Writer's block can be one of the most frustrating experiences in the human condition. There's a pressing need to write something, but you're coming up empty on what to say.
For me, writer's block generally manifests itself in one of two ways:
There are probably other, more subtle ways to describe it too. Either way, you sit and stare at a screen, writing and erasing. (Or if you're a little more old-fashioned, the cliched wads of crumpled up tablet paper litter your work area.) You feel like you may never get out of the slump.
I've been there, and still end up there relatively often. Creativity is a not a straight line. It dips and ebbs based on a lot of external factors. Sometimes we hear something that spurs us to invent a story. Other times, we're stressed about other things and can't get our minds into creative mode.
If you have come here looking for a magic cure for the dreaded block, there is none. But there are ways to work around it. One constant I have found is that if you keep writing, anything at all, you'll find your way again. I know that's advice that's often repeated, but for good reason.
For the first type of block that I personally suffer from, lack of ideas, I usually dip into the well of my memories and just write about something I remember, particularly things I find or found amusing. That was the genesis of my "Randos" blog. I needed to get away from a project because I wasn't being creative in it anymore. The ideas seemed terrible. I needed to do something completely different.
It's worked with varying degrees of success, but I find that I at least feel like I have accomplished something in writing something. Doing the deed itself keeps you in practice, the next idea is almost always just around the corner. Plus, Randos gives me a dumping ground for ideas that can't really be full-blown stories. It allows me to file away those things and clear my mind for the great stuff.
The more troubling block for most people is the second kind, where you are writing and all of the sudden the story starts to develop a mind of its own. You're writing, but it isn't what you want, and you're not sure why.
It's actually easier for me to get out of this kind of block, because the cause is almost always the same: I started in the wrong place in the story.
When you start in the wrong place (either at the beginning or laying out a scene in a larger story), you almost always find yourself in the position of having to set up too much background or you need to jump over large swaths of time to reach the next place.
This is when the writing spirals out of your control. The elements you're trying to add are likely necessary, but probably not in the way that you're trying to do it. Now you have several paragraphs that you hate or you know are flat-out terrible. Walking away doesn't seem to help.
Many people struggle at this point, including myself at times, because it is painful as a writer to scrap something you have already written in favor of something else. But that is almost always what has to happen. You need to attack from a different angle.
It may pain you to wipe out a whole page explaining a scene in favor of a line of dialogue that references the event you're talking about, but it might just be the thing that fixes your story. You know the story in intimate detail, so it's hard for you to let go of parts of it for the sake of your writing. But when you think like a reader would, you might find that your glorious scene is unnecessary exposition that bloats your story without truly advancing it.
To offer an example, you may have a scene where your main character falls out of a tree when he's a kid. You describe branches cracking, bones cracking, the aftermath at the hospital, etc. If the point you're trying to convey is that your character is afraid of heights, you might find yourself blocked when you're done with this flashback.
"I fell out of a tree when I was a kid" explains the same thing, granted without as much detail. But the explanation is enough for most readers to at least understand and rationalize the fear of heights without launching into a flashback from which there is no good transition back.
With either type of writer's block I've described, you're frustrated and need to try something different to fix it. These are ways I have found worked for me in the past, perhaps they will help you too.
There is no doubt that the thing that most separates "good" writers from "bad" ones is consciously thinking about who is reading what they are writing.
Yes, there are rules about grammar, punctuation and spelling that should be followed, but those things have been safely ignored by others who have still found success in writing. Good writers understand how to describe things in such a way as to tap into experiences and feelings we all know, they are aware what people will know or not know and they write accordingly.
Bad writing tends to go off the rails when someone gives little to no thought about who is reading it. A common example I would cite would be in office email, where there is always at least one person (sometimes more) who is terribly ineffective in communicating via written form. These are people who use complex terms or acronyms without the slightest inkling as to whether the reader knows those things. They skip over large gaps of supposed knowledge that the reader might have, or they talk down to them, explaining things in minute detail when it is not necessary.
Bear in mind that this writing often has all the hallmarks of what a non-writer might consider "good": perfect grammar, excellent punctuation, perfect spelling and deft use of adjectives and adverbs in descriptions. But it's not good writing because it did not successfully convey the writer's intention to the reader.
On the flip side, you might see a text from a friend that says: "Its too cold." You first notice the missing apostrophe on "it's". But the meaning of the message isn't lost on you. You know what it's like to be cold, you have a clear picture in your head of what "too cold" looks and feels like. Even with the mistake, it's better writing than the colleague who asks" "Did you happen to see the detailed RQE from corporate?" when you have no idea what the RQE is.
Even when the second writer provides context, such as adding that the contents of the RQE means no one will be getting bonuses this quarter (and you deduce that it might mean "Reported Quarterly Earnings"), you're left to trip over it first then figure out the answer. The second writer didn't understand who was reading their writing, and made an assumption that you knew as much as they did.
I always found it to be a useful exercise to actually imagine someone you know reading what you wrote. When I worked for the newspaper as a reporter, I envisioned my grandparents reading my stories and wrote them in a way that matched their knowledge, vocabulary and need for details. My stories were generally well-received, and I was considered a "good" writer. Taking a few extra moments to imagine an audience usually does mean the difference between writing that's hailed as good versus writing that elicits no opinion or a negative one.
The genesis of the dreaded rejection letter from a publisher or publication tends to be rooted in audience as well. Too many writers make the mistake of not understanding the audience of the publication. The writing may be excellent, but not suited for the publication. The rest of the puzzle, figuring out the whims of the editor who chooses the pieces for publication, is an exercise in targeting an audience too, albeit one that is far more difficult.
It might sound silly, but there is no harm in imagining all the details of the editor as you write and prepare your submission. You should think about what he or she had for breakfast. What is the trip to work like each morning for that editor? Traffic jams? Missed trains? Rude fellow commuters?
