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I really want to write, but as soon as I sit down and set pen to paper, my mind goes blank.

I can't think of anything to write. Sometimes I stare at my screen for hours; doesn't help.

If I do think of something, it feels stupid, it won't work, it's cliche, etc. Can someone tell me what to do? Am I too anxious, have too high expectations, or trying to think too hard? I simply cannot write.

How do I get over this? Have other people coped with this problem successfully? How?

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I'd suggest looking at this thread, which lists many places where you can find writing prompts. –  sjohnston Mar 21 '11 at 15:10

16 Answers 16

If you can't think of a story idea, you either need to step away from writing or give up completely. There are story ideas everywhere. At any given time a fiction writer generally has a few WIPs that they're working on, and if not ones they've started, they've usually got a list of story ideas they'd like to work on in the future.

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How about helpful answers, not de-motivational answers? –  Nick Bedford Mar 22 '11 at 1:05
    
There's nothing wrong with the idea of stepping away and experiencing until you want to write again. I had to do it. –  justkt Mar 22 '11 at 11:58
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Every author has to walk away at some point. Even Stephen King has had points in his life where he's needed a break from writing. –  Ralph Gallagher Mar 22 '11 at 14:20
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I'd have to say Stephen King's On Writing is one of my favorite books about the craft. Useful for both fiction and non-fiction writers. –  rianjs Mar 23 '11 at 16:31
  1. Turn off that censor. Have a drink or two. You have to come to terms with the fact that you will "write shitty first drafts," as Anne Lamott says in the writing/life guide I would highly, highly recommend: Bird by Bird. It helped myself and many others get over fears like you're having right now.
  2. If you are stuck in the middle of a novel, take a look at where you are at and where you're going. Deduce any of the pivotal scenes that needs to happen between now and then, and work your way quickly toward one of those.
  3. If you're coming up with a total blank at the very beginning of a short story or novel, then you need a catalyst in the first place. Look at some newspaper headings, read a few books, thoroughly examine pivotal, dramatic moments in your life. Start writing with a striking line of dialogue and go from there. Find a moment in time where something dramatic is happening between two characters. You don't have to know exactly what you're writing when you sit down. Just explore. Start writing something. Even if what you end up writing is going straight to the garbage, most often you'll find a glimmer of something buried in that garbage. So then you start over again, this time with the glimmer in mind.
  4. Just as a rule, you can't rely on other people to tell you what to write.
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You had me at "censor". Then lost me at "drink". –  BobStein-VisiBone Mar 3 at 18:02

You have two issues: writing, and what to write.

Put aside the "what" for a second.

Go get a timer. Set it for ten minutes. Press start. Start writing. It doesn't matter what you write. You can type the alphabet, song lyrics, Schoolhouse Rock, stream of consciousness, what you had for dinner last night, it doesn't matter. Don't edit, don't fix typos, don't save, don't stop. You are even allowed to write "I have no idea what to say next so I am just typing until something occurs to me." Just GO until the timer dings.

There. Now you don't have writer's block. You've just proved to yourself that you can still write.

oldrobots has some excellent suggestions on getting you unstuck on the "what."

I would also add as a general suggestion that you keep a journal (I love the black-and-white marbled composition books) and jot stuff down as it occurs to you. Descriptions, characters, lists of things (Things I like, things I hate, superpowers I would never want, why the color orange annoys me, which items I have had at my favorite restaurant), just write it down. In one of your stuck moments, going back over your journal can sometimes give you a spark.

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Ask yourself: why do you want to write? That may help you.

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To pay my bills, of course. (Just kidding, but this question may not work. Couple of months ago, I experienced programmer's block. Horrible.) –  Nerevar Mar 22 '11 at 10:40

My advice is don't write just to write. Write when you have something to say. Then you won't have this problem.

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You already turned the table around by writing about your writer's block. Continue.

