We’ve all been there. You’re all set up for a day of writing: you’ve got your comfy pants on, your favorite drink at your side, and your chillest writing playlist is pumping.
Then you open up a fresh Word document and—BAM! You hit a brick wall. And no matter what you do, the words just won’t come to you.
Writer’s block has struck again.
What To Do When Writer’s Block Hits
We’ve talked about writer’s block in the past—about its causes, and about how to conquer it.
Writer’s block is usually triggered by fear, perfectionism, or a combination of the two, and it can take considerable effort to crack it.
Countless articles have been written on the subject of subverting, circumventing, or outright crushing writer’s block, and the suggestions you hear are usually the same: Take a walk. Read a book. Eliminate all distractions—or shake up your writing environment.
But while all of these are worthy strategies, I’m always puzzled that timed writing doesn’t make it into many block-breaking playbooks.
How Timed Writing Can Smash Writer’s Block
Timed writing is exactly what it says on the package: a writing exercise that pits you against the clock, challenging you to either write as much as you can by a certain fixed deadline, or to write a certain amount in a certain amount of time.
It sounds almost too simple, doesn’t it?
But timed writing is an extraordinarily effective tool for breaking writer’s block for one amazing reason: it takes your brain out of the equation.
If writer’s block is about your brain getting in the way of your craft, then the best way to beat it is to make an end run around it.
Timed writing isn’t about lovingly crafting sentences; it’s about compulsive, free-flowing word vomit. True quantity-over-quality stuff.
For some, the mere act of putting words on paper is enough to crank-start their creative engines, while for others this mindless scribbling or typing puts them in an almost Zen-like state, allowing strange and creative ideas to form out of the static. I myself trend towards the former, but I know plenty of peer-writers out there who’ve experienced this strange hypnotic state.
5 Dynamite Timed Writing Excercises
Make timed writing work for you. There are tons of awesome timed writing techniques, exercises, and prompts out there, and each has its own unique way of shaking ideas loose. These are our top 5 types of timed writing practice—give them a try, and get those typing fingers flying!
1. Word Sprints
Word sprints are Timed Writing Classic: simply choose an arbitrary amount of time—something between 10 to 15 minutes—and write as much as you possibly can within that limit.
Remember: quantity over quantity. You’re not trying to write beautifully, here; you’re trying to write lots. Typos are okay. Misspellings are okay. Nonsense is double-okay. And stay far away from that backspace key!
Alternatively, challenge yourself to write a certain amount of words within a certain timeframe— say, 100 words in five minutes. Not only does this layer on the challenge, but it gives you a tangible goal to work towards.
Consider setting “rhythmic” goals for your timed writing, like trying to write one sentence every 30 seconds for the next 10 minutes.
Keep your word sprint writing in a separate notebook or document on your computer—and save all of it! Look over your old word sprints whenever you get stuck in your writing: you’ll be surprised how many genuinely good ideas will be hidden among the nonsense.
2. Word Wars
Let’s get ready to rumble!
Word wars are just like word sprints, except they’re head to head. Choose a writerly friend to compete against, and set the parameters of your war:
- War-by-Time: Compete to see who can write a certain number of words first.
- War-by-Word Count: Set a timer, and compete to see who can write more words before time runs out.
For added fun, assign “punishments” to the word war loser—victor’s choice. Make the loser write in rhyme for the next 100 words, or in iambic pentameter, or work the word “weasel” into their next paragraph. Have fun with it!
Of course, these are just the basic forms of a word war. Both word wars and word sprints come in many varieties—but we’ll be discussing the more “mutant” forms in just a moment.
3. Use a Prompt
Here comes the real fun stuff. Using writing prompts is already a phenomenal way to crack open writer’s block, but when combined with a timed writing exercise like a word sprint or word war, they become exceptionally potent.
The NaNoWriMo website has hundreds of prompts called dares for writers to use during National Novel Writing Month, but members can log in and get assigned a random prompt whenever they please.
Consider daring yourself to write a 500-word letter from one of your characters to another, or to his or her past self. Challenge a friend to a word war in which both your characters get unexpected visitors—from beyond the grave, no less!—and see who can reach 750 words first.
Top 5 Timed Writing Prompts
And now, for your word-sprinting pleasure: TCK Publishing’s Top 5 Timed Writing Prompts.
- Give a minor character a dramatic monologue. (10-minute word sprint)
- Invent a new word and incorporate it into a pivotal scene. (500-word ward war)
- Have two characters argue using only pop song lyrics. (5-minute word sprint)
- Write a scene entirely in a second-person viewpoint. (7-minute word war)
- Your characters find a dead body. (750 words in 15 minutes word sprint)
4. Write or Die
Despite its name, Write or Die isn’t (nearly) as ominous as it sounds.
A website created in 2008 by a mysterious individual known only as “Dr. Wicked,” Write or Die is—if you’ll excuse the pun—the killer app for timed writing. This online tool allows you to create customized timed writing scenarios, and uses algorithms to monitor your progress and keep you on track.
Simply enter a word goal (up to 1,667 words) and time goal (up to half an hour) and type right in the text box the site provides. Write or Die can even be configured to play soothing sounds like kitten purrs or beach noises if you stick to task, and will play a victory chime once you write your requisite number of words.
But make no mistake: Write or Die is not a happy place.
What makes this tool truly unique is the consequences it imposes on writers who stop writing. In Gentle mode, popup windows appear when you slack off, reminding you to get back to work—and it only gets worse from there. In Normal mode, pausing in your writing will make the screen slowly turn an ominous red; wait too long, and an annoying sound will start to play, like a tritone—or Rick Astley’s immortal “Never Gonna Give You Up.”
Evil mode cranks the punishments up to 11, and in the dreaded Kamikaze Mode, wait too long to keep writing and Write or Die will start un-writing your work, starting with your most recent words and working backwards.
Using Write or Die can be an unpleasant experience, but for motivated writers it can also be a bracing challenge—and an excellent way to shatter a bad case of writer’s block.
5. Use a “Stuck Word”
The goal of any timed writing exercise is to write as much as you can—and as consistently as you can.
The idea is that as long as you’re writing whatever comes into your head, you won’t need to pause. But even when you’re just writing down complete nonsense, it’s still possible to get frozen or hit a wall.
That’s where “stuck words” come in. Choose a particular word ahead of time, and the next time you get stuck, don’t stop typing. Instead, type your “stuck word” or “stuck phrase” over and over and over again until you’re able to continue writing normally.
It takes some practice to be able to move smoothly between the two, but once you master the trick, you’ll never have to stop typing—and you’ll find yourself having to resort to your “stuck word” less and less.
Think of your “stuck word” as a mantra: repeat it to re-center and refocus yourself for writing to come.
Pro Tip: You can use “stuck words” in your everyday writing as well as a lightning-quick writer’s block-breaker. Pick an unusual word, or a word that you think won’t appear in whatever you’re writing, and when you’re finished, simply run a “Find” for that word and delete your “stuck word” passages.
Writer’s block is a mighty opponent, but there’s no need to fear it. These timed writing exercises are simple and effective tools to break through even the worst writer’s block—and improve your writing habits and creativity as well.
Have you ever used a timed writing exercise? What’s your preferred method of busting writer’s block? Join the conversation in the comments section below.
And for more blockbuster techniques for improving your writing speed and overall productivity, you’ve come to the “write” place: