Writer's block busters: 8 ways to get words to flow again

When I first started blogging, and for several years after, I never used the word "writer" to describe myself. It took me a while to realize that what I was doing actually did qualify me to say I’m a writer. That, and I realized I actually love writing. Sometimes I read something I wrote years ago and I surprise myself by thinking it's pretty darn good. Then other times I've struggled with many of the same issues that every writer I've ever known describes:

  • I have something to say and I know the point I want to make, but I can't find the right words or sequence of words to make my point(s).

  • I don't know what to write about or nothing from my list is inspiring me at a given moment.

  • I feel as if I have nothing new to say that is of value.

  • I just don't feel like writing.

  • I am bored by the topic.

  • I fear what others will say or think about what I'm writing.

  • I spend too much time trying to make a piece "perfect".

  • I don't like how the idea in my head is translated on the page. It's just not right.

The reason for the block matters to an extent, though sometimes knowing the reason doesn't give you more leeway to do something about it. If you've got a deadline, writer's block from the pressure of a deadline isn't going to be easily remedied. Though being tired, bored, overwhelmed, or over-saturated by content creation can all be helped.

Over the years, I've come up with different strategies for those times that my struggles with writing threaten to overcome my ability to get content out. 

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Find a new perspective

Maybe you need to view it from a unique position or a new angle. Change your perspective and see if there's a way to refresh your thinking and present a new-to-you view. A great example of using a different perspective to make a point is flipping good advice around,  like Demian Farnworth did in this post about copywriting on Copyblogger.

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Be controversial

This is also about perspective, but it's about specifically taking on a potentially negative view or a view that may invite controversy - or even a view you don’t agree with. It requires a thick skin if you hit publish, though. Use caution if you decide to go this route.

Go old school and get offline

Do you have an old typewriter? Maybe not, but what about a pad and pen? I bet you have one of those laying around somewhere. Pick them up and give your typing skills a rest. Hopefully, the act of physically writing words will help the words start to flow. A coach I worked with once suggested that I follow Julia Cameron’s Artist’s Way methods. Her morning pages are such a helpful way to clear out blocks. And it’s simple to do, but not easy to fit in unless you commit. What do you do? Write 3 pages first thing every morning to get everything out of your brain. That’s it.

Use a different technology

Years ago, I got turned on to OmmWriter and DayOne. OmmWriter is a tool I use when I need to write in my happy, zen place. The music is soothing, mellow, and there are no distractions - no formatting, no font choices, the background is relaxing. It's a refreshing writing experience. 

DayOne is my cloud-based journal. I've been journaling since I was 10 and my mom bought me my first notebook for the purpose. I still have every journal I've ever written in. I go through phases of journaling regularly and phases where I say nothing. With DayOne, I can get out anything that's blocking me from writing. It's cathartic and one day my son will have a pretty comprehensive record of my personal dysfunction. Bonus!

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Find another medium

I've been colouring a lot lately since I got the Enchanted Forest colouring book. It gave me some much-needed downtime from writing that allowed me to get back to working on a book I started a few months ago. Colouring is just one medium you could choose. Painting, knitting, crocheting, tatting, macrame, photography, videography - any creative outlet that fills the need to distract you from words can help your words start flowing again.

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Can’t write? Go read.

Reading is one of my favourite ways to get back to writing. It doesn't always matter what I read - it could be fiction or it could be industry information. But getting my mind off the pressure I feel to produce my own intelligible words by immersing myself in something else is key.

Eliminate distractions

I'm an Apple fan-girl. I have a MacBook Air, an iPad, and an iPhone. I can turn on "do not disturb" and the notifications stop pouring in. I recently even deleted Facebook off my mobile devices! I love being connected, but I'm being more conscientious and purposeful about when I'm connected. 

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Get away from the computer

Just go do something else that allows you to recharge: 

  • Take a walk.

  • Go for a run.

  • Dance.

  • Play a video game.

  • Watch a TV show.

  • Get a coffee.

  • Stop for the day.

  • Plan your next vacation.

The key here is to stop thinking about how hard it feels to write and do something that has nothing to do with writing or creating.

Writer's block doesn't have to stop you from writing. It's just a temporary challenge that you can be proactive about resolving.

Did I miss any good writer's-block-busting ideas? Tell me in the comments!

On the study of writing

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One day recently, I was innocently scrolling through my Facebook feed (possibly procrastinating but we don't need to dwell on that) and ran across a post in a writer's group I'm in.

