Don’t Wait for Inspiration: 3 Surefire Ways to Beat Writer’s Block

Don’t Wait for Inspiration: 3 Surefire Ways to Beat Writer’s Block

Inspiration. It’s an attractive concept for writers, but there’s a big problem with waiting for the muse.

What would happen if a professional sprinter stopped training for a competition because she was tired of her sport? If she made a habit of it, she’d lose her next event.

What would happen if an engineer stopped working on a construction project because he didn’t feel excited about plans for the project? He’d lose his job.

What happens to the writer who waits for inspiration to arrive? She might not write today, or tomorrow, or the day after that.

Professional writers can’t afford to skip several days because they don’t have a good idea. They know writing is a demanding craft, and they go to great lengths to prevent having nothing to write about.

Here are three ways you can avoid having to wait on inspiration and trick yourself into making major writing progress.

1. Build a swipe file

A swipe file is a great tool for writers. It’s a place for recording facts, figures, sentences and ideas about your work. If this information isn’t relevant to your current writing project, it will help you the next time you’re devoid of ideas. All you have to do is review your swipe file, pull out your notes and use them as a jumping off point into the unknown.

If you’re a copywriter, clip the headlines, words and sales hooks of other, more talented copywriters into your file.

If you’re a nonfiction writer, store articles and notes about your research in your file.

If you’re a blogger, clip the most popular articles by bloggers in your niche and review these before you write your next post.

If you’re a fiction writer, keep reflections about stories you read and ideas for future work in your swipe file.

I use Evernote for my swipe file. Other digital options include OneNote and Simplenote, both of which are multi-platform tools. However, you don’t need a digital tool to keep a swipe file. Author Ryan Holiday, for example, uses a paper-based system for his research. In the end, the tool is less important than the process.

2. Practice writing by keeping a journal

Writing a journal will foster your creativity and give you space to develop ideas that you don’t have room for elsewhere. Journaling can help you turn thoughts and feelings into words and ideas.

Because it’s private, you’re less likely to censor yourself. This brutal honesty will expand the boundaries of your writing and if you keep a journal for several years, older journal entries serve as markers for your progress.

Virginia Woolf was fastidious about keeping a journal or diary. In an entry from 1924 in A Writer’s Diary, she describes how journal writing gave her more ideas for fiction and nonfiction.

Why not write about it? Truthfully? As I think, the diary writing has greatly helped my style; loosened the ligatures.

My life isn’t much like Woolf’s, but I learned a lot about the art of journal writing from her. Keeping a journal doesn’t mean recording a daily summary of one’s life. Rather, it’s a way to expose your thoughts and feelings. This self-reflective writing will help you dig deeper into your thought processes.

At the very least, journal writing is another form of practice, and disciplined practice is essential if you want to become a better writer.

3. Record your experiences in a sense diary

Keeping a sense diary is a useful practice for creative writers. In it, record one sensual experience per day, like how a meal tasted or what a person’s voice sounded like. Take notice of the stickiness of sweet tea, the coarseness of an unvarnished floor and the pain behind your eyes when you’re tired.

The world is your source material.

Now, see if you can remix your sense diary to describe how a smell tastes or what a sound looks like. No matter what type of writer you are, invoking at least one of the five senses will add character and authenticity to your work.

It’s common practice for creative writers to remix and play on our perceptions of the five senses. In 1962, Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita, told the BBC he could hear colors in different languages. He explained how he used this ability to great effect in his writing:

The long ‘a’ of the English alphabet has for me the tint of weathered wood, but a French ‘a’ evokes polished ebony.

Keep a sense diary in a paper notebook, in a password-protected file on your computer or by using one of the many journal apps available for smartphones. Day One for iOS is particularly popular, and it supports multimedia content, which is useful for adding context to your descriptions.

Creative writers who get into the habit of keeping a sense diary will find it’s more natural to describe the clack of an old keyboard or the spot of blue ink on the inside of their index fingers if they’re in the habit of recording these observations anyway.

Nonfiction writers can use a sense diary too. Legendary copywriter and ad-man David Ogilvy regularly drew on the five senses, and he famously wrote about the Rolls-Royce: “At 60 miles an hour, the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock.”

Still feeling stuck?

