30 Ways to Bust Out of Writer’s Block

One thing’s for sure — if you’re going to be a high-earning freelance writer, you can’t spend a lot of time staring at a blank page (or screen). Beating writer’s block is an important skill that can up your earnings. When you can block out a few hours and count on getting your post done in that timeframe, you can book more work and bill more hours in a year.

It’s just simple math. Downtime is deadly to your bottom line.

Because I’ve had staff writing jobs where I absolutely had to turn in several articles every single week, plus Web briefs sometimes every day, I’ve learned how to reliably stick my finger down my figurative throat and spit out my piece, no matter what — come fever, screaming kids, sleepless night, boredom with the topic, or anything else you could name.

Here are 30 different exercises I’ve used to get my piece rolling when it’s not coming to me easily (in no particular order). Some of these relate to writing blog posts, some articles.

  1. Take a bath. Calgon, take me away…to where I can finally think of how to lead my piece.
  2. Take a shower. If you’re not the bath type, this may work for you in much the same way. Water is so relaxing…
  3. Take a walk. This one almost always works for me. I start writing paragraphs in my head and can hardly wait to get back to the keyboard and get them down.
  4. Phone a friend. Use your lifeline, like on those reality game shows. Start telling your friend about what you’re supposed to be writing about. You’ll find you naturally tell them the most important part first, and then the important sub-points. Presto, you have an outline.
  5. Write your favorite part of the story. Don’t be all hung up on writing the lead sentence first. If that’s not coming, write the part you’ve got formed in your head.
  6. Create an “idiot’s outline.” This is a favorite technique of mine. If you’ve got a reported story with a lot of interviews and they’re all swarming around in your head overwhelming you, simply make a list of each source. Then, write the two or three most important points they each made in their interview. Now you know what needs to be in your story, and you can easily pick points to plug in from this list.
  7. Do a headstand. Inverted positions change your perspective, get blood to your head, and give you a nice break.
  8. Write without notes, quotes, or attribution. I learned this one at a Reynolds Center seminar a few years back, and it’s great for reported stories. Simply put all your notes aside and write the story. Leave blanks for people’s names or write what you remember as their quote. Don’t worry about whether you’re getting your facts exactly right. Just write it how you remember it. The idea is to stop leafing through your notes and just get in a writing flow and pour it onto the page. Once you have a first draft, go back and fill in exact names and check quotes for accuracy. And you’re done!
  9. Write the nut graf first. If you’re stumped on the lead (or lede in journo-speak) and are structuring your story to have a few grafs before you hit the nut, just go ahead and write the nut — the paragraph that sums up what the story is going to be about.
  10. Write the ending first. Maybe you just know where you want to end up with the story. So write those few paragraphs down.
  11. Write something else. Get the writing wheels turning any way you can. Write a letter to your mom, a blog post you’ve been wanting to get to, a shopping list.
  12. Free associate about the topic. Free yourself of feeling you have to write the actual piece now and instead do free writing about the topic. One idea: Imagine creating a tag cloud for this post — what key words will you be using? Write those down, and use them as a guide to get started.
  13. Read and highlight your notes. When I feel stumped on a big piece, often just reading through and highlighting everything makes me realize I have great stuff. I get excited about the piece all over again and usually get straight to writing.
  14. Pull out and type the interesting quotes. Maybe you only know for sure one or two fascinating quotes you want to include. Put those down. Then start building around them — what would the source say to lead up to that quote? What would come right after? Pretty soon, you’ve got most of the piece written.
  15. Read what others have written on this topic. Google around and see a bit of what’s already out there. You might find a new resource or two to link to, and the browse also might help you see a new angle you should use to stand out.
  16. Do the technical parts first. If you’re blogging and you’re stuck, go find the photo you want, write the key words and tags, find the links you want to use, code your byline…get the post all set up. If it’s a reported story for a magazine, compile the source list you have to turn in. By the time I do these sort of tasks, I’m usually ready to write — having the technical junk done makes the post or article seem so much more real.
  17. Do a chore you hate. You really won’t write this thing, huh? Do you hate this task more than washing dishes, folding laundry, shoveling snow, or cleaning off the porch? I thought not. A few minutes of scut work will probably send you back to your keyboard.
  18. Play a word game. I think of writing as playing with a word palette. Just start messing around — there are plenty of word games online.
  19. Turn off the radio. Sometimes the extra input is too much and it’s breaking your concentration.
  20. Shut down all other computer programs. Wean yourself off checking Twitter, Facebook, playing Farmville, or whatever is distracting you. No more funsie time for you until the writing is done!
  21. Do something else for 5 minutes. Just five minutes, now. Do some crunches. Make a healthy snack. Make tea. Then, back at it.
  22. Take the 10 minute challenge. Tell yourself the world is going to end in 10 minutes if you don’t start this piece! Then write ANYTHING you can on it, as fast as you can, for 10 minutes. Some people excel in a crunch. In any case, you’ll probably get something usable in there, and then you’re off and writing.
  23. Try bookending. OK, this one is not my technique — it’s from my Webinar co-presenter Anne Wayman at About Freelance Writing. If you’re having trouble getting yourself to focus on writing your post or article, call a friend and make a commitment to them that you will spend the next 20 minutes or half-hour working on it exclusively. Then in a half-hour, you have to call back and report how you did. This creates instant accountability.
  24. Stretch. I like the Wii Fit Yoga program, but pick your own method. Get the kinks out and some blood flowing, feel healthier and oxygenated…and back to work.
  25. Do more research. Sometimes you can’t get started writing because there’s a nagging voice in the back of your head that says you don’t know enough about your topic yet. If so, it’s back to the drawing board — see what else you can learn to build your feeling of competency. Then, proceed.
  26. Get out a pad and pencil. Getting off the keyboard can give you a new perspective and get the writing juices flowing.
  27. Pick a new writing spot. If you’ve got a portable device for writing (or are switching to that pad and pencil) you could try writing in another room of the house, or at a coffeehouse.
  28. Read. Sometimes a few minutes reading reminds us how wonderful it is to create.
  29. Do a writing exercise. A quick writing challenge can get you back in the groove. I recently discovered Creative Copy Challenge — fun stuff there.
  30. Come back later. Sometimes, there’s simply nothing to be done for it. You’re not going to write that article, chapter, or blog post today. In which case, stop torturing yourself and go do something else enjoyable. If at all possible, give it up and come back to it fresh in the morning and you’ll likely be ready to roll.

