Getting Unstuck

There will be times in your writing where you’ll be a little stuck. Maybe your outline is perfectly fine, but there’s a little catch in it somewhere where you just can’t express the idea correctly. You’re sitting there, mouth half-open, and you’re staring at the screen, waiting for your fingers to move, and they’re not moving.

This is Writer’s Block, and it happens to everyone.

There is no catch-all solution for writer’s block; like the common cold, it comes and goes. Also like the common cold, it’s annoying, and you have to address it, but there are plenty of things you can do about it, and it’s never too big a deal by the end.

The solution is not to beat yourself up or just “push harder” at what you’re doing. Did you ever notice that when you’re congested, blowing your nose harder makes you feel worse? When you get a cold, you have to stop, switch gears a bit, address the problem, and then go about your life. Maybe you go buy your favorite cough drops, zinc swabs, and Vitamin C tablets; maybe you put on a heating pad and a pot of tea; maybe you whip out nasal spray or a Neti pot. Whatever you do, you do because it helps you feel better and start to move past the cold. Likewise, there are some mental strategies to push through writer’s block.

They all take some form of “playing with the page,” of changing your approach from “just write” to “work out this problem.” Look through these strategies, try a few if you get stuck, and figure out what your best remedies are.

Pretend it’s a puzzle like any other puzzle. If you frequent Sudoku puzzles or crosswords, you know that “stuck” feeling. But, as you know, rarely do you sit there and beat your head against the desk for more than a couple minutes on a single problem.

For Sudoku, people tend to examine the problem from one angle at a time, that is, by rows or columns or boxes. If you’re stuck in Sudoku, it helps to switch gears and look somewhere else in the puzzle or focus on boxes instead of columns. For crosswords, it’s usually helpful to do one of two things. Either you go somewhere else in the puzzle to try and generate more letters, or you rethink the clue you’re stuck on. Maybe you should be thinking of a noun, and not a verb, for the answer. In all cases, you have to rethink your thinking. Maybe you shouldn’t be trying to think about it this way, but you should be thinking about it some other way.

Use stream of consciousness. Rethinking and evasion are complementary strategies. If something is getting in your way, you take two steps to the right. Not only does that mean you can see around it now, but it also means that you can just keep walking past it if you wish.

“Stream of consciousness” just means that you write exactly what you’re thinking, moment by moment. It’s a highly spontaneous strategy, and as such, you have to be willing to accept that you’re creating a lot of filler as you write. That’s okay. Editing later will be easier. The idea here is that as long as the idea is in there somewhere, you can just sling everything around and you’ll then be able to find what you’re looking for.

It’s akin to looking for Tic-Tacs in your purse. You know they’re in there somewhere, and after a minute of looking, you just say “to hell with it” and dump the contents of your purse onto the table. Sure, you have to put everything back, but you found the Tic-Tacs, didn’t you?

Conjure up your best friend, colleague, or confidante. This is the person to whom you can say anything, and he or she just listen. Explain to this person where you’re stuck. Imagine this person sitting there, eyes on you, nodding along.

You say you’re stuck.

“All right. What are you trying to say?”

Well, I’m here in the chapter and idea, and the next step is like so, but I don’t know how to bridge the ideas, or how to put it right.

“Explain it to me.”

OK. It’s like this. After you’ve finished these steps in my plan, you have to—

“Stop. Whatever you’re about to say to me, write it down.”

And so you do.

It’s the combination of friendliness (you’re not intimidated or put off by this person) and directness (they ask you point-blank, “what are you trying to say?”) that can help coax out the idea. Sometimes, the antidote to writer’s block is a little bit of company.

You can probably manage by imagining them there, but we won’t discourage you from actually giving them a call if it helps you.

Stimulate your senses. Part of the problem might be the flatness of the situation: the hum of your computer screen, the nothingness of the walls, silence in the room. Pull out a few good CDs from your collection; try playing a few favorites. It doesn’t have to be Mozart or Beethoven, the stuff they swear makes toddlers smarter. Try some good dance numbers or something from your high school or college days. If you’ve got some good “rainy day” music, pull that out too. (By the way, if you find the sound of rain soothing, check out

For the bloodhound in all of us, head over to the candle shop while you’re out to go to the bookstore. Spend a while sniffing everything. If you love the smell of the ocean, or the woods, or clean linens, or freshly baked cookies, there’s something in there for you. The idea is to find something that will make you grin every time you smell it, something that both calms and invigorates you. Buy one, light it in your office, and try working with that smell in the air.

Sometimes, you just need caffeine or a piece of candy. If being able to sip from your cup of octane helps, or if you get a little burst of good energy every time you’ve got dark chocolate on your tongue, make those things available.

Of course, don’t overstimulate yourself here. We don’t want you to drink too much coffee and then re-enact that scene from Risky Business while your house burns down around you. But if ever you imagined writers as grumpy anorexics who bang away on an old typewriter in a dark room, you can lay that worry to rest. (In fact, many a good author has been a little too hedonistic.) Enjoy yourself while you write; no reason not to.

Doodle. If you’re writing on the computer (which we assume many of you will), sometimes it’s helpful to remember what your fingers can do. That can mean something as simple as picking up a pen and jotting down your thoughts on whatever is causing writer’s block. While you’re doing that, feel free to zone out, like all of us did in trigonometry class, and just have a little fun with the pen. Draw this, make bubble letters out of that, and so on. If you doodle in a semi-conscious way, it can actually help you develop ideas and get around writer’s block. If nothing else, it will give your mind a little break so that you don’t feel so stumped when you focus again.

Google. In the twenty-first century, a little inspiration is only a click away. Use our favorite search engine to dig up quotes, inspiration, definitions and information, relevant ideas, and anything else that gets your mind turning. Don’t get distracted—the rest of the Internet is an infinite well of nothing—but you can find almost literally anything you might need on the Internet. That includes ways to solve writing problems and to keep yourself interested in the topic of your project.


This article is excerpted from On Your Mark: From First Word to First Draft in Six Weeks by Cathy Fyock and Kevin Williamson. For more information, visit the book’s website. 

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