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Why was this downvoted? I +1'd... no, would have even w/o it being -1 when I saw it. I even hesitated a split-second because of the -1. –  Jürgen A. Erhard Mar 21 '11 at 23:30

I think there's another question (which I ask myself all the time).

Does the romantic notion of writing a long winded novel allure you only to find you somehow can't invest your time in such a huge undertaking, possibly resulting in writer's block and procrastination?

I have done some writing, and I love it. I even have a huge story which I think has a lot of potential, but in months and months I have only achieved two ten page chapters. I haven't even touched it for a long time.

I think, for myself, the other activities I'm involved in are much more of a priority, and that writing is more of a pastime, even if it doesn't seem so at the time. In fact, the most time I spent working on it was while I was bored at work.

I'm not trying to stop you from writing, but this is what I've found in my own experience. Maybe it might help.

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I agree with most of the other posts on this topic, but I have a little bit to add:

I think the answer will be different depending on whether you're an established, experienced writer having a dry spell, or if you're an aspiring writer who can't get started.

If you're a fairly experienced writer: I find it helpful to read back over my old books. I either get caught up in the story and build my confidence and enthusiasm that way, or I find a million things I could have done better, and THAT inspires me to go on and write something new so I have a chance to fix the mistakes I made the last time. I also like to have a target publisher in mind for each book; they might not be the people I end up submitting the story to, but I can keep them in mind while writing, as inspiration. "I wonder what the cover will look like? Wouldn't it be cool to have a book for sale from the same publisher as author X?" etc.

If you're a new writer: I agree with Nick Bedford - maybe you like the IDEA of writing, but the actual writing ITSELF isn't that much fun. If that's the case, I'd ask yourself why you want to write. If you're looking for fame and fortune, I'd try something else - this isn't an easy field to break into, and it's even harder to rise to the top. And I'll bet most of the people sitting on top of the writing world didn't have a whole lot of trouble finding things to start writing about. On the other hand, if you want to write because you think you have something to say, or because you have a passion for it, and just HAVE to do it - great, just try to remember that passion when you sit down to write!

A more concrete suggestion - try to get something written and get some feedback on it, as much and as soon as possible. Yes, it's a way to improve your work, but more importantly, it feels GREAT. Writing a novel is a ridiculously long slog with no feedback, no rewards, and no guarantees. It's VERY hard for a first-time writer to stay motivated through all that. Whatever you're writing, make sure you find ways to share it early and often, to keep yourself enthusiastic about the work.

Good luck.

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I guess it depends on how the blank page is overwhelming you. If you can't think of anything at all to write, I do have a couple ideas. These are really more ideas to just start running with something so you can get some writing done, sort of as a way to get the gears unstuck.

  • Go to your bookshelf, pick up a book, flip to a random page and pick a random line of dialog. Copy that dialog down into your story, and start writing off of that.

  • Take a story line from a show you like and use it to write a story in a different setting. Don't write it as fanfic, just lift the start of the plot, and change it as needed.

  • Ask a friend for three to five random words, the write a paragraph around them, and go on from there.

To reiterate, these are ways to get you writing anything to break loose the mental crud. If you can get a good story out of these so much the better (I've gotten at least one great sci-fi story out of this process). Once you get writing on SOMETHING, writing something else will become easier.

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The key point with writing is that writing should be a habit.

I would go so far as to say that what you write (initially) is probably not as important as the fact that you write.

Many authors have confessed to sometimes sitting down and just writing "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog" and other inane phrases over and over again.

Why? Because this is what helps to release your subconscious, which is where you want to be.

It is exceptionally rare that you'll ever sit down and be able to write something "read-worthy" immediately. Most writers develop and incubate ideas over long periods of time.

