Strategies for Overcoming the Blank Page
No matter how prolific a writer you are, writer’s block is an inevitability we all face from time to time. If you’re like me, you find yourself sitting at your computer, fingers poised over the keyboard, and . . . nothing.
Maybe you don’t know how to start. Or you get stuck and can’t get going again. Or a few words trickle out, but it’s just not quite what you had in mind.
Whatever block you’re facing, I’ve found that these five tricks help me and my writing find our way again almost every single time.
1. Walking Away—or Just Walking
Taking a walk is my go-to solution for writer’s block because it’s the one that works the best the most often. Sometimes I’ve got too many different things floating around in my head—multiple client projects, maybe, or a long list of miscellaneous to-dos to tackle—and my thoughts can’t settle on the writing at hand.
Getting away from my desk helps because I can actually do the thing I’m thinking about (move the laundry, check the mailbox). And sometimes taking my mind off forcing the writing helps me return to the keyboard with fresh eyes and fresh ideas.
Still, I try not to give in to the temptation to walk away too quickly. If I notice that I’m struggling, I’ll make a note of the time. If 15 minutes or more pass and I haven’t managed to get anything down that I feel good about, that’s when I’ll call it quits for a bit.
For a bonus tip, take a page out of Ernest Hemingway’s book and stop in the middle of a sentence when you take a break. It often helps you pick up the momentum a little easier when you come back to your work.
2. Clearing Out the Cobwebs
On Mad Men, Don Draper goes to the movies because he says it “clears out the cobwebs.” He goes to the theater in the middle of the afternoon instead of staying stuck at his desk (was he ever stuck at his desk?).
Like taking a walk, allowing yourself to get lost in a book, movie, or piece of music does wonders for getting your conscious mind off your writing. It can also let your subconscious get to work instead. But, unlike going for a stroll, choosing an immersive creative experience has the added bonus of stoking your creative fires. Inspiration can come from the unlikeliest sources—and visiting other worlds through fiction or excellent filmmaking is often just the ticket.
If you’re not sold, take a lesson from Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, and think of it as an artist’s date. Julia says we all need, from time to time, to refill our creative wells—lest it dry up. So once a week, prioritize taking your inner artist on a date. She calls it “assigned play” and says it doesn’t need to be “artistic,” just something festive or whimsical or out of the ordinary.
Go outside, browse an interesting shop, make a vision board, build a playlist, take a drive. Come back inspired.
3. Starting at the End
A blank page can feel straight-up threatening, and the pressure of needing to start off with a solid beginning can quickly overwhelm. That’s why I often like to start at the end. Whether it’s writing the end-of-page call-to-action for marketing copy or the witty close to an essay—even the final line in an email I’ve been putting off—sometimes it’s just easier to work backward.
If I’m writing digitally (and I almost always am) I’ll often insert several returns or even a whole page break to visually remind myself that I’m merely skipping ahead a little bit and will come back later to fill it in. You’d be surprised how much of a difference this little mental trick can make!
Working this way can also be a nice reminder that writing is almost never a linear process. It’s okay to skip around and put it together like a puzzle as all the pieces come together. There’s no need to force yourself to write anything in the order it will be read, a common hang-up when fighting writer’s block.
4. Streaming Your Consciousness
Let’s take another cue from Julia Cameron with her beloved morning pages process, the practice of writing three pages (long-hand) first thing in the morning. The idea is, like going to the movies or taking a drive, to clear out the cobwebs of your mind. With stream-of-consciousness writing, you build up the habit of writing without editing or censoring along the way.
That’s the same trick you use if you’ve ever found yourself writing your way in to a piece. Often what we really want to say is buried under all the everyday stuff that clutters up our minds, those to-do lists and reminders and conversations with friends or colleagues. It’s once we get through all that junk that we can arrive at the good stuff.
Try it! Just start writing as though you’re narrating your thoughts. “Narrating your thoughts? Or should it be ‘narrating your mind’? Is that something I can Google? I CANNOT forget to buy dishwasher detergent. Maybe this is the year I actually write a book. I should go ahead and sign up for that painting workshop.” See?
You may have to scrap the first 10% (or even the first 90%) of your efforts before you find the words worth saving. But they’ll be there.
5. Changing Your Environment
Sometimes it’s simply a matter of where you’re sitting (or standing or laying down). Changing my environment is most helpful when I’m dealing with one of two situations. First, I might have been sitting in the same spot for way too long and I feel restless about the setting. Or the scenery around me may be much too distracting (whether because I’ve chosen to sit in the living room and Law & Order reruns are playing on a loop or because I’m somewhere new and I feel overly stimulated by the novelty around me.)
Simply turning the position of my chair and laptop 90 degrees can feel refreshing. So can adjusting ambient sounds—whether that’s turning off something distracting or putting on some white noise to fill the silence.
There have been times when I feel like I need to completely overhaul my surroundings or state of mind to feel like I can get into the flow, but most of the time it’s making a small tweak that reignites the process.
Were any of these strategies familiar to you? Do you have another helpful hint for getting through your writer’s block? I’d love to hear from you!