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Five Ways to Overcome Writer’s Block (On A Deadline)

Joe here: This guest post is by Allison Vesterfelt. This week, Allison launched her wonderful new book, Packing Light, a memoir about her life-changing journey to all fifty states in the U.S. I’ve read it. It’s really good. You should grab your copy here. You can also follow Allison on her blog and on Twitter (@allyvest).

Packing LightI just released my very first book, called Packing Light: Thoughts on Living Life with Less Baggage, and the whole experience has been a huge learning curve for me. Writing the book was of course difficult in itself, but one of the most shocking parts of the process for me has been how much writing there still is to be done, even after the book is finished.

There are guest posts and articles and content for the book’s website and content for my own website — all of which (honestly) seem to be saying the same thing.

Sometimes it feels like the subject is getting tired, and my writing is falling flat.

Sometimes I feel more “blocked” now than I did when I was writing the manuscript.

And when it comes to dealing with writer’s block in this part of the process, the things that worked when I was writing the book itself don’t seem to be working anymore. I used to follow my muse, go on an adventure, find an inspiring environment, go for a walk, or listen to a great album.

But now the deadlines are tight and I’m exhausted and my muse is gone and doesn’t seem to be coming back anytime soon.
I can’t wait on her anymore.

So, in the midst of book promotion and this very different season of writing, I’m discovering new techniques for overcoming my writer’s block. They’re less creative, and more practical, but they’re actually working for me really well.

1. Know what you want to say.

My book is creative non-fiction, so when I was writing, I often sat down to my computer without really knowing what I was going to say. I would just type away, allowing the characters and memories to take me where they were going to take me. This worked really well for writing my book but, in this season of writing, it isn’t working at all.

In fact, it’s keeping me stuck.

I could sit down and stare at the blank page for hours.

So I’ve had to start coming up with a really clear picture of what I want to say, and how I want to say it, before I sit down to write. It’s a deviation from my “normal” writing routine, but maybe that’s part of why it’s helping.

2. Think about your audience.

To be honest, when I was writing my book, I didn’t think too hard about my audience. That might be bad, or wrong, but it’s true. If I was writing to anyone, I think I was writing to a younger version of myself.

But now that I’m writing promotional material for the book, that strategy is derailing me. I have to think about how to connect what I learned in my story to an audience wider than myself (shocking, I know). So when I sit down to write an article, I try to think really carefully about who is going to be reading.

What information do they need?

How does the message of my book connect with them?

What would I say to that person if I were sitting across from them at a dinner table?

Usually, when I think about that, it helps me know how to communicate the same message, in a new and unique way. And as a happy benefit, the message is becoming richer and more mature and even more meaningful to me in the process.

3. Don’t try to write something awesome.

Nothing stops up my creativity faster than sitting down to write something amazing. Do you know what I mean? It’s like all of a sudden I’m a deer in headlights. I couldn’t write something good to save my life.

During this season, I’m reminding myself that not everything I write (or publish) will be the best thing I’ve ever written. Especially on the Internet.

And that’s okay.

I want to write awesome things. But if everything I wrote was awesome, it would take the struggle and beauty and sweetness and magic out of the process.

4. Read something old you’ve written.

Do you ever feel like you’ve lost your touch as a writer? It’s the weirdest thing, but I swear all writers must feel this way. Sometimes when I can’t write something worth reading I think to myself: Well, I must have lost my touch. 

Or, worse — What if I never had it?

One of the things that helps me overcome this sensation is to read something old I’ve written. Usually, I like to look at something that was never published — something from my journal — because it reminds me of how naturally the writing process comes to me. It takes the pressure off and gives me the confidence I need to move forward.

5. Focus on the task at hand.

If you’re anything like me, you get distracted by anything and everything that comes across your path. You could sit down to write an article about elephants, and within 30 seconds you could have moved from elephants trunks to trunks of car to the trunk of your car where there’s a book you forgot about that you’ve been wanting to read.

Before you know it you’re reading when you should be writing.

This is what makes you a great artist. But it can also kill your productivity.

