We’ve all been there, haven’t we? We desperately want (or need!) to get something finished – an article, a manuscript, a set of materials, whatever we’re writing – but our brain just feels bereft of any ideas or information. Either that, or our grey cells are buzzing, but shooting around so many random thoughts that we can’t focus on putting together whatever it is we’re trying to write.
I write ELT materials, and also articles for teaching magazines. And sometimes I stare at my screen trying to write them; or trying to write anything, really! But over the years, I have come up with a little list of things that can help me overcome this block when I’m writing, and so I thought I’d share it here (along with some loosely related anecdotes!):
– Go outside – do some weeding in the garden, go for a jog, walk the dog, feed the birds, whatever! Get some natural daylight and a bit of light movement. There are several benefits to this, I’ve found – the extra oxygen and the vitamin D from the sunlight are great boosts, but also the monotonous action of walking/running or pulling out weeds seems to allow space in the mind for other thoughts to come together. Note: You should have some note-taking tool handy for when inspiration hits! I remember walking home from the uni library whilst I was working on my MA dissertation, and connections and arguments I’d spent all day trying to express coherently suddenly appeared in my mind, so nicely formulated that I stopped, dumped by bag on someone’s front wall, and grabbed out my note pad to write it all down!
– Have a shower or brush your teeth – don’t take this tip personally! I’d never really paid attention to how often my colleagues or I said “In the shower this morning, I was thinking…”. Or how often I suddenly had a flash of inspiration whilst my electric toothbrush was buzzing along my pearly whites. Maybe it’s the monotonous or automated action thing like walking, or the lack of distractions from the phone, internet, etc., but something about these personal hygiene routines helps me to get ideas or join the dots in things I’m working on.
– Watch/read/listen to/talk about the news – read the non-headline stories. Just like topics of conversation, I often find ideas for ELT materials, articles, and so on in a news story that I wouldn’t normally have looked at. I subscribe to a news magazine and have learned about so many interesting new topics that aren’t in the headlines, and have been able to use several of them in my language teaching materials or classes. It surprises me (in a positive way) over and over how things related to topics I’ve just read about come up in other places – in conversation, on social media, in lessons, etc. Seriously, I once wrote a worksheet based on an article about protests against replacing the carpet at Portland (Oregon, USA) airport – people had the pattern tattooed and took ‘footies’ (selfies of their feet) with the carpet. Students found it hilarious, and the text had some great vocab and collocations with colours. And the next week, our last teaching assistant who’d just headed back home to… you guessed it… Portland, posted his own footie on Facebook and all the students could see the carpet for themselves!
– Clear out a cupboard – tidy your desk, sort out your wardrobe, organise your sock-draw, sort your cosmetics into little baskets, whatever! Clearing up clutter can have an amazing subconscious effect and free up some “brain space” to get some new ideas or tackle difficult tasks. I don’t say this because I have any sort of strong belief á la Feng shui or Marie Kondo; I have just found that knowing things are orderly in the physical world, helps me to bring order to my mental world and get on with the task at hand.
– Do chores that need less than a minute – send that email, pay that bill, file that document, empty the dishwasher, whatever! This one works similarly to the cupboard-clearing, I think: Even the smallest items take up space in our mental to-do lists that would probably be best used for something else. I find it best to “clear” these from my to-do list first thing in the morning, so they don’t distract my focus from what we’re trying to write, but they can also work well if I’ve reached a dead-end in my inspiration or writing.
– Get creative/Play a game – with your children/partner/flat mates (if available!) or online; the more imaginative the better! I know that writing IS creative, but what I mean here is some other kind of imaginative or creative pastime. I like to bake and to do colouring (because when I work at home during the day there is no partner/child/flat mate I could coerce into helping me play a creative game!), but I guess anything that activates different parts of the brain and gets synapses firing is good for enabling new ideas to come together for whatever you’re trying to write.
So, those are my top tips – let me know if you try them and find them helpful. Maybe you also have your own ways to bust writers’ block which you can share in the comments below!