If you write/read/watch sci-fi/fantasy, then you are familiar with the shapeshifter as a character type. Usually deceitful, manipulative, and tricks-y, the shapeshifter adds an element of conflict into plot. Writer’s block is the shapeshifter come to life outside the pages of your story. Hear me out. Like the shapeshifter in stories, writer’s block takes many forms and it adds internal conflict to your state of mind and writing process.
Its multiple forms are why there’s no surefire way to end it. There’s no Golden Rule delivered to us from atop a mountain. Unfortunately, I can’t say doing this one thing will vanquish writer’s block forevermore. However, I do know a few exercises that will help you work through writer’s block by identifying the shape it has taken.
Read on, dear writer, and diagnose the type of writer’s block you have and find the creative exercises that will end it.
Defeating writer’s block as self-doubt
- Breaking out in a cold sweat when thinking about writing
- Having an existential crisis (Asking the dreaded SO what? Also, questioning the meaning of life. Why am I doing this? Does this even matter? No one cares what I have to say)
This is one of the most common forms that writer’s block takes. When writer’s block stems from self-doubt, it takes the form of a parasitic thought that attacks the faith you have in your abilities as a writer and sense of self-worth. Though specific aspects of the writing process run parallel to this form of writer’s block (lack of writing skills, poor sense of plot structure, weak characters, etc.), it’s not entirely the fault of those things.
Why? Because the problem is not a lack of skill on your part. At least, not completely. It’s the toxic thoughts you have about your writing that causes the issue. NEVER FORGET: Writing is a skill you learn. You’re not born with the ability to craft Shakespearean-level plays or sprout convoluted metaphors that would make James Joyce jealous. You think your writing is dull and weak? Your first step: cut the passive voice from your writing. Are your characters flat and uninspiring? Learn how to develop characters that have purpose. You can only get better at writing.
The root of self-doubt-writer’s-block is that you let those so-called weaknesses prevent you from writing. They are the excuses you use to give up. Writing is hard. Mastering it will take time and effort. Are you avoiding this because you are afraid to put in the effort? In that case, you will never improve as a writer.
Unfortunately, this is one of the more difficult shapes of writer’s block to overcome because you are your own enemy. So, here are two creative exercises to help you overcome self-doubt.
1. Revisit your old writing
First, take a break if you get stuck on a piece of writing. Then, break out your old writing. Riffle through decaying notebooks in your parents’ basement if you need to. Read through it all. Awkward, pre-teen, love poems and all. I mean it.
If what you read is something you are proud of, then right there, that signals that you are capable of working through whatever block you are in. Fantastic. You rule! You got this.
On the other hand, it’s a sign of the improvement you made as a writer if your old writing embarrasses you. Are you getting eye strain from rolling your eyes at your angsty journal entries from high school? Dude, that’s awesome (sorry about your eyes, btw). Truly, that’s great! It means that you recognize how horrible you used to be as a writer. Cherish those old attempts at non-conformist poetry and argumentative essays on how school uniforms crush individuality. They are a way to measure how far you’ve come as a writer. Remember: your writing will never be that bad again.
2. Take a writing challenge
Nothing forces you to work through your problems like a good ol’ writing challenge. Writing challenges are where it’s at if you want to get over your problems. I’m totally not counting boot camp or AA meetings. (All joking aside, if you need help, reach out to your friends or family or anyone. Writing challenges are more about pushing through challenges in writing and self-reflection and they can’t do much in the way of curing crushing loneliness. Or whatever.)
Anyway, I created an awesome writing challenge for you. It has 20+ pages of creative exercises that will help you identify your strengths and weaknesses, set you on the path to creating a writing habit, and help you build confidence in your writing. Don’t let a lack of skill prevent you from realizing your writing dreams! Click the link below to check it out.
Defeating writer’s block as burnout
- Procrastination/No motivation
- Looking for distractions and cleaning out your sock drawer
- Hating the writing you work on
Burnout happens to us all. It can stem from self-doubt or a lack of direction. Maybe you’re at a cross-roads with a shifting plot going in a different direction from where you planned in your pre-writing. It can also happen when you get too comfortable in a routine or have a writing process that doesn’t allow for freedom.
The problem with writer’s-block-as-burnout is that it’s one of the more physically and emotionally taxing forms of writer’s block. Forcing your way through it—sticking with your routine and keeping up with your writing output quota no-matter-what is a Sisyphean task. You roll that boulder up a hill—tough it out—and when you near the peak of the hill, the stone rolls back down. All your progress lost and your toils made irrelevant.
