The dreaded writer’s block – and ways to smash through the barriers
If you ask 100 people how to define writer’s block and/or what causes the blockage, you’ll get at least 101 answers, ranging from those who don’t believe in the phenomenon to those who have elaborate theories on the subject.
When making the case for its existence, you could point to the character of Bubba in Forest Gump, one of the brainstorming masterminds of all time. When he got on his favorite subject, he knew how to examine it from every angle.
To quote, “Anyway, like I was saying, shrimp is the fruit of the sea. You can barbecue it, boil it, broil it, bake it, sauté it. There’s uh, shrimp-kabobs, shrimp creole, shrimp gumbo. Pan fried, deep fried, stir-fried. There’s pineapple shrimp, lemon shrimp, coconut shrimp, pepper shrimp, shrimp soup, shrimp stew, shrimp salad, shrimp and potatoes, shrimp burger, shrimp sandwich. That . . . that’s about it.”
And, if Bubba the shrimp expert eventually ran out of ideas – which is a commonly described symptom of writer’s block – then you shouldn’t feel bad when you find it difficult to come up with fresh topics for your blog or site. It happens to the best of us. But, when that happens, what should you do?
Some ways to generate blog and article ideas include:
- Reading relevant trade publications, either online or in print
- Networking with individuals in the relevant industry to find out what’s new, exciting and/or controversial
- Following the appropriate people and groups on social media channels, watching for what’s trending or new and as-of-yet largely unexplored
- Conducting keyword research and/or looking to see what is currently driving traffic to the blog or site
- Sharing relevant personal / professional experiences
If you just can’t seem to get your juices flowing, these are techniques used by some of the pros:
- Take a walk
- Take a shower
- Take a nap
- Switch to a different project and then return to what’s ailing you
- Eat a light meal
Each of these has worked for me in the past, along with other more offbeat ones, such as lighting incense or playing with my magnetic poetry set. Regardless of the techniques you use, it never hurts to come up with new strategies for creating writing topics – and so we’ve reached out to professionals to find out their favorites and included some of our own.
The human brain is funny. That’s true in many ways – but, for now, let’s focus on one universal experience: you don’t want to do something, at least not until you can’t.
Start a diet that, say, doesn’t allow you to eat avocados – and what will you crave? Probably avocados. Loan your car to your teen for the night because you had no plans, and suddenly you’ll want to drive somewhere. Tell your teen he can’t go out until his grades are better – and all he’ll want to do is to go somewhere. Anywhere. To the mall. To the library! Heck. Even the desert will do.
I’ve used that quirky trait to my advantage when I can’t think of a good blog topic. I simply start freewriting, something like this. “Well, I guess I can’t write a blog post because I don’t have a topic. Nope. Can’t do it. Can’t think of anything . . . I certainly can’t write about ABCD because . . .”
And, before long, I’m writing “well, I guess I could write about freewriting . . .” Let’s face it. Something about being told “no” can make our brains wake up.
Some writers, when faced with a lack of topic ideas, leave their keyboards behind and pick up a pen, finding that frees up their flow of thinking.
Freelance writer and blogger Jen Wolfe takes that freewriting technique to another level. “Here’s a weird but useful trick to unlock your creativity. For right-handed people, put the pen in your left hand and then begin attempting to write ideas down. Some people just can’t do it at all. However, the switch to the ‘off hand’ unlocks the creative side of the brain. Then switch hands again and see if the ideas flow more freely.”
Here’s another strategy. You’ll notice themes that arise when you write for a particular blog. When you’re stumped, consider tearing up small pieces of paper and, on each one, writing a phrase about one of the themes. For example, when I edited a magazine about northern Ohio, we covered news in 13 counties. So, 13 of my slips of paper would contain the name of one of those counties. We covered museums, artist stories, nature-related events and so forth. So, each of those themes would go on a slip of paper, as well, along with other ideas. Then, when feeling stumped, I could pull out, say, three slips of paper and brainstorm an article that covered those three themes.
As yet another idea, try mind mapping. This is “a more structured form of freewriting that allows for brainstorming,” says Leigh Shulman. “I find mind mapping is helpful not only in generating topics but in helping to create a large structure that incorporates all writing goals.”
Expert ideas for topic generation
Even if you aren’t struggling with writer’s block, you can sometimes run out of good writing topics. To help you solve that challenge, we’ve once again talked to the experts.
Jen Wolfe has a unique strategy: she calls her clients on the weekends. “They are more relaxed,” she says, “and have time to chat. Together, we brainstorm a list of blog topics.” Step one? “Asking them what questions they got from clients the last few weeks, since those often become great blog topics.”
When brainstorming ideas for herself, Jen also uses weekend time because “weekends allow me more freedom to come up with ideas. There is less pressure from other projects, which makes it much easier to get creative and come up with good ideas. I try to pick a day when I’m feeling creative. Then I write for hours so long as the creative spirit is with me. Then I schedule the blog posts and am done with the process for another month.”
Freelancer Francesca Nicasio uses LinkedIn Pulse to stay up to date with the latest in the industries that she covers. Find out more about that strategy for brainstorming writing topics, plus other ways that Francesca uses LinkedIn.
Blogger Lynn Silva uses the following procedure to both narrow down and expand upon a general blog post idea: “Go to Quora and type in your blog post topic. Related threads will pop up that you can look through to give you an idea as to what is a hot topic, what points are addressed, what conflicting ideas there are, and so forth, and it provides enlightenment on how you can put your own unique spin on the topic that provides value.”
You can also use Quora, Lynn says, to find out which subjects still need clarity. Let’s say, for example, that you search on ‘Google Authorship.’ “The topic is littered with questions on the subject,” she points out, “but there aren’t many answers. So this indicates a huge opportunity to address this topic, if you have knowledge on it, based on the amount of unanswered questions.”
Freelance writer Walt Meyer suggests an old-fashioned strategy, one that just might work: listen. “I meet someone at a party,” he says, as just one example, “who tells me they are doing something interesting. I keep my eyes and ears open and network a lot. I never know where the next good idea will come from.”
How do you come up with new topics when the well of inspiration seems to have run dry? Do you believe in writer’s block? Please share your writing techniques in the comments below.