How to conquer writer’s block — Fuel the passion, motivation, and techniques to keep writing to the bitter end

Note: This post was upadated to it’s current version on Sept 29, 2019. Even after two years, I still use the methods below to avoide writer’s block and they continue to work for me. I hope these tools work just as well for you.

S.C. Barrus

Writer’s block is a tough nut to crack. It can strike at any time. Many new writer’s find writer’s block hit’s somewhere around ten or twenty thousand words in and don’t know what to do.

Turns out, there are way’s to keep you going, keep you motivated, tools you can harness to avoid catching writer’s block all together. I too have suffered writer’s block, and it sucks.

In this post, I’ll cover the things I’ve found to keep me writing even when the times get tough. Motivation isn’t always within reach, but there are things we can do to spur it into action. For me, avoiding writer’s block comes down to these points:

  1. Stoking your passion
  2. Temptation bundling
  3. Fostering healthy ways to get positive reinforcement
  4. Maintaining a healthy writing/life balance

Let’s get started.

Avoiding writer’s block

We create because we are driven to create.

Passion

Passionate Gif

You’ve heard this before, but that’s because it’s true. If you’re not passionate about what you’re creating, how can you stay motivated? There are ways of course, maybe you’re guaranteed a fat paycheck, but for most of us that’s not the case.

The driving force

Keeping writer’s block at back is all about maintaining a driving force. When it’s gone, the blocks arrive.

We create because we are driven to create. So before you dive head first into a project, find a way to check your passion barometer to make sure it’s something you could spend a year or two working on without sticking a fork in your eye.

Measure your passion

For my latest novel, I spent six month doing this. I had three novel ideas:

  1. a science fiction novel about a terminally ill man becoming the first true cyborg and the existential crises that follows
  2. a thriller where an estranged father kidnaps his son and the mother must track him down in the woods of the Pacific Northwest
  3. a post post apocalyptic novel of a man in the last city on earth who researches the unravelling of the universe.

Three very different books, three very different writing experiences, but each seemed equally interesting for me. So I devoted a couple of months to writing the opening to each of these ideas. When six months passed, I mulled over which writing experience I was most passionate about and landed on number 3 (you can read it here).

You don’t need to do this exact exercise for you’re next creative project, but if you don’t want the ugly writer’s block monster knocking at your door, I recommend seriously considering whether you’re idea will remain compelling to you six months, a year, maybe two or three years down the road. You’re going to spend a lot of time writing this sucker, you might as well enjoy it.

Temptation Bundling

Cookie Gif
Save those cookie til after you’re done writing.

Passion is important, but it’ll only get you so far. If you’re like me, then you’re human. As humans, we get easily distracted by shiny things like social events, entertainment, work, video games, chores, this whole internet thing, pick your poison. That’s when writer’s block pounces.

We get distracted for a day or two, and that stretches to a week, a month. Suddenly our passion project has become a task because we lost momentum. Our tour de force has become another chore. Not to mention you have to somehow get back into the headspace you were in before where you left off.

But we can fight writer’s block with a little cleaver psychology.

Harness your temptations

Creative work can be hard and thankless for long periods of time. When the going get’s tough, you need a way to pull yourself back in. One technique I use is called Temptation Bundling, a trick I learned from the Freakonomics podcast.

The gist of it is: there are things you love to do. Video games, reading, podcasts, food, TV, etc. These hobbies can either overwhelm your creative energy, or empower it. Pick a temptation and regulate it so that you only partake during or after you’ve worked on your project.

Geralt from The Witcher Gif

For me, I love The Witcher 3. At the end of the day there’s little I’d rather do than dive into The Witcher‘s world and slay some monsters. But I don’t allow myself to do this unless I’ve sat down and spent some time writing.

Side note from 2019: The Witcher 3 has since been retired as my temptation bundling tool after I beat it and all of it’s DLC. Since then I’ve been on a From Software kick using Bloodbourne and Sekiro: Shadow’s Die Twice as my temptation bundles.