I would therefore say that the right place to start is to:

  • Get a small journal you can take with you everywhere. Doesn't have to be fancy or expensive, just something good, portable, and sturdy.
  • Get into the habit of jotting down observations: things you see, read, hear - everything.
  • Get into the habit of cutting out clippings from newspapers that you like, or photographs that trigger ideas, and then writing down what you liked about them, or how you may use them.
  • Get into the habit of using your journal like a diary as well. Write down things that you did that day, the things that struck you as interesting.
  • Get into the habit of writing about writing, and about what you've read.
  • Get into the habit of writing about your own memories and thoughts: things you remember happening to you, to friends and family.
  • Start looking at and listening to people, and think of them in terms of possible characters: their flaws and contradictions; their habits; their appearances. Make small character sketches.
  • Try writing early in the morning just when you wake up and before you've done anything. Just get up and write. It doesn't matter what it is, just follow your stream of consciousness.
  • Also look at using word association. If you come up with an idea like "I want to write a story about a ghost", then write down the word ghost. Start writing words that pop in your head with relation to that, and create a word tree with branches. If something you write down triggers an idea, write a branch from that word. (Believe me, this does work!)

You'll notice the key element through all this is: write.

Soon, you'll start to come up with ideas of what to do with what you've written, and you'll write some more ... and that's where the magic is.

Write.

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Wow, thanks for this. I especially like that last point you made. I tend to design software solutions in the same way: start with the basic concept and jot down any thoughts that come to mind, then just follow the trail of ideas. Almost like a mind-map brainstorm. I'll definitely use these tips. –  tobias86 Mar 28 '11 at 18:45
    
Just curious as to why this has now been unaccepted? –  Craig Sefton May 20 '12 at 18:47

First of all; Craig had some really good advice in his post! Thank you Craig for these, I must try out the association tree. Anyway, I thought I'd share a tip of mine about how I practice my flow of words.

When I feel the urge to write I have set up a journal which I can reach over the internet. I write what ever comes in my mind and I have one and only one rule; I am not allowed to go back and change or delete anything I've written. This simple rule has changed my way of writing a great deal to be honest.

Before I used this rule for my journal I tried numerous times to write down ideas and short stories but I always got caught up in the work of re-writing and re-touching before I was done. This of course led to that I did not finish of anything I wrote which made me think I could never write.

By using the rule of no re-write in my journal I have eradicated the pressure of writing anything "wrong" since all I write is as it is. My only way of change it is to continue to write and by doing so change the context.

So my advice to you on how to start to write is simply, just write and don't look back while your doing it. Let your thoughts and feelings flow and then read what you've written afterwards. By doing this the writing itself will become more and more natural for you and you will have an easier task of writing an actual story in a more relaxed way.

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Thanks Xeno, I quite like the idea, I imagine it gives you a good feeling for how your skill is improving. I'll give it a try! –  tobias86 Mar 29 '11 at 21:32

Your mind goes blank because you're censoring yourself. Your Inner Critic is at work here.

You should start with words. Yes, just words. Write them down first. Also, don't ignore sentence fragments.

When you have the ideas that those words and sentence fragments suggest, you then write the sentences.

It's as simple as that.

I hope this helps.

Li Xiao Loong

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I don't think that "blank mind" is caused by one's Inner Critic (IC). IC may be responsible for "writing paralysis" - when one's too afraid or demoralized to write anything because - in IC's words - "it's c**p that no one will ever read, because you're a terrible writer." But when one's mind is blank and he/she doesn't know what to write, that's a different thing. –  Lukas Stejskal May 16 '11 at 12:50
    
@LukasStejskal it's been my experience that what seems like a blank mind can actually be a mind with all its doors shut, windows blackened, and furniture repossessed by an overachieving Inner Critic. –  BobStein-VisiBone Mar 3 at 18:06

Artists Way, Julia Cameron: three pages a day, longhand, first thing in the morning.

Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott: Start with a 1" picture frame and describe what you see. (Also, shitty first drafts.)

Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: Start with the brick in the corner of the building. Describe it.

They're all saying the same thing. On Writing, Stephen King. Art & Fear, Bayles & Orland.