You get the idea. The point is that you would probably write differently knowing exactly who is going to read what you've written. There are lots of grumpy people with lousy commutes that drink instant coffee. They're going to like your story. They will hate it if your story is about someone who wakes up cheery, goes straight to the counter at the coffee shop and orders some fancy coffee that takes a barista 15 minutes to make; then hops in their car and drives for 10 minutes into their downtown office where there is ample parking.
If your goal is to write for a large audience, you're going to have to think about the characteristics those people share as part of your audience research. Your plot needs to elicit emotions that people can relate to, and the vocabulary you use needs to match what your readers will easily understand. It might sound like stupid advice or common sense, but ignoring audience happens all day, every day for writers around the world.
For any writer that wants to share with the world has to focus on who will be reading what they write, focusing on audience is the biggest step toward becoming an awesome writer.
At some point during your writing journey, you'll come to realize that you always tend to write the same way. Some people prefer plain language, some like fancy words. Some like short sentences.
This part of the journey usually happens organically. We learn things as we go. We incorporate constructive criticism. We rely on our preferences.
The beauty of writing is that there is no "correct" style. It's open to interpretation. Conventions of spelling, grammar and punctuation can be outright ignored because they simply aren't binding.
My style, I've come to understand, is molded from so many different things. I tend to use simpler language, a product of years of journalism.
I use short paragraphs, something borrowed from the news industry, then kept by me when I realized how much easier it was for me to read a paragraph that had no more than three sentences.
Adjectives are used sparsely in writing, I would rather my sentences just get to the point. In my estimation, you're smart enough to imagine a character's long, curly blonde locks without me describing them in detail. At least part of my aversion to adjectives is rooted in my experiences reading (and largely hating) Charles Dickens.
There's a funny thing about style, though. People come to expect a certain kind of writing from you. No one I know would expect me to write something with flowery language and spot-on grammar. When you read Dickens or Mark Twain, the stories are all different, but there's a thread of commonality to the writing that makes it easy to distinguish.
I think in order to transition from a modest writer into a good one you need to build a style. In today's age of "branding", it's one of the more important elements associated with you, the writer. Good writers can take a tired, beaten story and tell it in a completely new way. It's not unlike a comedian who uses a whiny voice for a specific character they've developed for comedic effect.
Think about your own style. Don't compare it to other, well-known authors. Have you given serious thought to it?
It seems like such a silly thing to regret now, writing a blistering criticism of a college paper submitted by a classmate. I can't even remember her name. I do remember shelling her story with verbal bombs and not offering any worthy ways to improve, and I'm sorry for that.
One of the largest parts of a writer's life is hearing all about what you did wrong in a piece of writing. It's part of the larger attitude of society that looks down on writing as something that is worthy of being a career. I've written about it before, most people think that writing isn't all that difficult, conveying your thoughts onto paper is something almost anyone can do. Therefore, it's fine to heap scorn on those who want to be taken seriously.
Consider me as guilty as the next person. I took an entirely predictable romance story which wasn't poorly written (though it would never be mistaken for polished writing) and tore it to shreds, based almost solely on the sappy romance plot. The girl who has a best friend that's a boy growing up, constantly rejecting him until one day it dawns on her that he's really the one.
I railed against the predictability of the plot, which is the among the least useful criticisms I've ever offered to a fellow writer, and I wasn't kind about how I said it. I didn't learn a lesson from this episode right away, but rather karma took down my name and circled back a few years later.
It is the great misfortune of any writer to find themselves working as a reporter for a small town paper. The pay wasn't great, and it was certainly unequal to how I was treated on a daily basis.
"Nothing but lies in that paper," people would say. "I only buy it for the police blotter and to find out who died." (I did take solace that I wrote both of those things as well.)
If I would ask what things would make the paper better, people were always at a loss. Rarely did that ever even get a response, let alone one that was coherent and reasonable. That's when I finally started understanding the fine art of criticism, both giving and receiving it.
The first thing I would say to any writer who is down on hearing a particular piece of criticism is to consider the source. At least half of the people offering negative feedback are either unqualified or have their own agenda. These are often modeled in the same ambiguous way that people would criticize the newspaper. Just because a reader doesn't personally "like" what is written doesn't immediately make it bad. This was true for sure in my reporting, and still holds true for my other writing.
I categorize this as "choosing the wrong audience". This is what happened to me back in college. Her story wasn't meant for someone like me. If another writer asks for feedback and the writing falls outside your interest zone, you have to get past your own dislike of the plot to analyze the writing. At worst, you should at least help the writer understand what audiences they should be targeting.
You will also occasionally encounter people who are obsessive-compulsive about grammar and structure. A good writer can separate out legitimate things from personal preferences. As someone offering a critique, you also have to take a step back from your own style and try to understand what the writer is trying to accomplish. A character might be using poor grammar as a personality trait (reflecting on being a poor student in their younger years). Someone might like long sentences, conveying different, related thoughts with large blobs of words between periods. Others like short ones.
Criticisms on style or grammar have to be weighed for what they're worth. You might use lousy grammar on purpose, as part of a writing or narration style. Other times, maybe you just plain made a mistake. In offering criticism, it might help to explain why stylistic things don't work in a particular instance, such as a character who wins a grammar bee then celebrates their win with a dangling participle (unless it is for comedic effect.)
Over all, the goal of criticism should be to offer help whether you are meting it out or grudgingly accepting it. Things that don't meet that litmus test should be thrown out. It's ok to ask someone why they reacted negatively to your writing to help you make that judgment. And when you're offering a critique, you should always give care to think about how you would like to be informed of the flaw you're pointing out.
I feel it's important as a writer to learn how to give and take criticism, since it really is such a large part of the profession.