How to conquer writer’s block

From the perspective of a young writer, who encounters it all the time.

I hate writer’s block.

I wish it didn’t exist. I’m not even sure who coined the phrase but I hope they know they created a demon. They gave every wordsmith’s worst nightmare a name.

I’m a young writer. I’m still studying (writing). And between school and freelance work I’m still finding my tone, style and feet. I’m sure some of you are doing the same, and know exactly how terrifying it feels to sit in front of a computer screen, deadline looming, its stark white page staring back into your soul.

You type. You delete. You type. You repeat. You rewrite and rewrite until you’re not really sure what you’re writing anymore.

You ask yourself ridiculous questions like, ‘can I even write?’ and ‘what the hell did Ernest Hemingway do when he had a brain-blank like this?’

I’ve been there SO many times. On numerous occasions, I’ve Googled ‘how to kill writer’s block’ in the hope of stumbling across some sort of life-changing advice that will put my insecurities to rest.

Sure, sometimes, I sit down to a date with my laptop and the words flow freely like an unstoppable torrent of Walkley-worthy prose. And it’s awesome.

But at other times, I fidget furiously in front of my vacant screen, wondering whether the screaming child next door has a more useful set of vocabulary. And it’s awful.

I’ve learnt many things while studying writing at university. Like where to place possessive apostrophes (they still get me from time to time) and how to write news stories using the inverted pyramid. But perhaps the most valuable and consoling revelation I’ve encountered during my tertiary degree is that I’m not the only writer who, well… can’t always write.

Apparently writer’s block is part and parcel of being a writer. Paradoxical? I  know.  

If I sit down to write something, it’s either a) because I have a banging idea the world needs to know about or b) because I have an assignment due in 24 hours and the paragraphs ain’t about to write themselves. But the moment I realise the idea/assignment isn’t jamming, I start to get nervous and clammy.

So I worked out how to fix it. That is to say, I followed the directions of my first-year newswriting tutor when he said:

“You’ve got to have a toolkit. Not one with bolts and spanners, but one that’ll tell your prose-destroying demons to piss off.”

I’m still finding tools to add to my kit, and probably will be for a while. But for now, here are my go-to strategies for when the words just aren’t working.

1. If my mind is racing faster than my words are flowing, it’s time for a good old-fashioned meditation session. Recently, my Mindfulness Daily App has assisted in guiding this little piece of peace ($4.99 on the App Store, guys). Even a three-minute hiatus from hitting the keyboard can lead to greater clarity of thought.

2. If this doesn’t work, it’s time to step away from the screen and head straight to the dark chocolate stash. If you’re more of a health-nut, opt for blueberries or walnuts. Scientific research shows foods rich in antioxidants boost cognitive activity almost instantly. It sounds kinda cliché and academic, but often a little hit of heaven (dark chocolate) is enough to rejig your inner keyboard warrior.

3. Sometimes I find a change of setting is needed. If you’ve been sitting in your bedroom bashing away at keys to no avail, it’s probably time for a shift. Personally, I like somewhere with coffee aromas and a willingness to share the Wi-Fi password. But you might be more of a park bench/fresh air type of guy. Whatever it is, remember a fresh environment can inspire a fresh brain.  

4. At other times, I think the ease and accessibility of the ‘delete’ key is the root cause of rigid writing. It sits there, staring seductively up at us from the right hand side of the keypad shouting, ‘what you’ve written sounds clunky and awful, press me and it’ll be gone!’ NO Mr Delete Button. I won’t give in that easily.

Instead, grab a pen and paper – there’s something about writing on a page that removes the instinctive temptation to edit. Remember when we churned out handwritten essays in a single high school class? Be fearless. If it isn’t working on the PC, take to ink instead of the keys.

5. Sometimes, I get so caught up in perfecting a sentence I forget the tone/style/angle/general aim of what I’m trying to write. This is when I know I need to go back and read the beginning of the piece. Rereading is refreshing. Guaranteed, you’ll return to the bottom of your page with a ripper wrap-up to your rant.

6. Call Mum (or Dad). If there is anyone that can restore confidence in yourself and your writing, it’s the peeps responsible for bringing you into the world. They believe in you like no one else does, and no matter how terrible your report might be they’re going to tell you it’s awesome… or offer some constructive and gentle criticism at worst.

7. Finally, if something isn’t quite jamming, it’s probably for a reason. Once upon a time, I didn’t listen to this instinct. I’d push through and end up with a forced piece of writing that I wanted to watch burn in hell. But now, I try to take heed of the signal. Perhaps it’s a piece for another day. Or maybe it’s not meant to be at all.

Ultimately, it’s important to know you’re encountering writer’s block not because you can’t write, but because you can.

So hang in there, young writers. You’re not alone. And no matter how impossible it seems at the time, you will always manage to bring that article/essay/breaking news story home. 

Illustration by Twylamae who can draw your favourite TV character on a tee.

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