During this season, I try not to allow myself to be distracted — or overwhelmed — by all the tasks that need to be accomplished. I just take one task at a time. I focus on the task at hand. Because this is the only way the tasks get accomplished. It’s the only way I’ll ever meet my deadlines.

How do you overcome writer’s block and meet your deadlines?

PRACTICE

It’s time for you to overcome that writer’s block. What is a writing assignment (self-imposed or otherwise) that can’t seem to finish, or you’ve been putting off for too long?

  1. What are you trying to say? 
  2. Who is your audience?
  3. What distractions do you need to remove?

You’ve got this. Now go focus on the task at hand.

Write for fifteen minutes. When you’re time is up

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  • http://www.vozey.wordpress.com/ James Hall

    Social media IS the distraction right now. I’m chit-chatting when I should be writing. I suppose, at least I should be in practice for when the time comes to promote my book. Maybe even have a trail of people waiting to read it. My main benefit though, is finding critique partners.

    • http://allisonvesterfelt.com/ Allison Vesterfelt

      James — social media can be my biggest distraction! When I get serious about completing an assignment, I have to sign-off of all things social. It’s a great tool, but sometimes it gets in my way.

  • http://www.squidoo.com/lensmasters/wordstock Wordstock

    Great post and one that I am keeping close at hand. I did my 15 minutes and could really use so feedback.

    What am I trying to say? Good question and one that eludes me. My husband’s biological mother had 13 children and abandoned all of them without a backwards glance. I wrote a book for the seven kids we did find so they had some understanding of the research it took to find them and what I had
    learned so they would all have the information. It was not my best work but the
    kids have names, dates, and testimonies from people who had information. They
    also learned that all the adults in their lives lied to them. Now, I want to
    expand it into a creative non-fiction story. The more I share the story, the
    more I find others who have similar missing pieces in their lives. I am shocked
    at how many people had biological parents who also abandoned them in the late
    1940’s, and 1950’s. It’s a much larger issue than I originally thought. So, I
    am at an impasse. The book I wrote is from my husband’s viewpoint but whose
    story is it really?

    • http://www.vozey.wordpress.com/ James Hall

      Sounds interesting and explores an uncommon topic.

      I’m not much of a non-fiction fan, but it sounds like something I would give a chance.

    • http://allisonvesterfelt.com/ Allison Vesterfelt

      Sounds really interesting, and unique. Thanks for sharing!

      Think of asking your husband this question: If someone experienced what you experienced, what would you want them to know? Maybe the answer to that question will at least point you in the right direction.

      • http://www.squidoo.com/lensmasters/wordstock Wordstock

        Good idea. His perspective is unique anyway because he was raised by a cousin in the family.

    • Karl Tobar

      I second Allison’s suggestion. Ask him a lot of questions.

  • Karl Tobar

    It occurred to Charlie that a talkative person such as Helen might have had other reasons to tell Cliff what she saw. She may have been hiding behind adorable horn-rimmed reading glasses with rhinestones and a tidy bush of gray hair, but behind all that, in her eyes, was a gossiping little girl.

    “He didn’t react so well. Cursed at me. He sobered up quickly after I told him. I watched his expression change from drunken bliss to anger, almost malevolent, you could say. He had a lot of that bubbling inside—anger, that is.”

    “You told him his wife was cheating on him? Wouldn’t that fall under that category of ‘none of your business?’”

    Helen fell silent. A look of stinging hurt came over her face and she switched her purse to the other shoulder.

    “You don’t know anything about it,” she said. “I don’t know what’s going on here with you and your boy, but how dare you—“ She was interrupted by a shattering window from the living room. The two ladies jumped back and stared; nothing appeared to be wrong—the window was empty, the room was dark inside. Nothing was different at all except for the glass littering the porch. Charlie opened her mouth to speak, but choked instead.

    Hot it’s so hot out here.

    She grabbed her shirt and fanned herself with it, coughing meanwhile.

    “Charlie, what is it?” Helen watched in shock. She started toward Charlie to pound her on the back, but stepped away instead. Before long Charlie was on all fours, hacking violently. Helen went to her now, put a hand on her shoulder, worried, and Charlie slapped her arm away, then rolled onter her side and trembled.