Let the things you enjoy motivate you

Some days when I don’t feel inspired, I sit in front of the computer, write maybe 100 words, then turn around and dive into my monster killin’. Other days I get sucked into the story I’m crafting and The Witcher remains untouched. Either way, at least I’ve done something.

Recognition

Recognition Gif

I don’t know about you, but I thrive on recognition. I have a hard time writing in a vacuum. There are a few reasons for this. First, the feedback I get is invaluable to the quality of my writing.

Even when someone doesn’t know any literary techniques, they can still gauge when you’re story is interesting, when your characters are compelling, or when your writing is stilted or meandering.

Beyond this, just the knowledge of people reading my work is enough for me to get a little extra oomph in my motivation reserve. Harness this social desire to have your work recognized as a tool in your arsenal against writer’s block.

Get eyes on your work

There are lots of ways to get others to read and respond to your writing. Let’s explore a few of these methods to get you started.

/r/DestructiveReaders

I’ve written about the Destructive Readers sub-reddit before in my post How to become a better writer — Harness the power of The Critique Feedback Loop.

This is a community of writers putting their work out there with the express intention of receiving a brutally honest critique. Nothing is as eye opening on the quality of your work as honest feedback from complete strangers. I find learning my weaknesses helps me improve my writing as I go, rather than when the piece is complete. Highly recommended.

Visit the sub-reddit here.

Accountabilibuddy, Butters from South Park
Hopefully your Accountabilibuddy experience doesn’t go as poorly as Butters did.

Accountabilibuddy

If you’re lucky enough to have a friend willing to read over drafts and drafts of your work for a year+, then take advantage of that as much as you can.

This is a tricky relationship to maintain, especially if it’s with someone you see on a regular basis. You don’t want to pressure anyone to read your work, because that can strain a friendship.

Still, accountabilibuddies can offer you motivation by telling you what works, what doesn’t, and by asking about your progress regularly.

For me, I like to spread this relationship around. I’ll share my writing with anyone who shows an interest, and then I’ll lay off and let them read it in their own time. Some people get back to me right away, others may take a month or two. Either way, be patient and understanding that they have a life.

When they do get back to you, gauge their enthusiasm. Try to see if they are holding back for fear of hurting your feelings, or see if their excited for the next part. Either way, you’ll know if you need to make changes, or keep on the path.

Not only does this improve you’re writing, accountability is a great way to avoid writer’s block. The more people ask about your progress, the harder it is to stop writing.

Wattpad

Wattpad is a website for writers to share their works. It tends to be serialized pieces and the audience skews pretty young. This can mean it’s not for everyone.

Personally, I’ve trying to utilize Wattpad several times without luck. However, I’ve seen many writers use Wattpad as a place to discover an audience, gain some cheerleaders, and build motivation to keep writing.

Wattpad readers expect your work to be fairly polished, so this isn’t a good option for the early stages of writing. But that doesn’t mean you need to share your final drafts. Send your work through Grammarly to make sure it’s clean, and get it out there.

Readers often comment, and you can glean valuable insights into how your work is affecting them. So if you like a little social network action with your anti-writer’s-block-spray, this might be the perfect tool for you.

Visit Wattpad here

Moving on.

Substances

Boozing Gif

Ooooo. Controversial territory here. There are two kinds of writers that I know of: writers that drink tea or coffee while they work, and writers that drink alcohol. Think of this section as a bit of a cautionary tale for the latter group.

Side note from 2019: I still drink while I write on occation. I’m not advocating sobriety necessarily, though I support anyone who is or want’s to be sober. While I was origonally writing this piece, I had recently come out of a depression and had been drinking far too much and ended up quitting for several months.

Now I try to keep it regulated as a “special event” kind of thing. If I have writer’s block or no motivation, I may pour myself a glass and sit down to see what happens. And you know what, sometimes that’s just what I need. Goes to show, everything in moderation.

I used to drink while I wrote. I’d by a six pack of beer or a bottle of gin and dive in. I found my mind less encumbered, the barrier in my brain that might say, ‘don’t write that, it’s stupid’ would shut off. A sure fire win, right?

