Commentary

Five Activities I Use to Beat Writer’s Block

Writer’s block is an unpleasant experience, to say the least. You’ve set aside time to write, gotten plenty of sleep, and had a decent meal, but you still can’t put words on paper. The blinking cursor just sits there, taunting you. On the bright side, you’re not alone. Nearly everyone gets writer’s block from time to time. Pros often find ways to power through it, but those of us still in the early stages of our careers have to get creative.

To that end, I’d like to share with you a few activities I use to get myself in a better headspace for writing fiction.

1. Write Something Else

Okay, in retrospect this one sounds kind of obvious, but you wouldn’t believe how often I’ve stared at a blank page for a few hours, only to open up a different manuscript and find the words flowing freely. Brains work strangely sometimes, I guess. Often a specific set of emotions will conspire to block one story but leave the path open to another.

I find this method especially useful when I’m stuck in a revision. Nothing kills my motivation to write like needing to change what I’ve already written. If I switch over to a manuscript that still needs drafting, then I’m still using my time for fiction, and I can come back to the revisions later. That way I don’t feel like I wasted the few hours I managed to squeeze out of my schedule.

Sometimes when the block is hitting me especially hard, I’ll have four or five stories open at once, adding a paragraph to one, then rushing out a page on another. That’s probably a horror story to some writers who need to focus on one manuscript at a time or they’ll never get anything done, but I’ve found that slow progress on multiple stories is a way to avoid no progress on one story.

2. Consume Good Fiction

I probably don’t need to encourage you too hard to go out and read or watch fiction you enjoy. That’s typically a reward in itself. But those of us with busy schedules don’t always make the time to consume good fiction, so if you’re suffering from writer’s block, it can be beneficial to make the effort of fitting this activity into your schedule. Audiobooks are especially helpful here, as you can listen to them while doing other tasks like household chores or your daily commute.

In general, good fiction can spark inspiration that gives us the motivation we need to write. I first wrote Human Factor based on a scene from C. J. Cherryh’s Downbelow Station. In that scene, starships used computers to predict where an enemy ship would be several seconds in the future, as the ships were so far apart that the lightspeed delay makes conventional sensors useless. The idea fascinated me, so I wrote a story about it.

If you’re stuck on a specific story, you can focus on good fiction in the same genre. See how the pros do it, and let that motivate your own story. “But won’t I be stealing?” I can hear you asking. Fortunately, no. You’ll be borrowing from other works, which storytellers have been doing since long before stories were written down. You might need to make some changes to put your own spin on the material, but that can wait until you’ve gotten rid of your block.

3. Consume Bad Fiction

Wait, what now? Why would you want to go out and experience poorly crafted media on purpose? I’ll tell you why: it can be a great motivator. First, it helps get rid of impostor syndrome. When you read some of the absolute dreck that’s been published over the years, the feeling that you can’t possibly make it will fade, if only for a while.

Just as importantly, I’ve found that bad fiction can spark the most passionate ideas. I’ll be reading a bad story, then notice a cool idea buried under the wreckage. The concept is good, but the execution is terrible. Suddenly, I am motivated to take the concept as my own. I know I can do it better than whoever wrote this nonsense.

No joke, this is exactly what happened when I read the first chapter of A Spell for Chameleon for my critique post. It’s some of the worst writing I’ve ever seen, but underneath all the misogyny and bad description, it’s a story about two lovebirds meeting one last time before they’re forced apart by unfair social restrictions. That actually sounds pretty compelling!

Of course, for this to work you have to enjoy bad media. For some people, it’s just an unpleasant experience, in which case this activity probably won’t have positive results.

4. Play Games

In a section about playing games for inspiration, you’d expect RPGs and narrative video games to take center stage, but I’ve never found those to work for me. I get too attached to the story as it’s presented, and capturing the experience in text is extremely difficult.

On the other hand, board games with no story whatsoever really get my storytelling energy flowing. I can’t let a turn pass without trying to construct a narrative around it. Obviously building a second city on this wheat hex means my Catan colony has some kind of ruthless wheat cartel pulling the strings of power. What else could it possibly be?

And then there are the times when the game’s mechanics come together and create a narrative by sheer chance. Once during a game of X-Wing, I lost both my veteran pilots in the opening turns, leaving only my rookie B-Wing to somehow win the day with a series of incredibly lucky rolls. Obviously, that had to become a story.

5. Research Your Passion

Finally, when all else fails and I’m ready to let writer’s block win, I pick a subject I’m passionate about and dive into research. This method can work for stories already in progress, as you research relevant worldbuilding information, but I find it works best when sparking passion for a new story.

What the subject is doesn’t matter so much as how interested you are in it. History, robotics, linguistics, swallow migration patterns – they’re all valid. Even niche subjects like the biology of specific fruit cultivars can work. Most recently for me it’s been history of the Byzantine Empire. I’m just all about that Constantinople life.