    • http://allisonvesterfelt.com/ Allison Vesterfelt

      This is great, Karl! I’m impressed, and so honored that my post helped you get this out.

      You should be proud. This is a great first draft.

    • http://www.vozey.wordpress.com/ James Hall

      Somebody threw something through the window, I’m guessing. Poison? A Molotov Cocktail? Interesting story. Would love to hear more. Exceptional for a first draft.

      • Karl Tobar

        I see you’re looking for critiquing partners.
        This little nugget here is actually nearing the end of the story. I’d be more than happy to share it when I’ve completed it.
        Good guesses you had, but not quite what happened ;)

        • http://www.vozey.wordpress.com/ James Hall

          Always. I edit along the way, so in-progress critiques help me out a lot.

          I’d be more than interested to hear it.

          Good guesses? You don’t have to flatter me. A Molotov Cocktail was not even remotely a good guess. It was just a satirical one.

          • Karl Tobar

            You’re right. That was not a good guess.
            So, do you want to trade emails, or. . .?

          • http://www.vozey.wordpress.com/ James Hall

            Yeah. You can email me at vozey@yahoo.com

  • Brianna Worlds

    I’ve been procrastinating finishing the concise and precise overview of the second book in duology (Is that even a word?) I’m writing, but I wouldn’t get far in that in fifteen minutes, and it’d make for a boring post :P I’ll find something else that I haven’t been really avoiding, but not particularly paying attention to…. *Rummages in disheveled stacks of unfinished novels* Ah, here we go… Started this one forever ago.

    “So I’m an ally? Your definition of ‘ally’ must be a hell of a lot different from mine, because I’m pretty sure it doesn’t include kidnapping, and forced changes of species. Not to mention life and death situations to ‘test’ my capability,” I growl, the words leaping unbidden from my mouth. My tone sounds bleak, and carried an underlying layer of hostility.

    Frost narrowed his cobalt eyes at me, but evidently realized that I was a hopeless case. Or perhaps he saw my point.

    “Come. You must sleep. Tomorrow, you’ll begin accelerated training, as will be needed because of your nativity of our ways. You’ll begin with the lessons every pup learns, perhaps a little more honest as you are far from innocent,” Frost said calmly. I looked at him incredulously. It was true, innocence was not a trait I’d possessed for years. Too many eye-opening experiences at too young an age.

    “Thank you, Your Highness,” I muttered sarcastically, aware that Frost was the Alpha.

    “Fraenen.” The semi-familiar voice floated up beside me, sharp and low. I whirled around, head down, tail erect and eyes narrow.

    “What?” I ground out, looking at Flash with open distaste.

    Flash glared. “I said, Fraenen. That is the proper Wyeir word for leader or Alpha, as you humans put it.” He spat out the word ‘humans’ like it was poisonous.

    I rolled my eyes. “Thank you for that delicious morsel of information. Now please go away. I don’t particularly like you.”

    Flash wasn’t impressed. “You should show more respect. Your stuck like this. Make the most of it,” he murmured with an uncharacteristic lack of bitterness.

    I looked after him with a dull grief. It was true; my chances of becoming human again with these lot in charge were slim to none. But I wasn’t going to just settle in and help them like I didn’t care. No, I would show just how unhappy I was with this predicament.

    • Karl Tobar

      You got changed into a werewolf? Or a lizard? Something with a tail? Ha ha.
      Not bad. If I might criticize one thing–you change from present tense in the first paragraph to past tense thenceforth. Should stick with one, unless you have a compelling reason to use both.
      You use dialogue well. Many writers do not.

      • Brianna Worlds

        Oh *Facepalm* Yeah, I have trouble with that :P It’s just when I’m reading, I get used to one thing, and then I switch to writing, and it just… Switches. She was changed into an ‘Elemental Wolf’, which is the indigenous species of wolves who have a species connection with the basic, natural elements. Hence, the name ;) And thanks!!!