The post was a slightly ranty diatribe decrying a lack of arduously acquired writing skill through writing courses amongst a group of "so-called" writers the poster had been conversing with.

By the time I saw this post, there were 375 comments. The person who made the original commentary about writers who lack formal training being a scourge upon the craft was expressing a decidedly controversial point of view. (He might have used different words to describe his thoughts.)

I didn't read the comments; I don't really need to. The post ignited an old and tired debate about what makes a writer a true writer. Personally, I like how Steven Pressfield put it:

If you find yourself asking yourself (and your friends), “Am I really a writer? Am I really an artist?” chances are you are. The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.
— Stephen Pressfield

Actually, I'm not sure whether self-confidence is an entirely reliable measure of who is counterfeit, but I get why he makes that assertion. (I was sort of tempted to go find that post and just put this quote in as my comment, but that's probably more effort than the conversation is worth.) 

There are talented writers with zero formal training beyond the required years of writing through school. There are talented writers that make study and practice of the craft a priority akin to eating and drinking through formal instruction. 

What right does anyone have to say that the first group isn't studying, though? Perhaps they read a variety of content from blogs, to literary classics, to scholarly articles. Maybe they immerse themselves with the style they want to focus on and hone. (I'm not a big fan of this method, but to each his own. For me, variety is the spice of life...and words.)

I have personally read books on writing from time to time and they certainly have their value. But I analyze writing everywhere. 

The study of writing isn't a one size fits all journey. There are as many ways to go about learning as there are different styles, mediums, and methods of writing. 

It took me a long time to figure out how much I love to write and the change I made this year in leaving the business I started with Lara has led me to focus more on writing. (Just saying that sets off mental cartwheels - I'm loving it!) 

Later this month...cue me getting really giddy with the mental cartwheels and all...I'm flying down to Chicago to attend the Chicago Writers Conference. All in one place, I am going to have the opportunity to meet other writers, learn more about freelance work, and I'm going to hit some fiction (and maybe non-fiction) sessions too. Because, yes, I totally want to write books as well. I've already started one. 

Do I need to go to this conference to do all the things I want to do? Probably not. Am I going to learn a ton that will help me move forward more quickly? I sincerely hope so. That's why I'm going. (That, and it's in Chicago, and I can visit Gini...yay!)

Is a writer who doesn't ever attend any sort of formal learning event less of a writer? That's not for me or anyone else to decide.

There's good writing and bad writing (trained or not), and there always will be. Bad writing doesn't necessarily mean someone isn't a writer anymore than good writing means they are. I tend to think writers are people who have a passion for the written word and are compelled to contribute their own to the annals of history. 

I don't think the definition of a writer needs to be any more complex than that.

Write every day, blog every day?

Once a year, I try to make sure I ready Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft on audiobook. I really enjoy hearing it read straight from the horse's mouth, so to speak. :) I remember the first time I listened to it, I had recently also listened to Bossypants by Tina Fey and Yes, Please by Amy Poehler. They’re both enjoyable, funny books, but I laughed out loud far more at Stephen King’s dry humour.

Plus, he takes a few jabs at Danielle Steele and Bridges of Madison County, which was amusing. (I haven't read Bridges..., but I watched the movie and hated it. I did, unfortunately, decide to try reading a Danielle Steele novel once to see why she's so popular. I didn't get very far and I couldn’t figure out the secret to her popularity either.)

One of the aspects of On Writing that I love is the use of stories to make a point. For about the first third of the book, there’s so much about King's life that it's basically an abridged autobiography. He mixes in occasional nuggets about writing, but you have to wait until a bit later in the book to dig in to his writing advice.

He sets the foundation for the reader to know enough about him to understand where he's coming from, why writing is so important to him, and what made him the kind of writer he is. He makes it about the journey - not the destination.

When he starts talking about writing, writing habits, and advice, you can really hear the teacher coming through. How amazing would it be to say you were in Stephen King's class? Do his former students walk around bragging about it? I would.

King is a "write every day" proponent when he's actively involved in a project. It makes sense, too. When I stop writing regularly, I lose my writing mojo. It takes me longer to complete work, and I forget where I'm at with projects after just a few days of idle fingers. 

This advice regarding novels got me thinking about what I believe about writing content online, particularly for someone like me who is trying to produce regular content.

Because I'm actively writing in a number of different places, I find it difficult to produce a blog post every day in one place, much less multiple places. 

What I've learned in trying to figure out what works best for me is that consistency is key. I blog once a week on my two main websites. I write guest posts when time allows. And I write in some form or another every day. 