Once you’ve picked a subject, a myriad of research options are at your disposal. The internet isn’t perfect, but it’s given us podcasts, YouTube videos, and audiobooks on nearly every subject imaginable. Plus, there are still regular books, if you’re into reading words with your eyeballs. Check out your local library; there are probably fewer holds for your research material than on the latest hot novel.

As you research, keep a lookout for concepts and ideas that spark your imagination. The Cavendish banana is a cultivar chosen mainly for its ability to resist blight, you say? What about a story with aliens that reproduce via cloning different lineages? Now they’re suffering a deadly plague, and the race is on to find a combination of lineages that will give their children immunity.

If you write based on your passions, it’ll show in your work. You’ll know more of those little details that make a world feel alive. And the best part? Even if this research doesn’t lead to a story, you’ve still enriched yourself with more knowledge. You win either way!


Anyone who tells you they have a surefire cure for writer’s block is selling the finest snake oil. Unlike the craft of storytelling, writer’s block is part of an author’s process and, as such, is very specific to each person. The best that most of us can do is try different methods until we find one that works. Each activity on this list has worked for me, and maybe one of them will be effective for you too.

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    You could actually pull together 2,3, and 4 under ‘consume media.’

    But yes, it helps a lot to do different things when you’ve ran into a writer’s block.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Yeah unlike storytelling rules, writer’s block is a process thing so it’s way more specific to each person. You just gotta try stuff until you find something that works.

      • Cay Reet

        Consuming media and writing different stuff work very well for me, since I’m a discovery writer. Sometimes, a story isn’t really ‘ready’ for me to continue, in that case, reading more, watching some TV or some movies, playing some computer games, or working on something else are a good idea. I can get something done on another front and the story can work itself out in the back of my mind, until it’s ready to be written.

  2. Bunny

    Writer’s block truly is awful! For my last manuscript, I was stuck in imagination purgatory for 6 months at least. If only I had this list! I finally got over it by flowcharting different directions I could go, then choosing the one I liked best. Which could also be a strategy, I suppose – whatever works!

  3. Graeme Sutton

    I find Paradox games are particularly good for this. I could write Epic Sagas about my Stellaris campaigns.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      For me it’s been Crusader Kings 2!

      • Leon

        Draw. Or indulge any other creative outlet you have; sketch, paint, sculpt, jam, dance, freestyle, cook. They all feed into one another.
        The vast majority of what I write has come from drawing (a picture really is worth a thousand words).

  4. Michael Campbell

    6. Go for a long walk, while contemplating the story.
    People should go for a walk even if they don’t have writter’s block because getting their blood pressure down (or up) to one-twenty over eighty*, is a worthy pursuit in itself.
    But physical activity can also let the imagination flourish.

    *Yes, technically a healthy blood pressure is adjusted by age and gender.

  5. LazerRobot

    Thank you for this! It was really reassuring. I have three stories going at once, one of them is in the revision stage and the other two are in various parts in their first draft. I sometimes feel like I’m wasting my time by working on these new stories or by getting into reading a new book instead of just finishing that revision. Im glad I’m not alone in doing this!

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I’m glad you liked it! Sometimes the most direct route isn’t always the best route when it comes to creative endevors, and you have to do what works for you.

  6. Brigitta M.

    Taking a break, no matter what form it takes, is often the best solution I’ve found. Sometimes we may discover something about the story or ourselves that changes or causes us to drop the project entirely.

    I just discarded a WIP that was coming out at a slow trickle. Every word was a pain to write. Originally I thought it was because I was trying a new technique (multiple POV when I usually do a single close third throughout). But then it just stopped. 5K words in and I couldn’t get in another iota of a dot in unless I kept repeating the last word.

    I tried skipping to the end and going backwards…all those writer tricks. And nothing.

    Then I was like “Ok, break. Write some microfiction and come back.”

    But I won’t be going back, because I discovered something about myself. This story is horror and in order for this particular tale to work, everyone has to die. Everyone.

    I can’t write about killing kids. Not anymore. Taking the kids out of the story doesn’t make sense….having them survive wrecks the story.

    So, I’ll just focus on my microfiction for a while.And I’m fine with that. I’m not abandoning the tale because I don’t finish stuff. I’m abandoning it because I’ve changed. It happens.

    • Cay Reet

      In my experience, not even one out of ten stories I start is ever getting finished, but I keep the ‘corpses’ of my unfinished stories. Sometimes, parts of them can actually be useful.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        That is both a great idea and super metal.

        • Cay Reet

          When I wrote my first novel (I didn’t know I was writing one at first), a villain from a never-finished story became the villain of this one – she only got a different name, a switch from Arthurian legend to Celtic mythology.

          I’ve found that sometimes characters, plot points, scenes, or other ideas from a story I never finish can be exactly what I need to finish another story, so I regularly look into the stories which I have on my HD and which aren’t going to be finished.

          • Brigitta M.

            Y’all are awesome. I’ve created a lot of interesting characters in that story so I’ve got a bunch of “recyclable potential” just in that part. I even have an idea of what to do with one of the kids. She’s quite the rebellious tyke who climbs trees just so she can miss the school bus. I’m interested in seeing how she grows up.

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