The American short story writer and author John Updike wasn’t one for waiting around for inspiration. Updike published his first work, a collection of poetry called The Carpentered Hen, in 1958. Throughout his life, he wrote for several hours day, and he published a book almost every year. He said:

I’ve never believed that one should wait until one is inspired, because I think that the pleasures of not writing are so great that if you ever start indulging them, you’ll never write again.

The pleasures of not writing are great; don’t succumb to them. Force yourself into the chair and update your swipe file, your journal or your sense diary. On difficult days, these methods will serve as prompts that help you write. And on good days, they will support your best work.

[bctt tweet=”The pleasures of not writing are great; don’t succumb to them, says @BryanJCollins”]

Somedays I consider it enough to simply write in a journal or make observations in my swipe file, while on other days I concentrate on reaching a target word count or finishing a project. If you’re unsure, remember this simple rule:

Do the work.

The first few sentences may not make much sense but, several sentences in, you’ll realize you’re not as tired or devoid of ideas as you thought; you were just procrastinating.

Do you rely on moments of inspiration? What tricks do you use to overcome writer’s block?

Filed Under: Craft


  • Although I earn my living as an editor, I am also a lifelong writer, and for years I have found it a very powerful exercise between projects to write what I call “sketches,” short passages written in a brief period (usually five minutes) with just a small prepared “starter” to spark my thoughts. At first, it was hard to work up any momentum in such a short period of time, but when I got the hang of it, I was amazed at the way it sharpened my skills and churned up complex ideas I didn’t even realize were lurking deep in my psyche. The time limit actually keeps me from censoring myself.

    In fact, I have recently started selling (at very affordable prices, I might add!) sets of “sketch starters” to writers who want exercises to structure their regular (often daily) writing time when they are between specific projects. The starters are available by digital download. I handle such digital “products” through a shop on Etsy, while my editorial and writer’s coaching services are handled through my own website,

    I hope you don’t mind if I put the links to some of my sketch starter sets here:
    This one gives you a “sampler” of my different types of starters:
    There is a whole month-long set of each type available too, and if you want to buy all of them, including the variety sampler, at a discount, here’s the link to the “six pack”:

    If you prefer journaling and you are at a stage when you would especially like to journal about your identity as a writer, you might like this:

    Again, I hope this doesn’t come across as “spammy,” but I thought it was really right on topic, and I think they are truly helpful for many writers.

  • I have read a zillion articles about ‘How to Chop the Writer’s Block’, but this one is MEMORABLE! BEAUTIFULLY done 😀

    I use Fetchnotes to clip articles and brainstorm. In fact, I also want to start a Facebook group to brainstorm collaboratively! It should be fun!: D

    Thanks again

  • I never thought of a sense diary. I will give that one a try.

    My favorite for overcoming writer’s block is to freewrite at least 500 words a day first thing before I even look at anything on the internet. To give myself the freedom to write crap and just mishmash anything together. It’s amazing what comes out of that sometimes. I love it.

    • Sense diaries are particularly good for creative writers. I used when I wrote a collection of short stories.

      Freewriting is a great strategy for any writer. Sometimes you’ve got to write a lot of nonsense to get to the good stuff!

  • Ann says:

    Love the idea of keeping a Sense Diary!

  • Perse says:

    Is there a way to reblog this post? Loved it!

  • Elke Feuer says:

    Great tips, Byran! I’m a big believer in using journals and writing through the pain instead of waiting for inspiration. If I’m working on a story, I’ll read the previous chapter(s) to immerse myself in the story/characters again. This usually works for me. I also write the back story for the character or write a scene using ‘what if’ questions.

    For blogging I use WP editorial calendar, which let’s me jot ideas/headings, etc. directly to my blog and shift the dates I want to post the blog.

    Article writing takes much more effort. I usually read/study prior issues of the magazine/site or reference my idea list to get inspired.

    There’s tons of ways to get past writer’s block, sometimes it’s just a matter of finding what work for you.

    • Hi Elke,
      WP-editorial calendar is a useful plugin. Lots of bloggers I know use it.

      When I wrote for magazines, I normally received commissions from the editor. Looking back I could have been more proactive about generating ideas.

      As for fiction, a creative writing tutor hammered home the importance of letting stories sit in a drawer to gestate and then coming back to them later on with fresh eyes.

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