When Words Fail You: Help for Writers Experiencing a Lull

Some call it “writer’s block.” (Others call that an excuse) I call it a bad day. You know those moments when your intent is there, but the words fail you. You want to write, maybe you even have some ideas in mind. You have the time set aside to tackle the keyboard or burn up the page. You probably even have a lidded cup of cold brew or a special herbal cup of tea nearby. All systems related to a decent writing session are essentially go

Except, they are not. Because, for whatever reason, the meager words you are managing to get out on the page or the screen are uninteresting, painfully scarce, and not quite up to par with what you had been striving for when you first sat down to write. 

You are experiencing the dreaded writer’s lull.

It seems those moments when the words won’t come happen to all of us at one point or another, causing frustration and doubt. What to do? 

Consider these five tips:

1. Don’t panic. 

Stay calm. Trust that the quality creative ideas and words you are yearning for are floating somewhere in the recesses of your psyche and will eventually appear. Perhaps they have yet to be fully formulated? Maybe you are over thinking? Maybe you are over tired? Maybe you have too many other things on your mind?

If you are nodding your head in agreement to any one of these questions know that your lifestyle may be impacting your writing practice. It is hard to remain calm about an unsuccessful writing session when you are especially tired or overwhelmed. Everyone defines overworking differently and everyone defines getting adequate sleep differently too. Let your gauge be whether or not your writing is up to your expectations. If the words won’t come, you might need to make some lifestyle adjustments. Vow to get more sleep. Jot down lists to help organize any additional tasks or responsibilities that are weighing on your mind. Say “no” to taking on new responsibilities.

The next best thing you can do is to step away from anything writing-related for a brief spell. Tend to something different. Take a walk. Do the dishes. Prep for dinner. Take the dog for another walk. Hang out with the cat. Read. But whatever you do, do not, and I repeat, do not go down the path of incorrectly insisting to yourself that you cannot write or that you never could write or that you never will write again.

Do not panic. Save the dramatic for someone who yearns to be on the stage. You have writing to do. And, do it you will. Just not at this particular moment.

Getting yourself emotionally worked up into some negative stance will do you more harm than good. The last thing any writer needs is self-induced criticism. So, take a deep breath instead. In fact, take several. Then, after a bit, get back to work.

2. Write what you can

Most masterpiece’s are not created in one writing session. Sure, we’ve all been at the reading where someone gets up to announce that what they are about to read was just written that morning, and sometimes those pieces are surprisingly good. But most times, they are not yet close to what they could be in a more finished form. For most of us, good writing usually takes time. One of my favorite novels is Donna Tartt’s, “The Goldfinch.” From what I have read, that book took Tartt numerous drafts and ten years to write. Ten years. I have never met Donna Tartt, but I imagine that she had some writing days that were more of a struggle than others. Clearly, she kept on going. And, aside from her obvious talents and skills as a storyteller, she was consistent. She kept at it. And that, my dear writer friends, is what you need to do too.

Write what you can with the understanding that some days what you write will be utterly disappointing. It is essential to your writing practice that you continue on anyway.

Maybe, on this day, you can’t produce the pages of coherent quality writing that you need, but you can jot down bullet lists of ideas for future pieces. Maybe the best you can do, (and this would be pretty awesome even on a good writing day), is to create a series of writing exercises for yourself. These exercises might include writing a page of dialogue between a character who insists that he or she can not write and one who has no understanding of what that means.

You might try writing a dozen or more lines of random iambic pentameter. Or, why not try listing all of the word associations you can make with a color (yellow?) or a random word?.

The point is, when you are having an off writing day, you need to write what you can. You also need to keep on writing. Don’t let one or even a series of unproductive writing sessions sabotage your entire writing practice.

Every writer has days when writing is a struggle. I believe that sometimes all you can do to get through a lull is to keep writing whatever pops into your mind, be it words, phrasings, anything to keep a flow going. Go with it. Write what comes up, even if the thoughts are un-linear and nonsensical. Eventually, your words and ideas will come around into some semblance of order.

I have learned that on some days, the best I can do is write the words, “I have nothing to write.” over several times like some sad writer’s mantra. Every time, and I mean every time I do this, the words and ideas I was hoping for eventually start flowing and I am on my way to another draft, be it a poem or part of a chapter.

Writing what you can is always better than writing nothing at all.

3. Get Out of Your Own Way

Truly. Get out of your own way. If ever you shut down your inner critical editor voice, now, when the words won’t come, is the time to do it. The last thing you need during a writing lull is to have your inner critic stomping around in your head, ensuring that any creative ideas or words are not good enough. This ensures your ideas and your words are both dead upon arrival before they even stood a chance. Shut down all inner criticism and make the effort to switch any negative self-talk into language that is positive and supportive. You, and your writing, deserve that.

4. Show Up 

If you are serious about maintaining a writing practice, all you can really do is show up on a regular, consistent basis and attempt to write. The words will come. They might not be what you initially hoped for or, they may exceed your wildest expectations. Such are the ups and downs of any writer’s practice.

Stick with an ongoing writing schedule. Commit to writing something. If your own words won’t come, then why not (credit) and copy down a few stanzas from an admired poet’s poem or a paragraph from a favorite author into your writing notebook? Over the years I developed the practice of jotting down lines from from Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, “The Namesake” as a kick start exercise simply because I so love the cadences in her writing and use of language. (I still keep a copy of her book close by in my office.) Remember, do not get discouraged. The more you write, the more the words will be percolating within you and it will take less and less coaxing to get them to appear on the page or on the screen.

5. Practice Self-Care

Make yourself a priority. Your creative imagination will suffer if you are walking around exhausted, undernourished, and feeling out of shape. Get a decent amount of sleep. Make the effort to eat healthfully. And, if going to a gym is not your thing, then for goodness sake, get outside once in a while and go for a decent walk or simply stretch. These simple suggestions will contribute to your underlying well being so even on days when the words don’t come easily, you’ll at least have better than a fighting chance to work with them when they do appear.

Be strong and resolute in your writing practice. And remember that all writers are connected not only by the joys of writing, but also by the efforts made in working through those writing lulls that happen to all of us from time to time.

May the Muses be with you!

~Judith Lagana