My 5 Tactics for Overcoming Writer’s Block

I recently began writing again with a somewhat ambitious goal, after several years of writer’s block. Not long after I started up again, I found myself repeating some of the same things I did when mired in that block. Much of this consisted of rewriting the same passages over and over again while still in the first draft. This led to a lot of words, but little forward progress, like a tricked out car, spinning its rear wheels, but doing nothing but burning rubber. This time, however, with my goals in mind, I set out to solve this problem once and for all. And so far, my solution seems to be working.

I had tried to simplify my environment, stripping the tools I use down the studs. Instead of an elaborate word processor like Scrivener or even a lighter model like Google Docs, I’ve been doing all my writing in Obsidian, which is a text editor. This way I don’t have to worry about how the document looks and can focus entirely on the content. But I found that even in a text editor, it is too easy for me to go back and make changes, and worry about what I’d already written. In a first draft, the most important thing for me is to figure out the story and move it forward. I type quickly and it is easy to eliminate and rewrite a few paragraphs. I needed a way to prevent myself from doing this.

Tactic 1: Write the first draft in longhand

I decided to go in a completely different direction. I pulled out a blank Leuchtturm 1917 I had on the shelve, and decided I’d use this book for the first draft. I’d do it longhand. By doing so, I am much less likely to go back and change things in the first draft. It is not nearly as easy to “cut and paste” and rewrite in a notebook than it is on a computer.

The Leuchtturm 1917 notebook in which I am writing the first draft of this novel.

Tactic 2: Print instead of cursive

I can write longhand much more quickly in cursive than by printing. But I have deliberately chosen to print because it slows me down. Instead of rushing into things, I am trying to think more deliberately about what I am writing, to think ahead a little more before I put pen to paper.

Tactic 3: Alternate ink colors

I think I read somewhere that Neil Gaiman does this. I started with black ink one day, and the next day, I wrote in blue in. Then I switched back to black ink. Switching colors give me a clear picture of how much I managed to write on a given day. If I have special notes that I want to make to myself, I do those in red ink so that they stand out from the alternating day-to-day colors.

A full handwritten page in the notebook

Tactic 4: Low tech word counts

Writing long hand makes it a little more tricky to get word counts, but words counts are important to me when I am working toward a goal. It would be nice to ignore them completely, but I am trying to learn how to write a novel length piece in a way that I can reproduce again and again, year after year, making refinements along the way. The data is important.

To simplify this, I averaged out the word count of the first few pages. My handwriting is consistent so I was comfortable with this measure. It came to about 370 words/page. I think created a table at the beginning of my notebook giving my words counts by page (and fractional page) counts:

My word count table.

This chart allows me, at a glance, to see how much I wrote on a given day. Yesterday, for instance, I wrote 2-1/2 pages, which according to my table says I wrote about 925 words. I can also use the chart to see how much I have written in total. (50 pages = ~18,500 words, etc.)

Tactic 5: Distraction-free writing

Writing in the notebook gets me completely off the computer and removes any distractions that might be associated with that. Often, when I get stuck on something, I’ll start browsing, go down some rabbit hole, and then call it quits. With the notebook, I at least have removed that distraction.

So far, this seems to be helping, but the proof will be when I have a finished first draft in hand later this year. When that happens, I’ll post an update and add any refinements I’ve made along the way for others who might be interested.


  1. Jamie …

    One thing in particular from this post strikes me as an imperative … you need two more fountain pens!

    Okay, now to the “less urgent” stuff …

    I’ve been using Scrivener for my long writing project. It took a while to figure out, but I like its ease of organizing and moving sections around. When finished with a draft I move it to Word to clean it up.

    Good points on simplifying the process and environment. I may have a few questions for you on Obsidian. I am not ready to take on writing in longhand for projects of length, but may try it on shorter projects (blog posts, presentation slide drafts, etc.). A separate Rhodia Webbie, writing in the shade of a tree, and more time with fountain pens. Yep, gonna give that a try.

    Word counts may be the ultimate blessing/curse of writing, but we can’t escape them. I’ve averaged word count/page from several books I like to give me a sense of total page count based on design format. To state the obvious, the relationship between page design and word count is important to readability and overall page count. A little tweak goes a long way.

    Thank you for your commitment to your craft, and your willingness to share lessons learned. It is of great benefit to me and I am sure to others as well.

    Now, about your next pens …

    1. Ken, the first thing I thought of when I changed my approach was that this was an opportunity to try out some additional fountain pens. 🙂

      I’m trying not to obsess about word counts the way I used to. But for a long piece of fiction, I need some kind of waypoint to help keep me on track. Just as I might use a burn down chart in a software project (counting story points or hours of effort) I need something to help me see how I am progressing. Hours doesn’t work for writing because on some days it might take me an hour to write 2 paragraphs and on other days, I might write 2 paragraphs in ten minutes. Words are the obvious result of labor and so they are the currency of measure when it comes to tracking progress.


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