Strategies to Try When the Words Just Aren’t Flowing (aka Strategies for Overcoming Writer’s Block)
All of us struggle with the occasional bout of writer’s block. When we’re not feeling inspired or motivated to write, the trick may be to do it anyway. Steven Pressfield, author of The Legend of Bagger Vance among other things, has a great book called The War of Art. I don’t agree with everything he says, but it’s one of the few books that I re-read regularly. It’s essentially the literary equivalent of a swift kick in the ass, and I find myself sifting through it at many of life’s career-related crossroads (when I need a … swift kick in the ass). In the book, Pressfield argues that our only job as writers (or creatives of any type) is to put in the work, day in and day out. What comes of that work is out of our control, but the discipline of doing it is not. “Nothing else matters except sitting down every day and trying,” Pressfield writes. “When we sit down each day and do our work, power concentrates around us. The Muse takes note of our dedication. She approves. We have earned favor in her sight. When we sit down and work, we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. Insights accrete.” In his estimation, inspiration strikes while your butt is in your seat doing your work, not before.
Now, quick note here to say that sometimes when the words and the motivation just aren’t flowing, it may be your body screaming at you to take a break. If that’s the case, take it! Creative work is hard work and your mind and spirit may need some time away. But if your gut is screaming at you to get back to work, these are some strategies for increasing motivation and getting the words flowing again:
1. Free write. Sometimes, all you need to do is prime the pump. Once you write anything, you’ll start to write everything. If you’re a plotter, start by re-typing your outline. If the spirit moves you, add in some extra details or ideas to each of the sections of your outline. If you’re more of a pantser, consider brainstorming possibilities for characterization or specific scenes. And, if all else fails, truly free write. Write anything and everything as it occurs to you. Go full James Joyce here with the stream-of-consciousness. Best case, your free write may flow into writing an actual story. Worst case, you’ll maintain the habit of writing regularly, hone your wordsmithing abilities, and probably work out some inner dilemmas in the process. Which is to say, the “worst case” isn’t bad at all.
2. Start with a scene you’re excited about or feel ready to write. Alternatively, you can start typing character descriptions. If you know what you want to say, but are struggling with how to say it, separate your ideas from your structure. Writing is a challenging task for the brain because it requires us to do many things simultaneously: recall ideas, remember grammar rules, select particular words, organize our ideas into a tidy flow, set aside day-to-day concerns to focus on the story, etc. (I could go on, and I could launch into a whole discussion of writing-related neurological functions, but I will spare you.) If you’re trying to funnel all of that jumble into a nice, clean sentence, it can be paralyzing. So, stop worrying about writing things in order and/or writing them well. If there’s a scene that’s clear in your head, write that first. If you have a character who is particularly vivid in your mind, write a description of them. Putting it all together is a different task for a different day.
3. Dictate aloud. Nothing is quite as scary as a blank screen. So, don’t look at one. If you have a willing family member, ask them to type as you dictate your story aloud. If not (or if you prefer not to let anyone in on the early phases of your process), there are also a number of great dictation software programs. Google Docs, Apple, and Windows all have free offerings. Dictating your story rather than typing it allows you to pace while you work or sit wherever you’re most comfortable. And most importantly, it allows you to toss out ideas—or even start getting your story on the page—without having to worry about the mechanics of spelling, grammar, or punctuation. It’s just you and your ideas.
4. Try writing by hand. Scientific studies suggest that writing by hand can increase your creativity, keep your brain sharp, and calm you down, among many other benefits. You may not want to write an entire manuscript by hand (if you do, please please please invest in a fire-safe box!), but writing by hand when you’re feeling particularly stumped or unmotivated in front of your screen, may be just what the doctor ordered to get you writing again. Writing by hand also makes it easier to avoid digital distractions since it’s just you, a pen, and a notebook.
If you’d prefer a middle ground between pen and keyboard, Apple offers several note-taking apps for the iPad which allow users to write by hand with a stylus, while also having the benefits of a program (no concerns about fires, the ability to move chunks of text around without re-typing, and ease of movement into word processing programs, etc).
5. Make the hurdle to getting started lower. One truism of time management coaching is that the lower the hurdle to initiating a task, the more likely you are to initiate it. So, make the hurdle to start writing as low as possible. This can mean “chunking” the task, or breaking a large job into smaller, more manageable pieces. Or, it can mean writing in short spurts. To break the task of writing into smaller pieces, you can limit the daily word count you’re shooting for or set the goal of writing one scene or a single paragraph. The other option is to start writing in tiny, bite-sized chunks. This can mean using the pomodoro technique, but it doesn’t have to. If twenty-five minutes seems too overwhelming, start with five. Or, try a fifteen-minute pomodoro with a thirty-minute break. Lowering the hurdle to getting started can even mean something as simple as opening the Word doc, adding the page numbers, giving your project a tentative title (I realize this may be easier said than done), or typing in your outline during one session. Whatever it takes to put words on the page so that you don’t have to sit down to a blank screen during your next writing session can be helpful.
6. Plan a set writing time. Instead of trying to do consecutive pomodoros, another option is to write at a set time on consecutive days. In the interest of lowering the hurdle, creating a scheduled, daily writing habit has a four-fold benefit: if you’ve put something onto your schedule, you’ve already made the decision to do it; once something becomes a habit, there’s no daily decision required at all; knowing you only have to write once per day may make it easier to get started; and, writing every day will help you get into the flow of knowing what you just worked on and what the next step is.
Pro tip: connect your scheduled writing time with a well-established habit. Sit down at 9:00 a.m. every day to drink your coffee after the kids leave for school? Plan your thirty-minute writing block for 9:15. Do you exercise every afternoon at 5:00 p.m.? Plan to write at 6:00, after your workout but before your shower. No showering until the writing is done. Your brain will be revved up from the workout and your desire to shower may be motivation enough to get you writing. Gross? Possibly. But also effective. Connecting new tasks to existing habits, makes it more likely you’ll create a new habit.
Try any or all of these to get yourself back in the chair and writing again so the Muse can find you. Or, if all else fails, you can try what one of my brothers recommended—write drunk, edit sober. I'm joking, but it's out there as a possibility. I’ll leave that decision up to you.
Do you have other effective strategies to bust writer’s block? If so, please send them to me here. I’d love to connect!
 Steven Pressfield, The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles (New York: Warner Books, 2002), 108.  Tracey M. Armstrong, “20 Reasons to Write by Hand, According to Science,” Top Education Degrees (2023), https://www.topeducationdegrees.org/proven-reasons-to-write-by-hand/.