Writing well is tough, and practically all authors, even the greats, have suffered from both writer’s block and feelings of inferiority at least once (and probably countless times). To help struggling writers, I thought it would be worth reaching out to professional writers to ask what they can advise for becoming a better writer and any tips they could share. Here’s the question I posed:
What primary piece of advice can you offer to struggling writers on how to overcome writer’s block and produce great work? Personal stories on how you became a better writer are welcome, along with of course tips grounded in solid evidence.
Of the 60+ responses that came in and I’ve collected so far, there were a lot of good suggestions that came back, and I’ve published (in my opinion) the best ones below. Most comments I chose to publish are from either published authors or freelance writers with many years of experience writing full time.
Here’s how I’d summarize all the points people have made. For each bullet point, I’ve made a link to the full comment(s) for it:
- Prepare an outline of what you want to write and schedule your writing sessions (link)
- Write even if it’s bad (link)
- Don’t be afraid to use combative language, especially in titles (link) (EDITORS NOTE: Though it’s possible controversial titles are slightly overdone these days)
- Relax and enjoy the distractions (link)
- Read as much as you can (link), not just non-fiction in your niche but short stories as well (link)
- Write about your writer’s block (link)
- Stop aiming for perfectionism on the first draft (link)
- Consider the meaning behind your topic and what readers are actually looking to see (link)
- Similarly, think about the demography of your audience (link)
- Change the medium you’re writing in (link)
- Start planning whenever you can’t start writing (link)
- Discuss the topic with someone else (link)
- Be specific in your writing and vary sentence length (link)
- Consider the times you’re most productive (morning or night) (link)
- Avoid editing when you write. Do it after (link)
- Purposely write the worst thing you can (link) to help switch your mind from critical to constructive
- Stop thinking with your head and write from your heart (link, link)
- Talk a walk and sleep on your work (link)
We’d like to continue adding to this piece, so if you’re a professional writer with input to share beyond what’s been suggested already, you’re very welcome to make a submission here and I’ll add it to this article. And if you are a writer or an aspiring writer turning to this article for advice, I also recommend checking out these other great pieces we’ve published:
- How To Become A Freelance Writer: 24 Writers Share Their Stories & Advice (if you’re interested in earning an income from freelance writing — this contains a lot of very pragmatic advice from people who have actually made money from freelance writing)
- 15 Authors Share Their Stories & Advice (all kinds of stories from published authors on why they wrote a book, how they did it and any advice they can share for others trying to publish a book)
First of all, I don’t believe in a writer’s block. If you are a writer, you can write. And you should write. Every. Single. Day. 10 years ago I opened my first professional blog to share tips for my clients at my website. I had no idea what topics I should write about and how to transfer my thoughts on a blank page. But I made a promise to myself and I kept it.
I scheduled my writing time in advance. Every Monday I’d force myself to write my new blog post, even if there was no initial idea in my mind. Once you start to write, at some point your thoughts become clearer. All you need to do is to write the first sentence. The magic will probably happen later, once you start editing your piece.
This approach helped to develop my writing skills. This is also how I wrote and published my first book (You've got this: How to continue your freelance career when you become a mother). I started from a table of contents, an outline of my book with all the points I wanted to mention. Then I scheduled all my writing sessions – 2 hours per day, at least 4 days per week for 3 months. Sometimes it was tough, but I kept the promise I made to myself. Sometimes I would only write half a page, because I’d spend too much time on researching, but some progress was always there.
To sum up, I think the key ingredient is to prepare an outline of your article or a book, schedule your writing time and then show up every single time. Plus, it does help if you keep writing every day, even if you don’t really know what you should write. Let the intuition take you for a ride. Silence your inner critic for a while. Don’t edit too soon. The rest will come.
--Dorota Pawlak, DP Translation Services
When I started writing, I was an avid reader and I would read books on everything I was doing, from parenting to cooking. One day, I stumbled on Seth Godin's post (https://seths.blog/2011/09/talkers-block) on the writer's block. What I read shocked me. He said no one ever gets talker's block. No one wakes up in the morning, discovers he has nothing to say and sits quietly, for days or weeks, until the muse hits, until the moment is right until all the craziness in his life has died down. According to him, we get writer's block because we are afraid of what we will write might garner negative feedback and so we don't even sit down to write.