  • http://sarachoe.com sara choe

    sooooooooooo… my personal statement for my law school applications has been my everest. i’ve outlined, obsessed about it, written notes, started various drafts that have been left incomplete. today, i thought, “before i dive into the personal statement, i’ll do a writing prompt” from the site, something i hadn’t done in a looooong time.

    this one seemed most fitting. in the fifteen minutes i managed to get through the opening anecdote/story:

    Twice in one day I was approached by unfamiliar men. One was displaced, if not homeless, and he asked if I could help him by getting him something from McDonald’s. There wasn’t one nearby but there was a deli cafe — the kind that offered a salad bar, cold foods, hot foods — that kind of deli.

    He settled on a burger, only seeking my approval several times. Aside from insisting he select water instead of soda as his beverage, i let him order anything on the menu.

    i decided to sit with him for a little bit as he ate and asked him to share his story. “I got a room in Yonkers,” he said, but apparently had issues with his roommate that compelled him to leave.

    As our conversation continued, my suspicion that David might suffer from mental illness grew. He had complained of back pain so before I went on my way, I asked if he would mind my praying for him. He let me pray, and so I did — I asked God to heal his pain, and to show David that he loved him, and to resolve the issues he faced.

    I felt a strange tension between actually having done something and that something coming short.

    I’ve begun to lose count of the men and women I’ve passed by on the street since I’ve moved back to New York City from suburban northern Virginia and had grown weary of the accompanying guilt.

    ————

    Thanks for this prompt, Allison! So many great books written by friends I’ve got to read. :)

  • Michael Marsh

    I have been experiencing an epic toothache for the last week, and there is nothing like pain to throw you off of anything that takes concentration. But this morning I am going to write something and this is it.

    “He’s here! I just saw his car in the parking lot,” Bernice said
    hoarsely with a look of stoic panic on her sharp little face.

    “How’d he know we was here,” Charlene joined Bernice in a
    thinking pause. They came up with nothing.

    “Round up the kids and take them to the play park. I’ll get
    rid of him,” Charlene was suddenly in command, which came easily to her. People
    did what Charlene said to do. I just happened that way. It was that way with
    her parents, her friends and her children. Now her ex-boyfriend was going to
    find out.

    Charlene, a tiny knot of sinewy wires filled out in the
    places men usually liked, took hold of the piñata bat and marched toward to
    parking lot. She spotted him sitting in his vintage corvette lounging with a
    cigarette hanging over the driver’s door in a hand the size of a baseball mitt.
    He filled the front seat with former high school linebacker physique. He sat forward and reached for the door.

    “Stay right there mister,” Charlene growled, the word mister
    could have easily been replaced with maggot. “I was hoping we could do this the
    easy way, but I see you don’t listen too well. It is over.” She stepped to
    within striking distance and he noticed the bat.

    “Now wait Charlene. Let’s not get ugly about this.”

    “You started the ugly.
    I am just here to finish it,” She said raising the bat as he threw his
    arm up to protect his face. The bat came down on the rearview mirror hard enough to leave a good dent and
    send glass flying.

    “Jesus, you are a nut. All right I’m outta here. I just
    wanted to say sorry to Berny, but I see you is not as reasonable as yo’ sister.”

    “Damn straight, Chuck, and she don’t wanna hear sorry she
    jus’ doesn’t wanna see your face again. Got it.”

    “I got it. If I woulda known she had a crazy sister I woulda
    never hit on her. You’re a real nut job, lady.”

    The corvette screeched backwards and then forwards. She knew
    he wouldn’t swear in front of her, but he was swearin’ in the car all the way
    home.

    • Karl Tobar

      Good job! I like the characterization of Charlene with her actions and accent.
      Is Chuck his name, or is that what she calls dudes when she’s angry? :P He could use a little, what’s the word, intention. Purpose. He seems kind of flat. He reacted to his VINTAGE CORVETTE being hit with a baseball bat a little too calmly to be believable.
      And tooth pain is terribly miserable. I cringed when I read that.

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  • Sean

    Most of the above; I think writer’s Block can creep in anytime. The problem is that we often give it this name and make it over important when really we are suffering from tiredness of writing around the same idea for too long.

    I have allowed myself to be diverted from writing for several days at a time sometimes and then discovered the only way back into actual writing is to sit down and start writing anything. I remind myself that if it’s rubbish then I can delete it or i might just discover that I have written something worthwhile.

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