Twelve hours before fiction-writing class began, I opened my computer to a measly 300 words and sighed. I had been working for days on this particular short story to no avail — for some reason, the story just wasn’t spilling out of me like usual, and now, on the eve of its due date, I was 1,700 words short. It was my fault, in truth; I had started over three times, hating each draft more than its predecessor, pressing "delete" each time I read it over. I had hit a rut, and this time it was bad. The clock kept ticking, and still. my hands rested prone on the keyboard. It took several hours for my desperation to hit its breaking point — but at 2:00 am that night, I finally steeled my nerves, used one of these nifty strategies, and overcame this terrible bout of writer’s block.
What is writer’s block?
Writer’s block is inevitable. It usually strikes exactly when a deadline looms close, and once it has arrived, it almost always overstays its welcome. Even the most experienced writers have been brought to their knees by writer’s block, stuck staring at the empty page for hours at a time, waiting for inspiration to return. It’s usually caused by a writer’s desire for perfection — when you're striving to produce perfect work, each choice you make feels wrong, and all of a sudden you find yourself overanalyzing and disposing of words before they even make it onto the page.
Tips for conquering writer’s block.
1. Don’t stop writing.
This is, without a doubt, the #1 strategy that I can recommend for combating writer’s block. Here’s how it works: set a timer for 15 minutes, start writing and do not stop. Even if that means typing out the word “um” several times; even if the piece you’re writing transforms into a strongly worded essay about your mother. This activity really, really works to awaken your creativity, and there have actually been several occasions in which I sifted through the lines of garbage I produced during one of these 15-minute periods and found salvageable phrases that went on to make it all the way into final drafts.
2. Skip something.
Often, I realize that the reason why I can’t seem to finish writing a scene is that I am secretly really excited to write the next one. In moments like this, when you're slogging through one section in order to make it to another, it’s okay to allow yourself to part from a chronological process. What I like to do is make a note of what I’m skipping over and what information I need to establish in that scene and then jump right to the scene that I’m really excited to write. This strategy not only helps you actually get some material on the page, but it also helps you realize what that connective tissue will need to look like.
3. Make a change.
Get up and move. Writers are all influenced subconsciously by their environments, so a change of scenery is never a bad idea when you’re feeling stuck. Switch from using your computer to writing by hand, and then back again. If you’re right-handed, try writing with your left. Lie on the ground; stand up while you write. If you’re writing prose, try throwing in a few lines of poetry. Go outside and breathe some fresh air, and then write about the air. Then, delete what you wrote, and feel its freshness rest deep in your lungs as you turn to attack your piece again.
What are good writing topics?
Sometimes, all that’s necessary to access your creativity is a simple trick: you need to fool yourself into writing without overthinking every single word. This task may not sound so easy, but in fact, all you need is 15 minutes to spare and a creative prompt. Yet the question remains: what, exactly, do you write about when you don’t know what to write? Here are some writer's-block-beating prompts that I’ve encountered over the course of my time in classrooms, workshops and alone at my desk, some of which I used on that fateful night at 2:00 am and now pull out whenever I’ve hit a dead-end in my writing.
1. Write about the childhood of one of your characters.
While exploring the backstory of each of your characters—especially the less important ones—you might learn something new about them, and although that content might not explicitly make it into your story, it could affect your characters’ choices.
2. Describe something you can see right now in great detail.
There’s great value in being able to accurately paint a picture for your audience, and there’s no better way to practice that skill than by doing an object study. Dissect your object carefully, and invent its history. How did that stapler get here? Who has held it in their hands? What important documents has it failed to bind together because of a stuck staple?
3. Invent an imaginary friend.
What would your perfect friend look like? What would you do together? How has this imaginary friend changed since you both first met?
4. Write a scene where a character you’re working on meets one of your real-life parents.
Would they get along? Would Mom approve, or would she tell you to never hang out with your character again? How long would that dinner party last?
5. Rewrite a movie clip.
Watch five minutes of a movie, and then try to rewrite the scene without using any dialogue. This task requires you to focus keenly on the characters' gestures; one of the easiest things to forget about in your writing is the sense of the body that is ever-present when you’re watching a film, and this activity can help you focus on retaining that mental image of the body.
6. Write a scene where two of your characters are locked in a cage together.
Using two of the characters in the piece you’re blocked on, write a scene where they are trapped together. How did they get there? How can they get out? How will they work together to accomplish this goal?
7. Describe your favorite place in the world.
This is an exercise designed to help you focus on setting, which is of immense importance when writing both fiction and nonfiction. Try to include more than just visual cues — how does this place make you feel, and how can you transmit that feeling to others?
8. Write a report card for one of your characters.
Does your character excel in math or art? Would a teacher like this character or hate them? Where do they need to improve?
9. Write about a song.
Listen to a song, and let your writing be influenced by it. If you want an extra challenge, don’t use the names of any instruments, and just let the music move you to a place where you think it wants you to go.
10. Write a six-word autobiography.
You might have heard the legend that Ernest Hemingway, when challenged to come up with the shortest possible story, wrote, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Though there’s uncertainty as to whether Hemingway actually said this at all, the six-word story format remains a fascinating activity. Try writing the story of your own life in six words—it’ll have you thinking so carefully about word choice that you’ll feel free and unconstrained when you return to your piece.
11. Write a letter to your role model.
Tell someone you admire exactly why you admire them. Explain how their spirit manifests in their actions. Give examples.
12. Write a letter to someone you’re really pissed off at.
You don’t have to send this letter — just write it. You’ll feel on top of the world after having explained your grievances thoroughly, and you might end up creating some really good fodder for a character’s internal dialogue somewhere along the way.
13. Create a dating profile for one of your characters.
How does your character come off to strangers? What do they want to share, and of what are they ashamed? Also, are they the type of person to include on their profile a picture of themselves holding an enormous fish and grinning or a Snapchat selfie with dog ears? (Would YOU date them?)
14. Describe a recent experience of eating good food. (Or: eat good food, and then describe it.)
Taste is the sense that is most often overlooked in prose because it is the sense with the fewest established adjectives and verbs. Try writing about something delicious and describing it in a new way. Maybe it will help you pay closer attention to describing taste in the rest of your writing.
15. Write about a momentous “first” in your life.
Try writing about your first time moving away from home, first kiss, first kid, etc. without using clichés. Nerves are such a rich writing subject, since they manifest in psychological and physical ways, and for that reason, it's easy to just use old tropes (“My stomach filled with butterflies!”). So, challenge yourself to avoid those easy-to-recognize phrases and describe your emotions in a new way.