So, what we should do instead is write often even if it is bad. Every day, we will write better than the previous day and eventually we will stumble upon good writing. That's what I did and now I proudly call myself a writer. I have writers in my team, I give them the same advice and it works for them too. I hope this insight was useful to you.
--Elizabeth Hicks, Parenting Nerd
I heard this one directly from the source. My editor at a major publisher confided that most authors are simply too safe. ‘We prefer combative titles,’ she suggested. ’Something with a little grit, a little fight sputtering in the rockets.’ Since then, I’ve taken this idea to heart. My two bestselling titles both come at the reader elbows first, with the titles, ‘Is Your Thinking Keeping You Poor?’, and ‘Political Correctness Does More Harm Than Good.’
--Douglas Kruger, douglaskrugerspeaker.com
My primary piece of advice to overcome writer’s block and produce great work is to relax. Take time to let your mind drift and enjoy your distractions. Go and embrace being random.
Try walking in circles, go to a theater and watch a movie, read a book unrelated to your topic, or open your phone and check your Twitter or Instagram. Surprise yourself!
Being creative needs to be unpredictable. This is why you should be mysterious or serendipitous. Fuel your mind with spontaneity.
--Arnold Chapman, ELDFocus.com
Read and write a lot! This is my best tip. When I was starting out on blogging about beauty, I faced challenges such as not knowing how to select words and phrases that would fit well in a sentence to grab readers' attention. While I tried using online tools, I realized they didn't offer the help I needed. I invested in books. At first, have a goal. set a goal on the number of books you'd like to read for a month. Thereafter, make plans and get the books. Whenever you have time to read your books, be sure to do that when your mind is fresh and relaxed since this would help you read critically and see how writers use phrases, use punctuation marks, and above all how they attract readers' attention.
Don't just read books, invest your time into blogs and any other online publications from trusted sources. While this may be involving, it's worth the time - You'll never regret it.
When you have a grasp of how people write, start writing. Don't wait until you are hired. Do yourself the favor and write for free on random subjects or the subject you'd like to write on. If you have a mentor, you can send them your pieces for scrutinization. If you don't have, keep writing and scrutinize them through online writing tools and fix the mistakes you make. Over time, you will see an increase in your writing style. Reading and writing should be part of your writing career going forward.
--Dawn Clemens, Larwehair
My number one tip for overcoming writer’s block and producing great work would be to write about your writer’s block. People always laugh when I give this tip, but then later acknowledge that it works! You can use your writer’s block to your advantage. Write about how it makes you feel; try out a new form, like poetry; start a fictional story about someone with writer’s block and how it’s setting them back. As a writer, you should always begin by writing about what you know. If all you currently know is the struggle and frustration of writer’s block — that’s what you should write about.
--Beth McCallum, Oh So Spotless
Writing content isn't just about putting words about some topics out there. You've to understand the purpose behind it and what the readers going to expect after reading your headline.
Your topic or headline is basically a promise you're making with the readers before. They'll click away like it's on fire if they don't immediately get the answer they're looking for. The content would never reach its goal if the reader abandons it like that.
I often see writers making this mistake, they create a piece based on their gut feelings. And it's completely ok when you're getting started.
But, you've to learn to figure out the meaning behind the topic and what readers would actually are looking to see. Then, you've got to put yourself in the reader's shoes while writing your piece. That way you'll know if they'll be able to content through your content.
--Farhan Sheikh, Trip101
If a writer is struggling to push past writer’s block — or maybe they feel like they’ve plateaued in their writing — my favorite trick to suggest is to change the medium that they’re currently writing with. If they’re writing in Microsoft Word or Google Docs, I suggest breaking out the pen and paper. If they’re on paper, switch to a word processor. Going on a walk and using voice memos to record thoughts is also incredibly helpful. Simply changing the writing environment will help unjam that writer’s block in no time.