Unfortunately this led to me drinking whenever I wrote, and during extended writing sessions I’d drink a lot. Sometimes I’d get drunk and have to stop because I could no longer concentrate on the work. I felt like shit the next day. And soon the law of diminishing returns caught up with me.

The issues with substances as motivation

When drinking or smoking or whatever is part of your motivation, dependency happens. Sometimes the substances begin to outweigh the writing, and your ritual devolves from writing with a glass of wine to drinking every night, to alcoholism.

There’s this image of the alcoholic (or drug addicted) writer, singer, artist that’s romanticized in our culture. But in the long run, it doesn’t lead to better motivation, better work, or a better life. Don’t let drugs or alcohol become part of your routine as a writer, it won’t be worth it in the long run.

You don’t have to be a prude about it

Don’t get me wrong, I still drink on occasion, and have no issue with someone smoking weed. It’s legal in Washington state after all, and even before then I didn’t give a shit. But making these things an integral part of your creative process will eventually end with you relying on it. That’s bad news bears.

Next thing.

Writing/Life Balance

Weekends Rule

Here’s the last peice of advice I have to help you avoid writer’s block, and maybe you weren’t expecting it. If you want to stay motivated as a writer, then ensure you’re still living.

Don’t spend all of your time writing. You’ll burn out. You’ll miss out on the many awesome things life has to offer. You’ll lose the opportunities life provides to instill you with deep inspiration. If you spend all your time writing, your writing will suffer.

Great writers live full lives

I’ve heard some writers say that they need to write every single day without a day off. Maybe that works for them, but not for me. Don’t be afraid to take a night off every now and then.

I tend to remove the requirement of writing on the weekends. I often end up writing anyway but it’s not something I’m setting out to accomplish. Instead I’ll be with my family, go out to Seattle, go mountain biking, exercise, practice Muay Thai, watch anime, read books, swing by coffee shops, take my kid to the park, life stuff.

When I put too much pressure on myself, I end up imploding. That’s when writer’s block strikes hard and brings me to a full stop.

Make room for inspiration to strike

Twin Peaks gif

Maintaining a balance in your life will not only keep you from burning out as a writer, but it improves happiness and inspiration.

Inspiration rarely strikes in front of the computer. It hits in the quiet moments of solitude when your mind is free to wander on its own. Inspiration sprouts while walking in the park, showering, laying in bed, driving, meditating, or just staring off into space.

Structure your weekends so that these moments are plentiful. Be lazy, enjoy the feeling of grass on your toes, watch the way leaves dance in the wind, or the way shadows fall. When you have other things, you’ll find explosions of insight into your work will become an regular occurrence.

Participate in activities you can draw on

Do you know what it feels like to get shot? No? Yeah, me either. But I’ve dropped a knife on my foot (by accident) and I can draw on that experience when describing something different but related.

There are so many safe, fun, and controlled activities you can do that you can later draw on in your writing. Make sure you work these into your life, and while you do, contemplate on your experiences.

I’ve used the feeling of hiking off trail to inspire descriptions of exploring a jungle in my novel Discovering AberrationI used the experience of playing music at open mic nights to inspire characters in my unpublished novel Everything Else by the Wayside.

Do I know what it feels like to be chased by someone trying to kill me? No, but I do know how it feels to spare with trained fighter, get beat up, smacked around, and still come up on my own two feet.

I know what it feels like to ride jumps on my bike that I’m not sure I can land, and how it feels to unexpectedly crash.

I know what it feels like to be physically strained through strength conditioning classes. You can draw on these experiences and add a sense of realism to the things you’ve never gone through.

Make room for inspiration

Life provides inspiration in countless beautiful ways, from nervousness to love to pride and beyond. How can you write about those things if you haven’t lived them? Find the activities that speak to you, get out there and do cool shit, focus on the experience, and later distill it into words.

Closing Remarks

I hope this piece helps you avoid the ugly maw of writer’s block. If you found this piece interesting, helpful, or just a little entertaining, please share on your favorite social network. Until next time.

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