Overcoming Writer's Block: Tips for Finding Writing Ideas
Like many writers, in the past I've sometimes experienced times when I've wondered what to write next. These periods of writer's block rarely occur today and never last for long. I've created a list of strategies that give me ideas for writing topics. The techniques should be helpful for other people, too.
Many of the activities that I use to generate writing ideas involve observing the world around me. Observations can stimulate interest, passion, and imagination. Engaging in new experiences can have the same effect. Of course, not all observations and experiences are welcome or safe. Some of life is too tragic, painful, or dangerous to observe or to experience voluntarily. In general, though, by becoming more open to the world around us we can discover many new ideas to include in our writing.
Here are some activities that may give you new ideas for writing themes. You'll probably find that the activities are fun to do even when you're not looking for writing topics.
- Use a magnifying glass, binoculars, a telescope, or a microscope to see new details of objects and new layers of reality.
- In summer, a habitat such as pond water often contains an invisible community that is revealed under a microscope and can fuel the imagination. A telescope can reveal exciting details of space. Even an inexpensive magnifying glass can show structures that a person has never noticed before.
- Change your perspective. Look at furniture or items in a room or building from a different eye level or angle.
- Sit or lie on the sand, grass, or forest floor—or on a natural or artificial seat if you prefer—and look up, down, and all around you. Make observations using your senses of sight, hearing, smell, and touch. Close your eyes when you are using a sense other than vision.
- Go for walks at different times of the day and in different weather.
- Go for a walk in a part of your neighborhood or town that you've never visited before (as long as the area is safe).
Get Writing Ideas From Your Photos or Art
- Document observations in photos for later study. Photos serve as memory aids and can be inspirational.
- Another benefit of taking photos is that you may sometimes notice something in a photograph that you didn't notice in real life.
- Use photo editing software to alter images. The edited images may trigger your imagination.
- Make drawings of things that you see. The act of observing an object in order to draw it can be educational.
- Making quick sketches from life or from the imagination can open the mind to writing ideas.
Experience New Activities
- Participate in new activities that let you explore the environment in a different way. Examples of these activities include horseback riding, kayaking, canoeing, and snorkeling.
- Watch people in a public area (discreetly).
- Try new kinds of food that you've never eaten before.
- Take advantage of free concerts, exhibitions, and special events near your home.
- Explore online art galleries and museums if you can't visit them in person. Paintings, illustrations, photos, and historical artifacts can all be inspirational.
- When you're on holiday, be sure to explore new areas on foot. Vehicle travel is useful to get to a destination. Once you've arrived, however, you'll see so much more if you walk than if you travel in a car or bus.
- If you're unable to visit a country, explore it by using Google Earth and its Street View or take a virtual tour via YouTube.
Depending on which accounts a writer follows, social media sites can be a good place to discover a wide variety of photos, art, news, and other interesting information. The posts may give a writer ideas for their creative work.
Get Inspiration From Books and Audiovisual Media
- Visit a library and read newspapers or magazines that you don't normally examine. Some libraries subscribe to an online service which displays newspapers from around the world. You may be able to read these newspapers on your home computer if you're a member of a library.
- News items can stimulate ideas. Consider creating an imaginary background to an interesting piece of news or add imaginary details or outcomes of an incident (keeping in mind legalities and privacy concerns). Write your thoughts about the news or explore related information not covered in the news report for a piece of nonfiction.
- Read widely, not to copy another writer's ideas but to stimulate the development of your own ideas. Books and websites can both be enriching if appropriate material or sites are chosen.
- Some television and radio programs can also be a source of inspiration. There are a lot of programs whose goal is purely to entertain, which is nice when we need to relax. Some programs contain fascinating, informative, or unusual information, however. These are the types of programs that are most likely to be useful for inspiring writers. Online videos can also be useful in this respect.
- Listening to music can be a source of inspiration, especially when it arouses emotions.
A "writing prompt" is a word, phrase, sentence, paragraph, or question that gives people an idea for a writing topic.
Play Dictionary Prompt Games
Mind games that involve playing with words and trying to make connections between them can be both fun and mentally stimulating. The games can also generate writing ideas.
A dictionary prompt game is often very useful for writers. It involves the random choice of words from a dictionary, which are then used in a writing project.
A common procedure for the game is to open a dictionary at a random page, place a finger tip on the page with closed eyes, open the eyes, and then copy the word written under the finger onto a piece of paper. This is done three times so that three words are chosen.
The next step in the game is to complete a poem or story that includes all of the chosen words. This is a great mental exercise because sometimes the three words seem to be completely unrelated to each other. The challenge is to connect the words logically in the poem or story.
This activity can also be performed with a newspaper, magazine, or book. Words or phrases can be chosen randomly and then woven into a piece of creative writing.
Explore Websites With Writing Prompts
Some websites provide a collection of writing prompts, which may be helpful. I prefer ones that regularly add new prompts instead of simply maintaining a static list. Currently, Writer’s Digest adds a new creative writing prompt every Tuesday. Poets & Writers currently posts a poetry prompt every Tuesday, a fiction prompt every Wednesday, and a creative nonfiction prompt every Thursday. Websites with a static list of prompts can also be useful if their list is long. A web search for “writing prompts” will bring up the names of many sites that can be explored.