On our website, our editorial team produces nearly 50 articles a week. At that level, it’s common to feel stuck or overwhelmed. When someone is struggling, I’ll often ask if they’d like to go for a walk or grab some coffee. A few minutes away from the assignment goes a long way.
--Joshua Pelletier, BarBend
My top tip for overcoming writer’s block and producing great work is to start planning whenever you can’t start writing.
Unless inspiration strikes, there’s nothing harder than sitting down to write with a blank page. If you write for a living, you often don’t have the luxury of waiting to be inspired. But a solid plan will always give you a place to begin.
Don’t know what you want to write about? Research a variety of topics relevant to your experience or industry and see what resonates with you. Brainstorm a list of possible topics. Your first idea is almost never your best, so try to come up with several. Once you start your list, regularly add to it, and you’ll be able to turn to this resource whenever you need an idea.
Have an idea but don’t know where to start? Make an outline to help you identify the different areas you’ll need to cover and how to organize them. If you realize you need to learn more or do more research first, then start there. If you’re still struggling, take a look at other writing on the topic, in your field, or that you admire to use for guidance. Think about what’s working well and how you can replicate its strategies and success.
--Lauren Walter, Online Optimism
When I started as an SEO writer I had a couple of short stories and several years of university papers behind me. A copywriter coach took me under his wing and showed me what the field of SEO writing was all about. The process was long, and I was coached for several things at the same time. There were moments when I felt I was literally running out of words.
However, what really made all the difference was this: I was advised to start reading short stories. Lots of them. Why? Well, if you want to write you need to be an avid reader. Everyone will tell you that.
However, what few people would recommend is actually reading short stories from many authors from different time and nationality. I spent months reading the works of Maupassant, Borges, Lovecraft and Po, King and Munro. They taught me different styles of writing, ways to engage the reader quickly and efficiently, and most importantly - they gave me so much in terms of inspiration. Writer's block is not something I have experienced in many months. It’s the best advice an experienced writer can give you.
--Darina Linkova, Extension Ranking
The best way to overcome writer's block and produce excellent work is by discussing the topic with someone else.
Sit down with a friend, colleague, or family member, make yourself a cup of tea, and have a conversation. Being open to others' ideas will foster your creativity and help you think out of the box.
My advice is to avoid writing down ideas, as you might lose the flow of the conversation. Record it instead if you want the content to come naturally.
This simple tip will help you get out of your head and make the process more enjoyable. You'll be surprised by how much content you can get by simply listening to others.
--EJ Mitchell, LiveCareer
Be as specific as possible. So many beginning writers understandably assume that the best way to speak to an unknown reader is to write about a common experience. That makes sense, but it’s actually a misguided approach. The very best writing is grounded in specificity. The more small details you can provide, the more memorable your writing will be. And, the more relatable your writing will be! People can imagine themselves in your story when you make it as concrete as possible by providing small details. So when you describe a desk, don’t just mention the computer. Write about the big iMac with the picture of an orange as the background, the broken mug full of Sharpies, and the open canister of Carmex. Isn’t that more memorable?
Vary your sentence length! When some sentences are long and others are short, you get to pull the reader close and push them away. That’s the most engaging way to write, and it keeps people reading!
Read fiction. No matter what genre you’re trying to write in, the more fiction you read, the better your writing will become. Good fiction is absorbing, so it doesn’t feel like a chore to read. And the more reading you do, the more those lessons will soak into your brain while you’re experiencing “leisure.” Over time, you’ll get to watch those fiction moves trickle into your own writing.
--Kelsey Donk, kelseydonk.com
The biggest mistake I see from new writers is making the perfect the enemy of the good. Writing is a mental muscle, and you'll exercise it far more efficiently by finishing more assignments – rather than endlessly polishing a smaller number of them. Good enough is not a crime!
Good content can always be improved over time, and if you're writing online copy you'll be doing plenty of that to stay relevant. You really sharpen your production levels and quality by pushing through the wordcount though.
