Ask TON: Clearing Writer’s Block

Close-up of a typewriter with three question marks.


Welcome back for another installment of Ask TON. Our latest question: How do you deal with creative block?

It’s safe to say most writers have experienced some variation of the following: You sit at your desk and a blank page stares at you. You type your byline, then you hit the “enter” key 17 times. Then you type -30- or THE END. You move the cursor back to the top and you stare at the blank screen. Then you get up and go make a sandwich. But writers gotta write, so at some point, we buckle down and get started. A few particularly prolific science writers offer tips and tricks for how to do that.

How do you get started?

Emily Willingham, Forbes columnist and co-founder of DoubleXScience:

I had writer’s block for this one because I don’t really ever have writer’s block *ducks*. But … to get myself jump started, I work opening grafs or ideas around in my head and play with metaphors for what I think I want the theme or framework to be.

Sometimes, I’ll make an electronic post-it or text myself a conceptualization that I like, and that gives me a starting point for when I face down a blank MS Word doc, even if I ditch that original idea altogether and go with something else, which I often do. But my starting point is always spending a lot of time rolling the information around in my brain and trying to capture it in a metaphorical structure that serves as the framework in which I build out the rest of the narrative.

I do this best when I’ve got no other urgent mental obligations, such as when I’m just going to sleep or waking up or driving around alone. It’s one of my favorite ways to spend those moments.

Rose Eveleth, freelance writer and producer and BBC Future columnist:

I have a tiered strategy for dealing with writer’s block. The first tier is prevention (is it cheating to include that?) which means that before I write, I make sure that I’m ready to write. That sounds obvious, but I’ve found that the easiest way for me to get stuck on something is for me to not be fully mentally prepared to put words to page (er, screen, or whatever). I put on my writing music (usually this Songza playlist) close all my social media distractions, and set a goal for myself. Sometimes that’s “write an outline of this story” or maybe it’s “just vomit everything out so we can fix it later,” but whatever it is, I find that having a goal that’s more specific than just “write” is really helpful to make sure that I actually do write something.

If I do all that, and I still get stuck, my second tier is to stop forcing it. For me, the best way to lose a day is to try and power through writer’s block. It’s just not how my brain works. Instead, I try to trick myself into feeling like I’m doing something fun, but that’s also going to help me progress with the writing. One thing I do is go into old image archives and search for words relevant to the story I’m working on. So, if I’m researching prosthetics, I might go to the National Library of Medicine image archive and search “prosthetics” and look through images of old prosthetic technologies and advertisements. If I’m researching mummies I might go look at old illustrations of mummies on Wikimedia Commons. Similarly, sometimes I’ll go back and read old descriptions of things using Google Books, searching for things published before 1900 that are relevant to my story. This stuff rarely makes it into my writing, but it helps me get into the zone and thinking about the thing I’m writing about in a different way. Often, after a little while of this, I’m ready to actually type some more words.

If I’m 100 percent stuck, I move on. Luckily, as a freelancer, I’m always juggling a ton of projects of all sorts—from blogs to features to podcasts to animations. I know for some people that sounds like a nightmare, but for me that kind of bouncing around is really mentally satisfying. So if I do find myself completely stuck, I acknowledge it and move to something else. Often, after an hour of editing a podcast or blog post, I can come back to whatever I got stuck on and I’ve now got the words I couldn’t find before.

If that doesn’t work (yikes) I go for a run.

The biggest challenge for me is letting go and recognizing when no amount of wiggling or pushing or dancing is going to move me forward. I’m stubborn, but being too stubborn means wasting a day doing nothing but hating yourself.

Tim Folger, contributing editor for Discover and OnEarth and series editor of The Best American Science and Nature Writing:

I’ve come to believe writer’s block doesn’t really exist, at least not in the sense of an obstacle that stands in the way of one’s work. What we usually think of as “writer’s block” is, I think, a necessary and unavoidable part of creating something. I don’t think I’ve ever had the experience of a story just flowing out of me.

The block, the doubt, the ferment, the second-guessing—whatever you choose to call it—will always be there. And that’s probably a good thing. Eventually we all manage to sit down and write. What makes us do that? I wish I knew.

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