Do it, and do it again, and again, and again, and again. I've been at it since 1973. Disconnect "having a pen in your hand and paper on your desk" from "having anything to say." Get the pen moving, and when it's ready, you'll start having something to say.

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Thanks, will give these a try. –  tobias86 Apr 27 '11 at 20:04
    
+1 Big ringing endorsement for Julia Cameron's Morning Pages. (Her term for what you describe.) Strong medicine against the "inner censor" -- the real villain and source of writer's block. –  BobStein-VisiBone Mar 3 at 17:58

You just need to shut off the inner critic, and start writing.

There are two main approaches: pantsing, and plotting.

As I answered in the question linked above, pantsing works for very few people. Plotting is a better approach, for me at least.

Write down a rough, one page summary of what you want the book to be, create a few characters, create 30-40 scenes which move the story forward, and start writing.

As you write, you don't have to stick to the plan. If you dont like a character, just ignore them and continue writing, but don't go back to edit your novel. If you don't like the plot, again change it on the fly, and pretend that's what you wrote. You can always fix any plot holes in editing.

The dilemma you are stuck in happens to everyone, and the only way out is to type out 50-60,000 words, without criticising yourself or trying to edit. There is no easy way, you just have to slog through the process.

A way to make this easy is to write what you love. This may or may not be what you like reading, or the type of writer you want to be. For a long time I wanted to be a serious writer, the type that wins awards & stuff. But every time I tried to write such books, my muse revolted, and like you I ended up writing nothing.

Accepting that I have my own style, and it may never win me the Pulitzer award was one of the biggest challenges for me, harder than how to create a plot/character, things all the blog writers want to talk about.

I will end with a quote from Scott Berkun:

This means that when people can’t start they’re imagining the precision of the end, all polished and brilliant, a vision that makes the ugly clumsy junkyard that all beginnings are, impossible to accept. Good voice, tone, rhythm, ideas and grammar are essential to good writing, but they’re never introduced all at once.

and

Have you ever been blocked while playing Frisbee? Eating doughnuts? Dancing naked in your living room? Those are joyful things and there’s nothing at stake: if you fail, who cares? Nobody. If there are no rules, and no judgment, psychological blocks are impossible. And remember writers like making names and overthinking things: there is no term for architect-block, painter-block, juggler-block or composer-block. Every creative pursuit faces similar pressures, but they don’t obsess about it the way writers seem to do.

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This was great advice and seems like a mixture of everything I thought. Thanks –  wrightgeek May 15 '12 at 13:48

You could try a more structured approach than just sitting down and writing something. When I run into this issue, I start branching out my ideas using a snowflake model. You don't have to follow any strict guidelines, just jot down some simple ideas and keep branching off. Sooner than later ideas will pour in faster than you can type. When they stop, go back to your model.

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This may work as well. One of my issues is, at work I have to plan everything as a programmer. And obviously as this involves lot of writing I am trying to plan everything in my head before writing. Maybe some simple mind maps might spark some creativity –  wrightgeek May 15 '12 at 14:37
    
Zen koans are similarly helpful, for me, when I'm stuck. Sometimes the mental surprise helps spark the creative engines, so to speak. If you can't start at the beginning, go somewhere random. :) –  Hydrangea May 16 '12 at 14:46

One approach, which seemed to work for me, is just to write something. It doesn't matter what - write a review or assessment of a TV programme, And then rewrite it to make it better. If you want, send it to a newspaper, which might give you a good focus, but the purpose is not to have something marketable, just to go through the process of writing something significant - i.e. longer than an answer on SE.

If you can get something written, taking the time to get it right, it might give you the inspiration to continue to write more and more, as well as the practicalities, and working on getting them right.

My writing was a PhD thesis, but it showed me that i could write and re-write over a period of time, and produce something worthwhile (sort of - I have still to get it completed!). Once you are over the challenge of being able to write something significant, you will find it easier.

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