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



Three Tips for Maintaining Your Writing Practice

In addition to getting some actual writing completed, every writer needs to be attentive to the health of their personal writing practice. Here are three recommended tried and true tips to help you maintain a writing practice that is viable, consistent, and productive:

  1. Plan

    Block out time each week to plan out your intentions for the upcoming week. Chart out your goals for individual writing sessions. Detailing your goals will help you develop a sense of clarity about what you hope to achieve.

  2. Prepare

    Are you prepared to write? Be sure to have your desk or table cleared and any anticipated resources at the ready. Do you need to replenish your supply of pens, pencils, paper? Are your screen and keyboard glistening thanks to a fresh spritz of screen cleaner? Remember to take a breath and prepare yourself to slip into creative writing mode. Oh, and don’t forget the mug of tea or coffee and bottles of water. Once you sit down, (or stand, for those of you who prefer writing at a standing desk), you’ll be ready to write.

  3. Reflect

    Schedule a specific time to reflect and review your current writing project. Consider your next steps. Then, go back to Step #1, Planning, to set up your next writing session.


Staying committed to your writing practice ensures you'll generate a portfolio of work. When you plan, prepare, and reflect, you'll help ensure that your strongest drafts make it through to final, finished pieces. Using these tips will help.


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Judith Lagana is the founder and co-editor of River Heron Review.
Visit her on
Instagram. Twitter, and her web site.

On Writing Process: The Essential Nine Phases (Part 2)

Part 2 of 3

When we last left off, we were considering how the key stages of observing, reading, and mulling (over) figured into the “Essential Nine Phase of the Writing Process.” Again, this multi-phased process acknowledges the key phases that writers pass through during the entirety of their writing process. The next three stages, drafting, revising, and rereading, are also key to the overall process.

Let’s take a look:

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“…the phases of drafting, revising, and rereading form the heart of the writing process.”

4.  Drafting

In the beginning, there is the first draft. Few things are as pure.

This initial piece of writing is raw in the sense of being new and authentic. Ideally during this stage, the writer gets caught up in the writing itself. No overthinking. No doubting or judging. Just pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Pure unadulterated writing. The drafting phase is the free fall, the jump off. It is here that a writer lets loose and allows that blend of whatever imagination, memory, and intent are at work within their psyche.

Included in this mix is the reach towards genre, and whatever figures into the genre of your choosing. Maybe research, maybe form. So many famous writers have offered their take on the writing of the first draft. I adhere to the words of John Steinbeck, who recommended that writers simply, “write fast.” My take on this is to write as quickly as possible, without overthinking, so that the ideas flow before they fade and risk being lost. This doesn’t work for everyone. So, it is important that you experiment and pay attention to what works best for you in terms of getting down that initial flow of images, details, and insights.


5. Revising

Revising is akin to revisiting your first draft. Depending on your take on things, this phase can be one of the more enjoyable phases in your writing process. This is where you return, skim through, and work through your first draft forms.. You make revisions, add a line here or there, delete or develop a detail or image. It is during the revision phase when you’ll look for those openings within your writing that offer the chance to further delve in and explore, expand. It is here where the opportunity to develop an image, a character, a description makes itself available if, you are paying attention. Revision is a necessary and vital phase, so give yourself permission to dwell here in a mindful manner. As you revise you’ll revisit the original piece, your either add to what’s already there, or cut, cross out and delete for the purpose of developing a stronger working draft. It is here where you decide whether or not to commit to taking a draft further.

6.  Rereading

Rereading is the careful and mindful reading aloud of the original, slightly revised piece. This may take place in the form of a quick, subdued read, or a more energized reading. It may be something you do aloud in the company of only yourself or it may be an opportunity you share with a trusted writer friend or family member. However it plays out, the goal is to read the piece aloud for the purpose of listening to cadences and flow.

Where and how does your writing move? Does it stumble or falter? If so, you’ll recognize those areas as needing more work. Does it glide or roll? You’ll celebrate those areas and use their energy as you further revise other segments of the piece. Your editor’s eye and ear should be actively at work here. The rereading phase allows the writer to really listen to the cadence of things and whether or not the writing is as clear as is intended.

A common mistake many writers make is not recognizing that their intended idea may not be transferring as clearly as was intended, onto the page. This reading and rereading phase helps bring the writer's intention in line with the manner in which the words come across to a reader. Numerous, mindful readings and re-readings help with clarity and intent, no doubt.

To any writer, the phases of drafting, revisiting, rereading, form the heart of the writing process. It is here where the writer charts a beginning, a benchmark from which to start and a place from which to move forward. Hopefully as you move through your own writing process you will honor and allot ample time to thee essential phases of drafting, revisiting, and rereading. Your writing will only benefit from your commitment.


~Judith Lagana

Next: Refining, Finalizing, Sharing, Phases 7, 8, & 9 (Part 3 of 3)

 
 
 
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Judith Lagana is the founder and co-editor of River Heron Review.
Visit her on
Instagram. Twitter, and her web site.