--John Bedford, Viva Flavor
Always think about your audience. When you are writing to your friends or coworkers, your writing style can be more relaxed and comfortable, but it’s safe to practice writing using more formal grammar while dealing with management and/or clients. Bear in mind that formal does not always mean old-fashioned or cliched. Instead, it demands that you sparingly use contractions (it is instead of it's), consciously choose your greeting words (hello and yes are more formal than hey), and wisely choose your humor. In language, it is much more difficult to express tone in writing than in person. Knowing your audience and what tone you want to use makes you stand out as a good writer.
--Dr. Robert Applebaum, Applebaum Beverly Hills
To become a good writer, you have to find a certain time to practice writing to get better results and find a place where you can write without distractions. Mornings are perfect for most people since their loved ones and neighbors are generally asleep. Some people like to write all night. Whatever you think is best for you, make it a daily habit every day, it takes thirty minutes to an hour to write and keep you inspired. The more you write, the better it gets.
--Daniel Snow, The Snow Agency
Avoid editing while you write. You can only do one thing at a time, so concentrate on your thoughts and what you have to say then after. Don't overcomplicate your life and try to do everything at once. Allow your mind to organize its thoughts and then come back later and edit your writing to your liking.
--Alex Keyan, goPure Brands
I actually went to college for creative writing, before I swapped over to education, and the thing that I learned is to not be hard on yourself. Simply saying “just keep writing” is all well and good, but there’s that critical nagging in the back of a writer's mind that always says “it’s not good enough”.
That’s a mindset that’s hard to shake. One trick I used was to purposefully write the worst thing I could. Make the writing absolutely trash. When the voice in your head says it’s garbage you can high five it and say, “You’re damn right it is!” Then when you’ve written the most atrocious piece of garbage known to mankind you can look at it again, and think about how to fix it. You’ll notice the voice in your head has shifted from nagging and critical to constructive.
--Bryan Truong, GameCows
My number one tip that also kind of sounds like a cliche: Stop overthinking and listen to your heart.
Writers tend to get stuck in their own heads and get frightened over publishing anything. What if my content is not good enough? What if I seem stupid? What if no one cares about my content? These thoughts sneak up on you, even if you're a more established writer.
And often, writers think that the best way to overcome their blocks and fears is to follow some how-tos or step-by-step guidelines. None of those guidelines will ever work since they don't take into account one thing: your own heart.
Writing can never be a mechanical process where you just follow some rules. Great content comes from the bottom of your heart! You don't have to be sophisticated or smarter than others or even that good of a writer in the technical sense. Being a good writer is not something you can learn by following how-tos.
If you're ever struggling with writing and just can't put any words on paper, don't force it on you. Go out, have fun, grab a coffee with a friend, watch your favorite movie, play with a dog, dress up, do anything you enjoy - that inspiring writing moment will find you.
Never force creativity on you and never take the writing process as if it's a manufacturing line in a power plant.
--Viktoria Krunsenvald, Financer
As a content writer working on research and surveys, I take comfort in the fact that many successful writers like Leo Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf, J.K. Rowling also suffered from periods of writer's block.
I've experienced it, though not as frequent, but still, I can say that nothing works more for overcoming a writer's block than 'writing to yourself.' It is surely tempting to turn your back on the problem and hope that it goes away on its own. But no, do not procrastinate, DO NOT stop writing. You might be writing for an audience of hundreds, thousands, or millions of people. Now is the time to open your journal and write for yourself in your authentic voice. Like everything else, writer's block doesn't appear out of thin air. There must be a reason, apparent or obscure, known or unknown! Let your subconscious seek that reason on a paper without worrying about punctuations or editing. Your journal will show patterns in what's plaguing you, what you should investigate further.
Moreover, it will also help you listen to your inner critic. Respectfully acknowledge its concern, address what's necessary, and skip over what's insecure and irrelevant, and move forward!
--Nathan Sebastian, GoodFirms
Writing is about capturing the divine. Your brain is the last thing that needs to be involved. The only way you’ll tap into the divine is through your emotions and your body. Refer to them often.