For non-writers that want to blog, this may feel like overkill. You may be right. But if you're not writing everyday, make sure you at least read something every day that will help you generate ideas for your blog posts. 

Be consistent in your practice of reading and writing. When one goes away, it's easy for the other one to follow.

Word jumble: Common phrases that need some editing

Welcome to post number eleventy-billion and then some on phrases that are commonly misused and/or misunderstood. Why am I adding my two cents that probably duplicates work put out there by others? Because I still see it happen all the time and anything that helps people write (and speak) more accurately and with clarity seems like a good idea.

Let me start by saying that I don't judge people's intelligence based on whether they write or say these things. They know what they mean, the people around them (I think) know what they mean, so no harm, no foul. I also get that it's easy to misunderstand the exact words someone says, not having seen it written down. It's the opposite of people mispronouncing words they've only ever read in books. But I'm a fan of lifelong learning and I think it's a worthy goal to know better and do better, even in small things. So, this is for anyone who feels the same.

Now that my cliché-ridden intro is out of the way, I'll share some of the phrases I've been seeing used recently that need some editing.

To "flush" or to "flesh" it out

Whenever I hear or see the phrase "flush it out," I think of work being flushed down the toilet. To me, that's what it means. Except it's usually describing the process of building something out, adding substance - like a skeleton idea that needs skin (flesh) to be fully formed. I have lots of ideas, but I rarely flush them without first making some attempt to flesh them out.

I "couldn't" care less...or "could" I?

Whether it's a disdainful dismissal or amicable carte blanche to take over, saying you "couldn't care less" means you can't be bothered to give the topic du jour any mental or emotional space. However, to say you "could care less" means you actually do care. While most people use the phrase to express how little they care (i.e., not at all), the words say the opposite. But do you care enough about this distinction to add on that second syllable next time? 

Happy belated birthday!

You know what never comes late? Your birthday. Every single year, it comes on the exact same day (unless you're a February 29 baby). You know what does come late? Birthday wishes. Dictonary.com's definition of "belated" is "late, delayed or detained." So, when we say "Happy belated birthday," we're actually saying "Happy late, delayed or detained birthday." And that's kinda funny when you think about it. As my father drilled into my head for many years, the correct way to say it is, "A belated happy birthday to you." Because the "happy birthday" is late, not the birthday. But that sounds super formal and I get why people don't like to say it. So, I skip using "belated" at all and just say, "I know I'm late, but happy birthday!" 

Woulda, coulda, shoulda used "have"

To me, this one has to be rooted in our tendency to use contractions in the spoken word, but I didn't bother to research the theory so don't quote me on it. "Could've" actually sounds like "could of," even though it's actually "could have." Using "of" after any of these words is a grammatical error, but I can see why it happens. Bonus tip: It's also never "wouldn't of," "couldn't of," or "shouldn't of." Those pesky spoken double contractions: wouldn't've, couldn't've, shouldn't've.

"Rather than" end things too soon

I thought I'd squeeze one more in. I believe it's yet another example of misheard, then miswrote. When comparing two things, someone might indicate they prefer X rather "then" Y. Unfortunately, "then" is always wrong in this context. Put simply, "then" is used as an adverb, adjective or noun when talking about order or time. "Than" is used as a conjunction or preposition associated with comparisons and the phrase "X rather than Y" happens to be a comparative clause.

"We're none of us perfect."

I like Miley Cyrus' mentality of enjoying life without the pressure of perfection and it brought Matt's oft-quoted Homerism to mind.My husband loves quoting The Simpsons and this quote happens to be a favorite when he makes a mistake.

We all say or write things that aren't quite right, but if you learn something you say is incorrect and attempt to internalize the correction, it's just going to help you be a better communicator when it's your turn to share ideas and information with others in your world.

Now it's your turn: What have you heard lately that you can add to the list?

Improve your writing with these easy tips

When people send me something to edit, these are some things I'd change if I found them.  I try to make my writing simple and clean, especially since I write mostly for web/digital mediums. After all, K.I.S.S. is the #1 rule in digital media. 

Do as I say, not as I do.

I have a firm belief that if you're putting words together to communicate something, someone should read it over to make sure you're accomplishing what you want. At the very least, you'll avoid landing on one of those Buzzfeed lists that show bad copy mistakes. And, if you and your copyeditor are in sync, you'll get your message across in a clear, concise way. 

Do I have my writing copyedited? At work, yes. Outside of my day job, not so much. I like to think I'm better than the average bear at catching errors since copyediting is something I do professionally, but no one is perfect and you shouldn't edit your own copy. I cringe when I see errors I've made in work that's been published.

