Most of us have read advice on writer’s block. For some, it’s a phrase dirtier than any four-letter word. For other creative geniuses who seemingly never have flow problems, it’s a “myth.”
I like to gripe about a lot of things — complaining can be downright therapeutic for creative minds. But if I feel blocked, I don’t name it writer’s block. Turning the problem on its head and looking at it from a different angle is a mind trick I use in order for me to power through. By doing this, I can apply methods to get around it.
If you’re at a creative dead end, don’t think of it as writer’s block. Think of it as writer’s detour.
It’s all semantics, sure. But as writers, isn’t that the business we’re in? Writer’s block and the phrase I’ve coined writer’s detour might have similar meanings, but as writers, we work to understand and convey subtle shades of meaning through specific word choice.
For me, being blocked emphasizes a stopping point. But a detour means I’ll keep going. I’ll keep working to find another way — an even better way — to write it. Whether we prefer to call it writer’s block, creative constipation, or taking a detour, the point is, we write on.
On the road of storytelling, we sometimes get to a gap without a bridge, an exit that’s closed for construction, or maybe a semi-truck that’s flipped and covered the highway in manure. Here are some of my favorite ways to work through obstacles and get back on the writing journey.
1. Find a different route.
My latest struggle with writer’s detour was at the halfway point of my novel in progress. I was stuck on some plot points that just weren’t working for the big picture. This meant overhauling the middle section of my outline and creating major changes.
Whether you’re an outliner or not, your story will evolve from your original vision as you get the words down.
If you have to remove a character, turn a villain into a good guy, or alter your essay’s original direction by the time you get to the mid-point, do it.
Remember that as you write, you’ll find that some of your original concepts will work. Some won’t. If you have to make big structural changes, don’t be afraid of the extra work or the longer journey — it will be worth it in the end.
2. Tap into your default mode network.
Whether a work in progress has come to a screeching halt or you’re having trouble getting started, sometimes you need new ideas, and you need them now. One trick is going into your default mode network (DMN). Basically, sometimes we get our best ideas when we aren’t actively trying to find them.
Creativity can be an unpredictable little bastard. Sometimes, the harder you try to come up with a creative solution, the farther you push it away.
We’ve all experienced that autopilot phenomenon where something just clicks into place while we are doing other things. Maybe it’s driving home, taking a shower, cleaning the house, or going for a run.
If you are blocked and looking for alternate paths, do something to access your DMN. Doing these activities can put your mind in a sort of wakeful-rest state where it’s free to wander and create.
3. Just write something down.
Maybe you are doing TOO much “writing by not writing” and it’s becoming a vehicle for procrastination. Understand this method will give you a harder time in the editing phase, but that’s okay. At work, I’m often on a deadline that other people’s jobs are depending on. I need to meet it, end of story.
My solution when I’m having a particular struggle with a piece of copy or an article is to just get the draft down. Some of the writing is good, and parts of it are...not, but there’s an overall coherent draft ready for editing.
And I don’t mean writing filler. Don’t fill up a paragraph with BLAH BLAH BLAH. You can do that in the first draft phase, but you don't really have a complete first draft for editing until you fill those BLAHS with something readable.
Fill the holes the best you can do, step away for a day (or for some tight deadlines, ten minutes), and edit from the beginning. There may be a fair amount of rubbish, but rubbish can be polished into something valuable.
4. Mix up your writing routine.
I like to reset my brain by writing in different ways and at different times. This might mean taking your laptop to a coffee shop or a bookstore. Or switching to a notebook and the smoothest pen in the world (we LOVE those pens, don’t we?). Maybe switch to a dictation program and talk your words onto the screen for a bit.
You could also try writing at different times. If you always write in the morning or evening, do the opposite. The change in routine gives you a different point of view from which to approach your story.
5. Listen to a podcast about the business of writing or the writing process.
If I’m ever stuck, it sometimes helps to continue thinking of writing, but in a different way. I love to listen to writing podcasts about things like marketing, growing a readership, publishing, and the writing process. Interviews are great, and listening to successful writers talk about how they navigate the business gives me the motivation to keep going.
6. Read (or listen to) books in your genre or niche.
When I was stuck with certain plot points in my urban fantasy, I would read other stories or listen to audiobooks in the genre. I was at a point where my badass heroine was about to learn what she was and what her powers meant, and the origin story I had previously outlined wasn’t working after writing the first part of the story.
I read to see what other authors did with immortal beings. And I didn’t just look into one story — I scoured bunches. What were their rules? What worked within the bounds of their creative universe? Were immortals born or made? Could they control their powers, or did they come from an outside force? My over-analytical mind questioned every detail it could come up with, and that’s a great way to get lost. That’s when creative research helps me stay grounded.
Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, sometimes the fear of being unoriginal keeps you from moving forward with a story. Don’t be afraid to seek inspiration from themes others have explored and put your own unique spin on it. If you have source material for your article, quote it, credit the author, and give your own view.
7. Have a drink.
I’m certainly not advocating writers should get drunk to find ideas. Don’t take this tip as encouragement to go overboard. But, in my own personal experience, I’ve found that a glass or three of a crisp white wine/IPA/pick your poison sometimes gives me a creative boost. All in moderation, of course.
Will a tumbler of whiskey here and there sometimes give us the confidence to approach the page like Hemingway when we’re blocked? Might a delicious latte get our creative wheels spinning where they weren’t moving at all before? Will a special herbal tea open our creative minds? You tell me…
8. Explore other art forms.
One way to get ideas when you are at a standstill is to dive into some other art.
For me, it’s acting and singing. I’ve just been cast in a musical with a local theater group, and the creative energy there is getting me all hyped up to go home and write.
A few rehearsals a week might cut into my writing time, but I’ve been feeling energized and invigorated and inspired enough to actually write more often than I was before.
Maybe it’s painting a picture or coloring a unicorn with your 4-year-old’s crayons. Maybe it’s crafting miniatures. Maybe it’s signing up for pole dancing classes (one of my ambitions). Maybe you’d rather observe than participate, so go to an awesome concert or play. Delving into another art can reset your brain and help you work through problems in your writing.
9. Take #8 and replace it with physical activity.
Maybe pole dancing or sculpting doesn’t do it for you. Maybe you love being active? Go for a walk or a jog. If you are stuck on a sentence, take a hike. Maybe join a recreational group sport. Sign up with a local volleyball team. The structure and commitment you make to the team will get you out of the house whether you feel like it or not. Also, socializing with your teammates and getting a beer afterward is a nice change of pace from the desk.
Whatever you choose, the point is that not every single second of your free time should be spent writing. Working too much can be detrimental to the creative process. Sometimes we need to decompress, even from our passion.
10. Take a TV or movie break.
Whether it’s in your area of interest or couldn’t be farther from what you write, taking in stories through a different medium can do a lot to spark creativity. Maybe you’re writing a historical romance, but there are some great lines in the new season of Santa Clarita Diet that get your characters talking to you again.
11. Meditate on it.
If there is a roadblock in a piece you are working on or a lack of story ideas in general, sometimes it helps to attack the problem straight on. While tapping into your DMN can be effective, sometimes you have to just put all your mental energy into it and give it a good old think. Listen to music that sets the atmosphere, nature sounds, or silence. Then sit and focus on finding an idea without moving.
It can also be tremendously helpful to talk to another writer or two and see if they have any ideas for your creative block. Get another opinion and then sit on your own and think it through.
You might try one of these methods or come up with your own. Do whatever works for you depending on where you are in your process. One way or another, you’ll find a path that inspires you to keep writing.