Forget your idea, your character, your story, all of that.
There’s a Pied Piper of Wordsville that will come coax those dots and squiggles out of their hidey-holes. Get in your body. Orient yourself.
Focus on your breathing. Feel the air as it fills your lungs, then whooshes back out again. Do this a few times until you’re out of that pesky headspace.
Then write what you can feel - the seat under your butt, the cool metal of your laptop, the warm air after a thunderstorm. What do you smell? Last night’s pans fermenting on the stove? What do you hear? What do you see? Your laptop? The neighbour’s cat licking her unmentionable on your couch. What do you taste? That full-bodied coffee? Toothpaste? The bitter taste of regret?
Write all this sensory stuff down. DON’T THINK. Keep in your body and free write through your five senses. Orient your writing into the present moment as you’re experiencing it.
Now, which emotions are bubbling up for you as you work through your five senses? Write about them. In full glorious techno-colour detail.
Somewhere along the line, you’ll click back into full sentences and your scene.
All great writing is about connection with emotion. So not only does this help get the words flowing, it also helps get the words connecting with your audience as well.
I’m a writing consultant, writing coach and author of romance novels.
--Suzanne Jefferies, suzannejefferies.com
I have been working as a creative copywriter for an advertising agency for six years now. As a professional, I assure you that writer’s block is real and we face it often.
An approach that helps me often is to take a walk and sleep on it. I whole-heartedly believe that creativity can’t be forced. When words are not flowing easily- then it’s not the write-up, rather your mind that needs a restart. I turn off my notebook, keep it aside, and start doing something completely different. Usually, I go out to take a walk to get some fresh air. Or maybe I just get a nap for an hour. If it happens in the evening, I just get my dinner and go to bed early. The following day, I try to get up early and start from scratch. This renewed energy and refreshed mind help me to identify the flaws and the correction becomes easy. Once the confidence is regained, the words start flowing at their own pace.
--Korbin Russell, askmyfather
For me, becoming a better writer starts with understanding your audience. When you know who is reading your texts, you know which style is appropriate and how you need to frame the issue that your writing brings forth. Include your readers in the conversation, because they are the ones who are interested in going through your entire text. Adapting your style does not necessarily mean sacrificing who you are as a writer, but rather showing your audience that you take them into consideration and you are confident enough in your thinking and writing that you can adapt and switch from one level to another, depending on who's reading.
--Mihaela Buzec, RENTCafe.com
1. Avoid the use of personal pronouns in your writing, personal pronouns reflect the writers´ inability to transform her ideas into a more elaborated style, thus It is highly recommended to avoid them.
2. do not form lengthy sentences, lengthy sentences may appear complex but less experienced authors should opt for writing shorter sentences.
3. Avoid mistakes in your writing by checking the expression on google. You could even use the word reference tool to get insight into the contextual meaning of words. Word reference helped me a lot when I was unsure about the usage of word in the sentence. As a non-native speaker, the worst part of language learning was to express my ideas in a clear and concise manner.
4. Reading is a passive process of learning according to cognitive scientists. Speaking plays an active role in learning, focus more on this part. As a teacher, I know that speaking helps my students more than reading or writing. However, the development of all language skills is the prerequisite to success.
5. Read a text and then paraphrase it by changing the word order. The following tip is considered to be plagiarism but It will help you expand your vocabulary. Avoid doing this if you write an academic paper, this could get you into a lot of trouble.
--Lenka Filicka, English With Eva
Think about a book that you have read that really grabbed you. Really absorbed you into the story— fiction or non-fiction--and you felt like you wanted to go wherever that author was taking you. Spend some time reading parts of that book again, holding in mind the concept of writerly authority. Once you start looking for it, you will be dazzled at the facility with which the author commands the story.
You can write like that too.
Let’s examine the word ‘authority’. What feeling do you get reading the word ‘authority’? Do you feel rebellious, like you don’t want to listen to someone else? Do you feel like you want to immediately say “no” to a request? If you answered yes to these questions, then you think of authority as something that subjugates you.