Short paragraphs. Short sentences. Short words. 

Writing on the web is choppier than you're used to from books. Paragraphs usually have 1-3 sentences. I know some bloggers who almost never have 2 sentences in a paragraph. The reason? Scannability, not readability.

I mean, who cares if people can read it? We need to make sure they can scan it! Because if they scan through quickly and don't see the value, they're gonna bail tout suite

But if they scan through and see good stuff they want to learn more about, they might spend more time and actually read it.

There are certainly industries and topics that vary on the complexity and formality of the writing and tone. But even academic subjects can be written less formally online than you'd find in journals and textbooks.

Scannability is critical, regardless of the subject.

Don't abuse punctuation.

Punctuation helps readability and scannability. I could probably go on a long rant about punctuation and my desire to institute fines for people who abuse commas, apostrophes, and quotation marks, but I'll spare you. 

Commas

Did you know you don't always need a comma before "but" or "because"? And you pretty much never need one after, though many people throw them in because they think there's a rule about putting commas where you'd pause in speech (there's not). That imaginary rule is kinda silly since everyone reads copy with different interpretation and inflection. 

I'm not rigid about when serial commas are used as long as what's being said is clear. You can be pro-Oxford comma and I'll like you just as much as that person over there who's anti-Oxford comma.

Quotation marks

I've lost count of the number of quotation marks I've deleted from words that had quotes around them for emphasis rather than an actual requirement to quote something. And every time I see it, I think of this:

Do you want me imagining Dr. Evil doing air quotes as I read your words? 

Do you want me imagining Dr. Evil doing air quotes as I read your words? 

In Austin Powers, the recently-woken-from-30-year-nap Dr. Evil is describing a "laser" designed to destroy the "Ozone layer" to his evil team. Of course, no laser was necessary to do that and the team already knows what these things are.

Does your audience know what you're talking about? Ditch the quotes. Do you want to emphasize a word or phrase? Italics are a better way. In fact, the HTML code for italics is "em" and it's short or emphasis: 

<em>This text would show in italics if I was typing this in the HTML editor.</em>

Is it a genuine, meaningful quote that's longer than a few words you can paraphrase? Keep the quotes and I will, too. (But I am going to double check the quote wording and attribution and I recommend you do the same.)

Apostrophes

These handy little marks are mostly used to indicate possessives or create contractions. With contractions, the apostrophe stands in for the letters you remove. Somehow, though, apostrophes end up creeping into places they don't belong. Here are a few examples of words that don't need apostrophes (and I'm not talking about the confusion between plural and possessive):

  • Pluralized words that aren't typically plural: Dos and don'ts NOT do's and don'ts/don't's
  • Possessive pronouns don't need apostrophes: his, hers, its, theirs, ours, yours, and whose
  • Nouns, particularly acronyms and initialisms, that are plural but not possessive: 1980s (unless you go with: '80s), CDs, GICs, SUVs 

A few grammar gripes

There's a tendency amongst some to adopt an attitude of superiority about their skills and knowledge around writing. Some people call them "grammar Nazis" and some are proud to take on that title. I've had that tendency myself, but I try not to criticize even if something drives me crazy. I assume mistakes are not intentional and send a quick private note with an FYI just in case an error goes unnoticed. 

That said, I correct grammar mistakes because clarity is important. Here are a few common ways clarity is compromised in writing:

  • Right: rather than. Always wrong: rather then. (when referring to alternatives)
  • accept when you really mean except (or vice versa)
  • loose when you mean lose (you lose weight; you don't loose it)

You know why people get hung up on grammar rules? Because the rules help us communicate more effectively and efficiently. 

Of course, rules are made to be broken.

Breaking the rules: The fluidity of language

It pains me to see some of the short-form words that are now common in the tweet and text world we live in. But changes to communication channels have influenced changes in the words we use since the beginning of time. (I swear, I will never get used to seeing "ur" instead of "you're" and yes, I type in full words/sentences in texts.)

But if the language is fluid, that means all the rules are somewhat fluid, too. I can know every technical writing rule there is (along with all the exceptions) and opt to go with personal preference. That's the fluidity of language.

And because the words we use are evolving along with how we use them, it's better to be forgiving of different ways of writing. Even errors are made for a reason - missed in edits or ignorance of correct usage.

If you want to keep something I think is wrong, it's not important enough to me to argue. After all, rules are made to be broken, but take time to learn them so you can say you're doing it on purpose.