Ten ways to beat writer’s block

by Tom Albrighton 24 July 2009 Copywriting

1. Take aim before you fire

When words won’t come, it can be because you’re not sure quite what you’re trying to achieve. So instead of writing the actual text, try writing yourself a brief. Set out the purpose of the text, who it’s for, how long it should be, what the tone should be and so on. In particular, think about what you want the audience to do, think or feel when they read it. Even if you’ve been given a brief, there’s almost certainly more you can add to it.

Clarifying exactly what you’re trying to do often gets the words flowing. Or it may be that the content you put into the brief can be recycled into the actual content you use. Either way, you’ve made a start on shaping your ideas without the pressure of writing the thing itself.

2. Don’t start at the beginning

The opening sentences of a piece of writing can be the hardest by far. The stakes are high: you’re looking to summarise your message, get attention and encourage people to read on. But you’ll find it far easier to write the beginning once you’ve completed the rest of the text, so don’t worry about it in the early stages.

If there’s a part of the text that you feel you could write now, go ahead and write it. Sometimes, ideas for later sections of the piece will keep popping into your mind and the only way to get rid of them is to write them down. There’s no need to write the whole thing in order, and the task will seem easier once you’ve made a start.

Writer's block can be frustrating, but there are plenty of ways to break through it

Writer's block can be frustrating, but there are plenty of ways to break through it

3. Take five

Don’t be too hard on yourself. As the saying goes, ‘if you’re in a hole, stop digging’. If you try too hard to write when it’s just not happening, you’ll just produce something inferior that will make you feel even worse. Even in the face of a looming deadline, it’s often worth taking a few minutes to relax and take time out.

What you do in your break is up to you – you might want to have a drink or a snack, go for a short walk, watch TV, listen to music or even meditate. Choose something you enjoy and give yourself enough time to move into a noticeably different frame of mind before you return to your writing. If taking a break is difficult (because you’re at work, say), try moving to an undemanding or repetitive task for a few minutes, like filing or tidying your desk.

4. Sleep on it

Even more powerful than a daytime break is a night’s sleep. Sleeping can have a dramatic impact on your ability to get your thoughts together. Most people find there’s a definite limit on the number of words they can write (or rewrite, or edit) in a single day. The limit can vary from day to day, from two or three thousand when you’re ‘in the zone’ right down to zero. But you know when you’ve reached it and, if you have, don’t push it. Instead, turn in and let your unconscious mind loose on the problem. You might be surprised at how easily the words flow in the morning.

5. Change venue

When you can’t write, your office can feel like a prison cell. It’s hard to have ideas in that kind of atmosphere. So break the spell by simply going somewhere else. Grab a notebook and pen and head off to the countryside, the park, the beach or just a different room. If the words still don’t flow, designate your time away from the desk as a break.

6. Remove distractions

If you’re having a break, have a break. But if you’re writing, write. If you’re using a computer, that means working in a single application, probably Word. In other words, you can close your web browser, email client, instant messenger and anything else that’s likely to break the spell of your concentration. Consider disconnecting or at least ignoring the phone – a call that turns into an hour-long chat will utterly derail your train of thought. It can help to tidy your desk or workspace too, so you feel fully focused on the task at hand.

7. Open the floodgates

It’s almost impossible to get a piece of text right first time. People who write a lot know this, so they just put something – anything – down on paper and then work it into shape like a lump of clay on a potter’s wheel. They know that nobody will ever see their first thoughts, so they just get in there and write. But people who write less, or who rarely write for an audience, can fall prey to ‘stage fright’ – as soon as they write something, they worry that it’s not good enough and delete it, putting themselves back at square one again.

If this is your problem, remind yourself that nobody needs to see your writing until you’re ready. So just let everything flow out – whatever occurs to you. Don’t worry about accuracy, repetition or even relevance – just get something down on paper.

8. Free associate

Sometimes your mind can get stuck in a rut, going over and over the same old ground without turning up anything new. The worry of having to meet a deadline can make this worse. Give your brain a shake by introducing random factors into the thought process. Pick something completely off the wall, and start relating it to your subject. For example, if you’re writing about a product, try comparing it to a sausage, or a monkey, or a lawnmower. This can open up unexpected new perspectives – or, at the very least, lighten up your mood.

9. Get healthy

Many of us work as if our bodies are just machines to keep our minds going – shovelling in any old food as fuel and overdriving the engine with coffee. But the body and the mind are two sides of the same coin. If you treat your body badly, you can’t expect your mind to deliver peak performance.

Caffeine enhances our ability to perform repetitive or mechanical tasks, but tends to impede more creative or logical functions. Lay off the latté and see if that helps – at least until you’ve got a few words down on the page. Avoid eating anything too heavy that will make you feel dull or sleepy, or sugary foods that will give you a rush followed by a sharp fall in energy and mood.

Exercising before starting work can be hugely beneficial. While people’s experiences differ, most find that exercise improves alertness, relaxation and mood (because it releases ‘happy chemicals’ called endorphins into our system). You might also find that new ideas occur to you while you’re exercising. Even a brisk walk round the block can make a difference.

10. Reach out

Finally, if you’re really stuck, don’t suffer in silence. If you can, talk to someone who understands your subject and see if they suggest anything useful. If you’re working for a client, don’t be embarrassed to phone them for more guidance on how to approach the topic. As long as your questions are to the point, they’ll probably be glad to lend a hand (and impressed at your attention to detail). And if you’re not in a position to get subject-specific help from anyone, phone a friend – sometimes, just talking through your problems can take the pressure off and give you the motivation to get going again.