Play Word Association Games
Word association activities are often fun to do. The steps of one potentially useful game are as follows.
- Think of a starting word, such as the name of an object or a word chosen from a book, newspaper, or magazine.
- Write the word on a sheet of paper.
- Write the word that entered your mind immediately after you wrote the starting word.
- Write the word that entered your mind immediately after you wrote the second word.
- Write the word that entered your mind immediately after you wrote the third word, and so on.
- Continue the process for the chosen time length.
- Once the time is up, examine the words that you wrote.
This activity can be done with a friend or in a group as well as by an individual. It's often very interesting—and sometimes amusing—to see what words popped into the mind during this stream-of-consciousness activity. Some of the words or word sequences may prompt more ideas and suggest writing themes.
Create Mind Maps
A mind map is a diagram that shows connections between words. It can be used for brainstorming, for the organization of ideas, and as a memory aid.
When someone is creating a mind map for their own purposes, they don't have to follow any rules. They can use whatever type of diagram is helpful for the generations of ideas. The general steps in drawing a mind map are as follows, however.
- To start the mind map, a word or concept is written in a box, circle, or bubble at the center of a sheet of paper that is turned sideways.
- Arrows are extended from the central box and linked to related words or concepts.
- Arrows are extended from the new words and linked to additional related concepts. More than one arrow may extend from each of the new words.
I find that for brainstorming, a simple mind map with a pencil, colored pencils, or felts works best. As in a word association game, new ideas can be revealed by mind mapping.
Mind maps created by school students are sometimes elaborate and may contain images as well as different colors. They may follow specific rules and may be created by using mind mapping software instead of by hand. A spontaneous and free-form mind map is probably more useful for writers.
Do Free Writing
The goal of free writing is for a person to write continuously for a specified time, on any topic or topics. The person writes whatever appears in their mind, without stopping to judge or edit their work. The writer is allowed to move from topic to topic as new ideas enter their mind.
While free writing, a person can write phrases as well as sentences. Spelling and punctuation errors aren't important. In fact, the person needs to keep writing even if they see an error. Corrections and deletions aren't allowed. If the person's mind goes blank, it's suggested that they write something like "I don't know what to write" over and over until a new train of thought enters their mind.
Five to fifteen minutes is often suggested as a time limit for free writing. A timer with an alarm is used so that the writer can keep writing and avoid watching a clock.
Free writing stimulates the flow of ideas and is useful in overcoming a person's fear of writing or reluctance to put pen to paper. It may produce interesting ideas that are worth investigating further.
Focused free writing is a form of free writing that is related to a specific word, idea, or theme. This type of writing isn't completely "free", since the mind needs to be pulled back to the key idea if it wanders too far. It may be more useful in generating new writing ideas, however.
Remember Your Dreams
Dreams can be a great source of ideas. They can sometimes be so entertaining or such wonderful adventures that the dreamer may not want them to end. At other times they can be strange, surreal, or even frightening.
It's important that a writer records what happened in a dream as soon as they wake up if they want to receive inspiration for writing. Memories of dreams quickly dissipate once we waken. Paper and a pen should be kept beside the bed for the best chance of retaining a memory. This enables a person to record the details of their dream before they get out of bed.
Some people can't remember their dreams. People in this situation may be helped if they tell themselves that they are going to remember their dreams shortly before they fall asleep. This strategy may eventually improve their dream recall if it's repeated every night. It has helped me.
Keep a Writing Notebook or Journal
A writer should always have quick access to a notebook in order to record their thoughts, ideas, and observations. Scraps of paper work too, but I find that these tend to get lost. A notebook is useful for some of the activities described below.
- Record observations, facts, quotations, or questions that you find especially interesting or that you want to investigate.
- Makes sketches, diagrams, drawings, and charts as well as written notes. Graphics don't have to be great works of art. Their purpose is to store information or to help you explore your ideas.
- Stick photos in your notebook.
- A notepad is useful for activities like free writing and mind association games. Anything that you'd like to save from these sessions can be cut out of the notepad and glued in the notebook.
- You might like to use a binder for a notebook so that material can easily be added or taken away.
- Digital notebook programs are available If you would like to use them. One problem with an electronic device is that the power may run out at a very inconvenient time, however.
- Store completed notebooks together so that you develop a library of information.
- You may prefer to use index cards instead of a notebook to store information. It's important that the cards are stored in a file box or in another organized way so that they aren't lost.
Beating Writer's Block
I find that all the strategies described in this article are useful in my writing. It helps if I enjoy the activities for their own sake. Sometimes all that's needed to provide the "spark" for new writing is an interesting activity, period of relaxation, or a change in environment.
Participating in the activities that I describe often produces writing ideas as a by-product. I record these ideas for possible use in the future or use them immediately. If you have ideas for overcoming writer's block that I haven't described, I'd love to hear about them in the comments section below.
© 2013 Linda Crampton