Got any more writer’s block tips to add? Please leave them in the comments, and let’s keep this list growing!

Congratulations to Meghan Weimer, whose question about how to get commenters off social media and onto her blog wins her a free copy of the Webinar presentation and PDF report for How to Break In and Earn Big as a Freelance Writer. Starting today, folks who missed the event can get access to the presentation for just $19.99.

Photo via stock.xchng user channah

  1. John Soares says:

    Great list here Carol. I’ve used several of them over the course of my career.

    My most important way to beat writer’s block: create a detailed outline of what I want to say. This works for me most of the time.

    If the outline doesn’t work, I’ll usually either do something around the house, like the dishes or vacuuming, or I’ll go outside for a short walk.
    John Soares recently posted..Get Permission to Use Copyrighted Photos

  2. Samar says:

    Great list Carol! I’ve found myself organizing my book shelf or dusting around the house when I can’t seem to find my writing flow.

    Another thing that helps me are mind maps. I dump every thing on a mind map and then drag and drop things till they make sense to me.

    Once an outline is in front of me, it’s easy for me to write.

  3. Carol, I love this list! I recently subscribed to your blog and really appreciate all the effort you spend on sharing your advice and thoughts for writers. =)

    To add to the “10 minute challenge,” it really helps when I set a timer for myself. I don’t let anything distract me when I know I’m counting down to a little break. =)

    Looking forward to reading more!
    Samantha Bangayan recently posted..Juliana- The Movie Peru- 1988

  4. Karen says:

    Great advice. 1, 6 and 12 work well for me, but I’m willing to try 7, just for fun. I definitely don’t do enough headstands these days :)
    Karen recently posted..Running a Freelance Writing Business

  5. This is a great list, Carol… several I’ve tried, some I haven’t. I’m bookmarking the list for a “just in case” resource.

