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.

Guest blogging? Bring your "A" game!

I really enjoy guest posting on other blogs. It's like being invited to come to a dinner party at a friend's house where you may know some people, but probably not everyone. The dinner party is your chance to meet new, interesting people with fresh perspectives and you might even walk away with newly formed friendships. Let me step away from the analogy now and say it in plain English. Guest blogging gives you:

  • exposure to a new audience
  • backlinks to your site
  • the opportunity to share your expertise
  • potential for increased credibility

Now, let's go back to the dinner party.

Would you show up unwashed in your Saturday schlepping clothes? 

Do you come in poised to sell to every human with a pulse you interact with?

Is the bottle of wine you brought as a host gift worthless or wonderful?

Don't squander guest blogging opportunities 

The guest who walks in prepared to socialize, with their most charming anecdotes and winning personality on display is a guest who will draw the interest of others and have a greater chance of creating meaningful connections.

Understand the rules of etiquette 

Dinner party etiquette is fairly standard. Most people know about BMW (bread, meal water) and using the outside fork first, and waiting until everyone at the table has been served. Blogs are a tad different. 

Know what is expected of you as a guest blogger - from language to content to engagement. Blogs that welcome guest bloggers regularly probably have comprehensive guidelines that will help you get to know their community and what they expect from content on the blog.

When you deliver on those expectations, you leave a good impression of your host and the community you're interacting with. 

It is better to give than receive

Inviting someone to share their expertise on your blog is a risk. Granted, editorial veto power is a must - always. But you also hope you don't have to exercise that all-important veto power. As the host of this guest, you're rooting for them to give you great quality content that resonates with your community.

It's deflating and disappointing to see an email that contains a blog post-sized sales pitch that has no redemptive value. It's too much like opening a bottle of your favourite wine only to find the cork is black and the wine is undrinkable.

Re-gifting isn't a good idea

When I guest post, I will sometimes re-publish a version of the post on my own blog, but I like providing original content. I'm not going to bring an already-open bottle of wine to the dinner party that I got from someone for my birthday. No, I provide new, original, fresh content and if I want to repurpose it for myself later on, so be it (if the blog is okay with that practice).

Impressions matter

All of these things serve to give your host and their audience an impression of who you are as a person, as a business, and as an expert. If you don't bring your "A" game, chances are most blogs simply won't publish what you provide. If they have to heavily edit, they may be slightly less reluctant to invite you back. But if you bring your best work and dress to impress, you will make an impression that won't be forgotten.

Quick tips for successful guest blogging

  1. You're there to give value, not a sales pitch. You have to earn the right to pitch and you're nowhere near that point in a guest post.
  2. This audience is not your audience; make sure you understand who you're talking to, what will help them, and how information is usually presented to them.
  3. Pay attention to social media and the comments on your post. Reply to comments and say thank you for shares. (Your parents will be proud.)

Brutally honest tip: If all you want to do is publish all of your blog posts on a higher authority site, you're better off syndicating. That is not guest blogging.

You can be a highly valued guest blog contributor fairly easily if you keep all these things in mind. Those are the contributors who are asked to come back over and over again. And eventually, they build relationships that cross over into their own audience, which is lead gen gold. 

So, bring your "A" game, and go for the gold. It really does pay off.

Is writing a challenge for you? Try these tips!

The internet makes it so easy for just about anyone to become a content publisher, but writing doesn't come easily to everyone. It's a good thing that writing is a skill you can improve with practice - whether you consider yourself to be a writer or not!

I know lots of business owners that have heard about the benefits of blogging, but it's overwhelming to get started when you don't feel you're a writer to begin with. (Here's one of my dirty little secrets: I didn't call myself a writer when I started blogging!) Fortunately, you don't have to call yourself a "writer" to write well about your subject matter expertise.

What would you say to clients and prospects?

Do you struggle to answer questions or explain concepts within your expertise to people who make inquiries with you? I hope the answer is (mostly) no because half the battle in writing is knowing what to say. If you can do that verbally when someone asks you a question, you're half way there.

The next step is getting those words out onto a page - physical or virtual really doesn't matter. There are a few ways you can do that:

  1. Write questions/inquiries down to answer on your blog, then do it.
  2. Record conversations (with permission, of course) to review.

Writing down questions and inquiries you get on a consistent basis will give you a flow of content that speaks directly to what clients and prospects are asking. That means these are the things they're interested in learning more about. That is critical information for your business! Playing back a recording of your answers will help you to hear the responses you give without thinking. That can form the basis of good content for your business.

Write with active voice, not passive

I don't see passive voice a lot on the web, but it nearly always gives me a double take when I do. Here's an example of active vs. passive that I've borrowed from Grammar Girl, because it's very funny to me. Imagine each of these versions sung by Marvin Gaye as you read:

Active: "I Heard it Through the Grapevine"

Passive: "It was heard by me through the grapevine"

The difference from a technical perspective is that in active voice, the subject is taking action. Marvin Gaye is the subject, and the action is that he's hearing that you won't be his much longer. 

In passive voice, the subject becomes "it" - the news that not much longer would you be mine - and the song title becomes both silly, overly formal sounding, and challenging to fit to the rhythm and melodic sequence of the song. Not to mention that "it" - the news - is an incredibly awkward subject given that "it" isn't really doing anything other than being heard.

Active voice is stronger, simpler, and gives your writing greater clarity. Most of the time. If you read the full text of Grammar Girl's article on active vs. passive, she explains that it's not really wrong. Sometimes there's no real way to get around using passive voice. Active voice does, however, work better most of the time when creating web content.

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Proofread your writing

I often write posts a week or two before I actually publish them. Sometimes longer. This allows me to come back to them 2-3 times before I publish to review what I've written and correct errors. This also gives me the chance to solidify how I want to present my thoughts and ideas.

  1. Check for spelling. Actually re-read and try to catch any words that are the right word, wrong spelling (e.g., to, too, two). This applies to similar words also.
  2. Check for grammar. Please don't ask me to draw a sentence diagram. Ever. But I can still edit for grammar and you should be able to as well. 
  3. Check for punctuation. Commas are often overused and underused. I'm not sure which is worse. The same goes for apostrophes. Avoid punctuation abuse.

Even if you struggle with proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation, spending time to proof your work before it's published will help you put your best work out into the world for your audience. 

Write like you're talking to someone 

That's what people mean when they say to write conversationally. I actually read parts of my posts out loud if I start to worry that my words are sounding too formal. When I hear the actual words coming out of my mouth, it's easier to decide whether that's how I would verbalize them to someone. The flip side is that you can record the words you want to say and then transcribe them or use dictation software to get them on the page.

Don't worry too much about the rules of writing

The rules matter, but you can break them if you want. Also, mistakes happen. You're human and fallible. Don't be too worried about errors, because no one's perfect. I love when people give me a heads up about problems they spot in my writing. It helps me fix them and (hopefully) do better the next time. 

Everyone gets stuck

After writing for a while, you may find yourself stuck and unsure what to write. There are many ways to combat the affliction of writer's block. Try out anything and everything to find what works best for you.

Bonus tip: You can outsource, too!

You don't have to do it alone. There are many writers out there (like me!) who offer blogging services - from editing to writing whole posts. If you are stuck for time, ideas, or need help with the actual words, you can get the help you need.