Or conversely, when you think of authority, do you feel secure knowing that someone else knows more than you do about something? Do you envision someone who can give you guidance and advice? Does having someone around in authority make you feel like all is handled?
Or do you have both reactions to the word—positive and negative?
It is my experience that many people are ambivalent about authority—both as it is exercised by others and by themselves. We seem, as a culture, to be confused about it. To whom do we give authority and why? When do we claim it ourselves? This ambivalence is understandable since we live in a heterogeneous culture with many value systems and many people claiming power over us who may not have our best interests at heart.
What does this have to do with writing, you may ask? Well, actually, everything.
The word authority comes from the word author. From the Latin: auctoritatem (nominative auctoritas) “invention, advice, opinion, influence, command,” from auctor “master, leader, author.”
In my work as an editor, one issue that I deal with frequently is a writer who is reluctant to become an author, a leader—someone who is actually claiming authority over what the reader is reading and understanding.
I can tell you that the writer/author/leader who does not claim authority might as well hang up her keyboard and call it a day.
Here are two examples:
I recently helped a vocal coach with a book about the technique she has developed to teach her singing students. She is without question an absolute authority on teaching singing and her students have had remarkable results using her methods. However, the initial version of the book did not reflect these facts. She backpedaled on many of her explanations of her methods. She wrote in passive sentence structures.
I asked her to describe to me how she acts in her studio sessions with her students. She painted a picture of herself as a confident leader who creatively deals with every issue that comes up. She inspires her singers to move past their perceived limitations to achieve vocal prowess that they did not think possible. Armed with that knowledge, we changed her book and her writing to reflect this powerhouse of a teacher. Now her message comes through beautifully and forcefully, as it should.
Another client of mine who is writing a memoir found herself awash in a powerful story but she was writing it as if she had no idea what was going on. This made me, as surrogate for the reader, uneasy and insecure. How am I supposed to trust this author if she doesn’t trust herself?
This writer made the mistake many writers make. She did not take charge of the story and instead let her main character (her younger self) run the show. And the show she ran was a meandering and bumbling mess, much like her life at the time. The author was confusing the actions of her main character with her own role as author. Once she began to differentiate between herself and her protagonist, the book gained cohesion and clarity while story remained an account of chaos and confusion. What a lovely achievement!
No matter what the story is or who the main character is, the author must act as captain and keep steering the ship with a steady hand even in unruly seas.
We read because we want to see the world through the eyes of the author. We want to know what he knows. We ask and expect her to be our leader and show us some new terrain. We expect our author-authority to navigate us safely into and through an uncharted, exciting land that we have not experienced before.
Know your story. Know the journey you want to take your reader on. Lead with confidence. Write with Authority.
--Elaine Silver, elaine-silver.com
Don’t feel you have to start at the beginning when doing a writing assignment. Start with the easy parts, the sections or sentences for which you already know what you want to say. Maybe that’s your introduction or maybe it’s your call to action at the end. Or some part in between the two. The point is it doesn’t matter as long as you’re making forward progress.
Once you’ve completed any sections that were “easy,” move on to other sections where you Have some idea of what you want to say. I’ve found that each paragraph or section I write leads to others. Before I know it, I’m filling in all the blanks on the page, creating transitions between sections, reorganizing if necessary, and fine-tuning my word choices.
Writing in this manner is similar to doing a jigsaw puzzle. You start with the edges, move on to some other easily identifiable section and soon the whole picture begins to emerge. Every piece you add to the puzzle leads to other successful placements. You gain momentum along with a positive feeling of accomplishment. Your speed picks up as you get clarity in the big picture.
Sometimes you find sections you need to revisit and rework or move around, whether a puzzle or a write-up, but that’s not nearly as daunting as when you were starting the project with a blank canvas. So give yourself permission to start anywhere you’d like if that helps you get to the finish line.
In the end, the reader (or a person looking at your finished puzzle) will never know where you began; they’ll only see the impressive finished product and think “Well done!”
--Susan Greene, susangreenecopywriter.com