    Numbers 5, 6, 13, and 14 usually work well for me.

    Another approach I’ve been using recently with great success is similar to your #22 – the 10 minute challenge – but what I do is set the kitchen timer for either 20 or 30 minutes. I must write for that amount of time – doesn’t matter whether it’s good or bad. Just write. What ends up happening every time is I get in the flow and when the timer goes off I just re-set it for another 30 or maybe 40 minutes this time. Once the words are down, it’s always easier to edit from that point!

  6. Water is a healer and an ideation propeller! Because most of the kickass ideas are formed while in shower. It has to do with negative ions or such, but I can testify the wonderful qualities especially of warm bubbling water.

    When blocked, I try to work on other assignments. Most of the time, it works like a charm. Reading is worth trying as well.

    Very helpful post, Carol. Thanks for the share.

    -BrownEyed
    Brown Eyed Mystic recently posted..The Biggest Blogging Blooper and How to Avoid It

  7. Jan O'Daniel says:

    Love these! I find it’s best to have a list like this at the ready before I get stuck. Here are two other techniques I use:

    1. Use the cut-and-paste method. Go through your background materials, research, interviews and anything else you have and pick out the most important words, phrases and ideas. Drop them into a Word document. Result? The beginning of your rough draft.

    2. Talk it out. Okay, so you’re stuck putting words on a page. Then don’t. Call a colleague or friend or grab a tape recorder and start talking. Then capture it on the page.
    Jan O’Daniel recently posted..Freelancing is like Wii

  8. Alexis Jenny says:

    Great ideas. It used to help me to take a short drive around the neighborhood (with the dogs) but I stopped because I felt guilty wasting gas. Walking is a good alternative, and also helps circulation. Sometimes it’s the sedentary lifestyle that can get us bogged down.

    Love the photo.
    Alexis Jenny recently posted..An Editing Fiend

  9. Jen L says:

    My favorite advice about overcoming writer’s block came from journalist Tom Hallman. He was the keynote speaker at a Poynter workshop about six years ago, and he stood up in front of all of us eager young journalists and shared this gem:

    “Lower your standards.”

    That’s right. Lower your standards…at first. Just start writing. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It won’t be perfect. And that’s okay. Lower your standards and just start writing something. You can come back later and erase it or revise it or move it or whatever. Just get something down on paper. So maybe you don’t start writing the story from the beginning, either. You can write the third graf now and come back and write the lede in a little while.

    That advice got me through a lot of days when I had to hammer out a 500-word story in an hour to meet a tight deadline. And it helps me now as a freelancer, when I might be tempted to go wander around my house and look at all the books I haven’t read yet or see what’s in the fridge or go out and see if the mail’s here yet or…
    Jen L recently posted..How to be memorable

  10. Juno says:

    Do a chore. Right on! :)

  11. This is definitely the most thorough post I’ve seen about moving on from writer’s block. To expand on the “Find A New Writing Spot” tip, what has helped me in the past is taking my laptop into the livingroom and popping in a movie–usually I try to make it a movie that has a writer as one of the characters for inspiration. This may not work for those who are easily distracted, but if I’m having an off day, I find the background noise to be comforting, and when I start typing out my project it feels more casual, and less like “work.”
    Krissy Brady | Sell Crazy Someplace Else recently posted..Cosmopolitan

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jody Calkins, Samar Owais and samanthaluy, Carol Tice – Writer. Carol Tice – Writer said: 30 Ways to Bust Out of Writer’s Block http://goo.gl/fb/U1y90 [...]

  2. [...] 30 Ways to Bust Out of Writer’s Block — Practical advice from a freelance writer. I love finding lists like this to stash away for inspiration on a “stuck” day. [...]

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