The first stage of treatment here is to take a break. For real, go for a walk. Talk to your cat. Interact with other humans. Go outside and see how many birds you can identify by the calls they make. I know many big authors (from Stephen King to Neil Gaiman) say that finishing what you’re working on and not quitting is key. But I like to think they’re trying to discourage newbie writers from changing projects like you change your socks. Every day, hopefully, you smelly weirdo. It is important to finish projects, because the finishing is what makes you a writer. But you’ll never finish anything if your eyes bleed from staring at a blank Word doc for thirteen hours straight.
Here’s a creative exercise to overcome burnout (once you’ve taken a break!).
3. Spin off
This is actually fun, and lets you add play to the project you struggle with. It’s for all the people who can’t stand to distance themselves from their project because progress and productivity!! Legit: that’s probably the cause of your burnout in the first place. But whatever. We all have issues to work through. Like fear of clowns or confronting the inevitability of death.
Basically, choose a minor character or an unexplored setting in your story and create a spin off centered around them. Give life to that character whose sum of their entire existence was to spill coffee on your protagonist and trigger the start of your protagonist’s Worst. Day. Ever. Or choose that broken down intergalactic saloon near Jupiter that your Hero destroyed trying to thwart the Villain—what was its story before it was a screaming, flaming ball of death and destruction?
The best part of this creative exercise is that it provides unlimited amounts of freedom. A sense of freedom, creativity, and play are the key ingredients to overcome burnout. If you are in the depths of despair and hate writing. Period. For real. Forever. Draw your spin off story. It doesn’t matter if you are a DaVinci reincarnation or a stick-figure-master. If photography is your thing, take pictures of objects that will help construct the spin off in your head. You could also break out your glue stick and glitter and make a collage that tells your spin off (or represents the themes of the side story).
Defeating writer’s block as a lack of motivation
- Binge watching Netflix for three days straight
- Finding distractions everywhere
Writer’s-block-as-lack-of-motivation is tricky because it is a symptom of something else. Whereas, all the forms of writer’s block we’ve talked about were direct causes of writer’s block, the lack of motivation comes from someplace else. As a result, it runs parallel to every form of writer’s block mentioned thus far. If you doubt your ability to write, then you may feel unmotivated to write. Are you sick of your project? A symptom of burnout is a lack of motivation.
The bad news is that you might need to do some Joel-Olsteen-level-soul-searching to figure out the heart of your writer’s block. You may need to ask yourself why you think people don’t need to hear your voice (if you’re suffering from self-doubt). Or why you lose sleep completing your projects that seem to go nowhere?
The good news is that we’ve already gone over three exercises that tackle the source of the problem. So, don’t get discouraged.
Again, I designed the #WriteOfWay Challenge to help you process your strengths before your weaknesses. That way you can confront your writing weaknesses in a positive and productive way. Click the link below to take the challenge.
Here are two more exercises that will help you overcome writer’s-block-as-lack-of-motivation.
4. Start with the scenes you look forward to writing
I’ve said it before a million times, but you never have to follow a specific order when you write. Dude, if you want to write your third act plot twist first, by all means, go for it! If you love your main character’s grandma and want to write that scene showing how awesome she is—do it.
The beauty of the writing process is that everything you write is a draft in flux. It changes! That’s okay because you are the one controlling it. You can change things and write all non-linear right up until you hit the “Publish” button or send your manuscript out for review.
So, if you have a hard time crafting perfect first sentences, come back to it later. The writing process is a type of shapeshifter. You make it what you want. If you lack the motivation to write a particular scene Come. Back. To. It. Later. You’re your own boss. Do what you want, you reckless animal.
5. Cut stuff up
This next exercise is for you if you are so-totally-done and entering your tenth day of binging Parks and Recreation on Netflix.
If you feel unmotivated and hate where your story is at, cut-and-paste the last chapter or few pages to a new document. Save that Word doc and put it aside. DO NOT delete that document (you might need it later). If you live the analog life, turn to a new page in your notebook.
Start over from there. Explore a totally different direction. Write different dialogue. Throw in a new conflict. Ask yourself: how can I make things more difficult for my character? What is the most unlikely thing that could happen right now? You might not end up with golden writing, but you’ll definitely have a fresh start and a revitalized sense of motivation.
That’s it. I hope you are in a better place to tackle a few of the forms that writer’s block takes. Keep the shapeshifters in your stories and out of your mind.
What are your best tips for overcoming writer’s block?