scene, a chapter, or a blog post—a small chunk of your project—and then mindmap it.
What does that mean? It means free associate. It means jot down every image, word, name, memory, or idea that pops into your head for that scene. You won’t use all of it. That’s okay. Try to limit each item to one to three words. After I finish my cluster, I like to highlight or number the items I’ll actually use.
The next step is to list off those babies in the order you want to use them. Again, this is not a lifetime commitment here. The whole idea is just to get you writing. Once you start writing—or after you do get that scene or chapter down—you’ll change it. Again, remember the process. It’s not your job to nail it on the first try. Your job is to get shit down, as Hemingway might have said. Outlining can get you one step closer to the goal of sentences. And hey, if your brain is more linear, you can even start here when you’re feeling stuck.
- Note Cards
I truly don’t remember where I picked this up. It might have been from Robert McKee’s classic, Story, but it also might have been from Robert Ray’s The Weekend Novelist. Either way, if outlining feels too high-stakes for you, note cards may be the way to go. You can jot down a scene on each card and move them around to find the order that works. On the back, you can add details—like subtext, backstory, objects, setting, character motives and conflict. These are also great prep work before actually sitting down to write the scene. As an anxious, tightly controlled writer myself, I love note cards. I use them for everything. I tack them to walls and ceilings and poster board and rearrange until the world feels perfect. I hope that I look like the mad genius from A Beautiful Mind. Plus, it calms me down. Highly recommended.
Maybe you’re more the freewheeling type, and you’re not anxious or a control freak. You just truly don’t know what’s going to happen next or why the draft isn’t working. This one’s for you, you adrenaline junkies.
Here’s how it works. You take a pen or pencil. You get out some paper. And you write. If you’re a born typist, you type. It really doesn’t matter. What matters is this: You set a timer, and then you don’t stop until the bell goes off. You never, ever stop. You just write all the crazy shit that comes into your head, and you let the shit keep flowing. You stick with it long enough, it gets interesting. Good stuff happens. But you have to get past the first five minutes where you tell yourself this is pointless.
The South Korean novelist, Young-ha Kim, tells his students they have to write like there’s a demon behind them (skip to 12:34 in his TED talk to hear his tips on freewriting). If they stop, the demon catches them. So don’t stop.
If you’re new to this, freewrite about your project or scene for five to ten minutes. If you’ve got your eye on the silver medal, shoot for 20. But if you really want to go for the gold, try 50 minutes. Every Tuesday and Friday afternoon, a group of writers does this at Louisa’s Café and Bakery on Eastlake in Seattle. It pays off. They walk away with scenes, with novel outlines, with good work done. This was a favorite among my students, too. Try it.
- Reverse Outlining
This is for those times when you have a draft, but something in your gut screams out that it just isn’t working. And you don’t know why. So you reverse outline.
This means you go back through your short story or novel or essay, and you list off each scene (or paragraph topic for nonfiction) in order of appearance. Then, you get out your red pen or your green pen or whatever your favorite color is, and you start circling things on the list and crossing them out and moving things around until your gut starts to tell you it’s getting better. Just try things. Pretend like you’re playing chess against yourself, and you get endless do-overs. Because you do. As a writer, this is basically your job description. So if a move didn’t work, strategize another one. It may not work, either. That’s okay. Try again. You’ll never use up all your do-overs. There will still be a surplus on the day you die. Happy thoughts.
- Get Yourself a Reader
If you are a college alumna, you can walk into your Alma Mater’s writing center, ask for a tutor, and get one—if they’re not too booked with current students. For free. I’m not kidding. I was surprised how few alumni took advantage of this at the two colleges where I worked. A few people did. And they were the hardcore writers. The ones writing books who wanted reader response and free critiques from experienced readers. So go find a writing center, take a writing class, make friends with passionate readers and other writers, buddy up to a teacher you admire, or just foist your drafts onto a neighbor or family member.
But you’ve tried on your own and come up short, so go get another pair of eyes. We all have skewed vision when it comes to our own work. So involve other people. Sure, you’ll get a lot of not-so-helpful advice (“But you know what would make it really interesting? If you had a flying squirrel sail in to fight Luke Skywalker and beat him and then destroy the universe with the Death Star”). There’s that, too. But eventually, you will find your dream reader who gives exactly the critique you needed. You’ll know it when you hear it. Otherwise, keep looking. It’s worth the search.
- Talk It Out
I talk to myself. Ralph Ellison talked into a tape recorder. I had students who talked to their cats. All of us learned to speak long before we learned to write. Composing a draft by telling it to our cell phone can feel less effortful. Talking out the problems we sense in a draft can give us insight into solving them. Honestly, as a tutor, the more experienced I became, the more I listened. What most writers need is simply the opportunity to talk about their ideas enough to refine them. So do that. Find a mirror, a cat, a free download of Audacity, or just an empty room—and tell yourself what you think is wrong with the draft and what may or may not fix it. I promise it will get you further than sulking at your desk and telling yourself what an awful failure you are. I promise.
So next time you get stuck, pull out this list of tactics and pick one. Try it. Learn when each strategy works for you and chuck those that don’t. Then, one day soon, you’ll be the writer getting shit down, and when you meet someone who believes they’re blocked, pay it forward. Nothing would make me happier.