At a Loss for Words
It taunts you—that blinking cursor and its insistent on-screen reminder that you are stuck in the mud. That for the better part of a day, you have been laboring just to get a few half-formed screes typed onto the page, only to delete every last word. That the vocabulary vault inside your brain seems to be locked tight and you have clearly lost the key.
Whether you are writing client copy, marketing content, or your first novel, you likely know the mad, skull-squeezing feeling that writer’s block brings. When you’re working on deadline, there is hardly anything worse. Extracting even the most mundane of words from your mind is like pulling teeth. And that blasted blinking cursor underscores how much more white space there is on your screen than written words. It is enough to push a sane person to the brink and cause them to wonder if they had ever been able to string together coherent sentences in the first place.
Writer’s block is indiscriminate and hits us all, at one point or another. But when your job depends on your ability to successfully produce written material that not only conveys meaning, but that people actually want to read, giving up is not an option.
So what to do? Over the years, through desperation and trial-and-error, I have curated an arsenal of tactics to overcome the dreaded writer’s block that work for me. Some days, it just takes one try to get my groove back. Others, I may go through every single strategy on the list before I can get words onto the page. But any one of them beats staring down that blinking cursor on a far too empty page.
Writer’s Resuscitation Kit
This is the single most important thing on my list and it is crucial for productivity, writer’s block or not. Whether I’m sitting at the ergonomically-compliant desk in my home office, or working from a coffee shop (or in the car outside the kids’ school), I force myself to get up and move at regular intervals. Since I have been known to deep dive into wormholes and lose track of time when I’m working, I set the timer on my phone for 60-90 minutes at a time, with 10-15 minutes in-between for me to get off my butt and move.
This practice is even more crucial when I am struggling with writer’s block. Sometimes I need to walk away for an hour, maybe get outside to walk the dog or break a sweat in the gym. Anything that cuts me off from that slow and seething self-loathing I feel when I’m staring at an empty page and a ticking clock. It’s my restart button.
This is both an intervention technique and professional best practice. Project timelines don’t often allow me to stop what I am working on long enough to dive into a the latest page turner, but I have consistently found that I am able to write with more ease and precision when I’m in the middle of a good book. I may only be reading before bed each night, but it seems to reliably keep the word flow in my brain from getting stuck. Writing is a craft that requires constant honing and practice. Reading helps maintain the muscle tone and memory I need to get the job done.
Solve a Puzzle
Although I haven’t quite figured out a way to sit down in the middle of a weekday with the Sunday crossword, I have found that shorter crossword puzzles are a great way to stimulate my vocabulary recall whenever I am drawing blanks. My favorite right now is The New York Times Mini-Puzzle Crossword, which you can download to your smartphone or portable device. You can complete a puzzle in only a few minutes and it is often just the restart I need to get back to work.
Bookmark that Thesaurus
This one is a no-brainer, but I am always surprised at the number of people I talk to who think that relying on any such tool is somehow cheating. I have a browser tab with an online thesaurus open whenever I work. Everyone is guilty of overusing go-to adjectives or favorite turns of phrase, even when you’re in flow and the words are coming easily. I may use the thesaurus like a lifeline when I have a bad case of writer’s block, but it is also an important tool in my editing process and helps me quickly address redundancies.
Sometimes it takes more than just a change of scenery or increased heart rate to get me out of an inarticulate funk. Whenever I hit that hard of a wall, I have a short list of podcasts that have an almost magical power to rip me out of my present state of consciousness and into more creative space. For me, the subject matter is important and popping my earbuds in to listen to just anything won’t help clear my mental cobwebs. It has to be something narrative and brief enough that I’m not tempted to listen too long. The Moth Radio Hour and The Slowdown podcast are my top two these days and they both release new episodes so often that I am never short on fresh and inspiring content.
Just Do It
Finally, you just have to write. Condition yourself to get words on paper, even if they are cringe-worthy. As an editor, it is incredibly difficult for me to remove that hat when I am writing. I want to multitask my way to creative and perfectly clean copy on the very first go round. But this inclination has very often paved the road straight into writer’s block for me. I am not sure if I will ever be cured of the compulsion to edit as a I go, but I am vigilant about silencing it. When I allow myself the freedom to verbally vomit everything that comes to mind—regardless of its style and grammatical accuracy—what turns up is so much more creative and inviting to readers than something I sliced and diced to precision before it even had a chance to become a fully-formed idea. Remember that editing will happen, don’t let it strangle your imagination.