Wednesday, May 14, 2008

How to Overcome Writer’s Block

The Writing Life: How to Overcome Writer’s Block

by JJ Murphy

What do you do when the muse abandons you? How do you cope with the blank page? Writers, like all artists, get stuck from time to time. Here are a few techniques that will help you negotiate past the obstacles in your writing path:

1. What’s the problem? If you can identify the source of your anxiety, you will have a better chance of finding the right solution. You may be attempting to write in a new genre, shape your piece for a new audience, rewrite a piece because you have learned new information, or have ambivalent feelings about your subject matter.

2. Ask questions. If you are dealing with new material or a new editor, you may need to ask questions about the most important information for your readers. You may need to copy or transcribe interview notes, re-read the work of experts or find a mentor. If you know why you are writing the piece and can envision your reader’s expectations, you narrow the focus of what may have appeared to be a broad topic.

3. Seek out examples of successful writing. If you are attempting an essay, a short story or brochure content, read well-written essays, short stories, or brochures. What makes you keep reading? Try making an outline to see how the piece is organized. Plagiarism is never acceptable, but some writers transcribe or copy pieces to develop a more visceral sense of the rhythm, pace, tone or other elements that distinguish a compelling written work from an ordinary piece.

4. Invite your muse to join you. Sometimes you need to switch from computer screen to colored index cards or from keyboard to markers. Scramble your sentences, play a word game, write a nonsense piece, change from third person to first person - do whatever it takes for you to feel like writing is fun. For me, taking a long hike with my notebook and pen often gets me unstuck. A sentence or concept suddenly “snaps into place” when I move and breathe rhythmically.

5. Pace yourself. A brainstorming or freewriting session is often an effective way to capture your passion. Get everything written, then let the piece rest. Return at a later date and read what you have written, noting the most compelling ideas or language. Some writers stop writing mid-sentence to give them a place to start after taking a break. Unless you are under an extreme deadline, let time pass between each draft. You need time to shape and organize your ideas.

6. Set mini-goals or deadlines. If you have a well-run critique group, test your draft before submitting it to an editor, client or instructor. Do your readers follow your arguments? Are you able to add or delete information to help shape your writing? Give yourself time to draft, edit, rewrite and revise from the time you accept the assignment until the time you have to submit the work.

7. Change is constant. If you write regularly, you will get stuck sometimes and you will flow effortlessly sometimes. Accepting that writing is a process, like breathing and eating. No two days will be the same. Sameness leads to boredom. If you are bored, your readers will be bored. You don’t need to cave in or give up when you get stuck, you just need an accessible Plan B, Plan C or other way to get past the obstacle.

8. Checks and balances. Are you reaching your goals? Have your goals changed? Keep a log of your typical day. Do your actions carry you toward your goals or are they distractions? Which writers typify success to you? How do they use their time? Are you willing to make changes in your day/week/month to reach your goals?

Writers are compelled to write. Noticing stale writing or mistakes gives you a chance to think outside the box. Sometimes the only real block is how you think. Instead of telling yourself that you’re worthless, give yourself a pat on the back for noticing what is not working and let yourself try again.

JJ Murphy is a nature writer, blogging hiker, locavore curriculum creator and tree-hugger currently based in Harriman, NY. Visit for more information on JJ's writing services and her favorite places for gear and supplies.

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