Breaking the Writer's Stalemate


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The empty page. Writer's block. Call it what you will, but when your will and your writing are out of sync, what you have is a stalemate.

Whether or not you are writing for income, or to fulfill a class assignment, or just for pleasure, the end result is that you have to break the stalemate somehow. You need to submit the article to your editor, you need to turn in that research paper, or you just need to stop drawing fancy bubble letters on an otherwise blank notepad.

Stalemates in the writing process occur for lots of different reasons. For myself, the worst culprit is the television. Something about the visual element of TV is acutely distracting in a way no other thing is. But there are other offenders. If I haven't slept long or well, my writing suffers. When I do not have a clear focus on the topic, when I have too many other things on my mind, or when I am distracted by other things going on around me, any of those elements can affect my ability to write.

It unsurprisingly all boils down to mental state. No matter what you want to blame the stalemate on, the reason you are stuck is because your brain is focused anywhere but on the piece you have to write. The seasoned writer knows that breaking the stalemate is as simple as doing something else for a while and coming back to the paper when you are refreshed. We have to engage our brain in a different way before we can move on with our writing.

The technique that works best for me is to read the news. That might seem odd to you because news is pretty dry, but in fact, I find that the some very unusual stories become newsworthy. This works for me partly because there are a lot of things I know only a little about, and so any chance to learn more is a welcome stretch for my brain. And oftentimes, news represents situations and individuals that are uniquely outside my day-to-day experiences. That dynamic can spark the creative part of my mind in the same way a piece of fiction can.

I don't expect that method to work for everyone. If you find yourself facing a writer's stalemate, the first thing you should do is assess the situation. Start with these three questions and spend as much time on each one as you need to help yourself.

What's your topic?

Whether or not you are writing for a publication, or for a school assignment, or for fun, there is always a focal point, the heart of what you are writing about. If you aren't sure what this is, then how can you possibly begin?

If a topic hasn't been assigned, or you have a range of choices, this is the time to brainstorm. Set a time limit on brainstorming and then simply jot down ideas for the entire time. It can be keywords or complete sentences, written on every corner of the page running every direction, or in an orderly fashion respecting the lines on the page. The point is not how you organize your thoughts, only that you get all of your ideas down on paper.

What's your inspiration?

Maybe this should really be “what's your motivation?" but regardless of whether or not your writing is income-driven, something is sparking you to write. When you reach a stalemate with your writing, return to your inspiration.

What does that mean?
It can mean calling up a person who believes in and enjoys your writing.
It can mean reading a chapter of a book written by your favorite author.
It can mean pulling out your research on the topic and reviewing your notes.
It can even mean pulling out your checkbook and reviewing your recent deposits, if money is your motivation.

The only caution here is that there is a difference between seeking inspiration (a process of renewal) and simply putting off the inevitable (procrastinating. ) If it turns into procrastination with a twinge of guilt, then ask yourself this last question.

What's your distraction?

Whatever it is you are doing instead of writing, stop it. Turn the television off, close the door to your office, turn your cell phone on silent. Just do it. In a lot of cases, just by relieving yourself of the distraction, the writer in you will find a way to focus on the task.

For all writers, a stalemate is inevitable, but not irreversible. But if you find yourself staring at an empty page and nothing seems to work to relieve writer’s block, then that is the point where you really need to just walk away. Literally, take a long walk around the neighborhood. Set the project aside for a while.

Here's the trick, though. Set a time limit for yourself to not write. Say to yourself, I am going to not write for four hours and then I will sit right back down at this desk and start writing again. Give yourself permission to be distracted, but set a time limit so that it does not become procrastination. And make it long enough to really refresh yourself. When the time comes, the writer in you will know what to do.

Andrew Marx writes a daily column on current events published at
Every week, he writes in-depth features on topics including personal finance and writing. Read more of his work at


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