Quick Exercises to Beat Writer’s Block

Before a runner can take on a marathon they have to increase their millage over time, running a little more every day, building their muscles, and getting their bodies ready to go the distance. Before a writer can take on a novel they have to increase their word count, writing a little every day, building mental strategies, and getting into the habit of putting words on paper.

It doesn’t matter if you’ve run a marathon before if you’re taking on another you have to put in that leg work again. It doesn’t matter if you’ve already written a novel, if you’ve been out of practice, your brain will need a workout before its up to the task.

These are the exercises I do to get myself going again.

List Poems

Confession time. When I’m stuck in the middle of a blog entry, a short story or a novel I default to writing lists, be they lists of the characters’ mannerisms, their fashion accessories, or observations of the atmosphere around them. Most of the time I edit my lists down to three short examples, but this process gives me a lot of options.

It’s not too hard to list things around a common theme. That’s why I recommend writing list poems to get yourself back into the creative flow.

A great way to get a list poem going is to start every sentence with the same statement like “I am from,” or “When I grow up,” or “When I rule the world.” The conclusion need not be literal, for example:

I am from the derailed train car
I am from the downed helicopter
I am from the flaming warehouse
And I’m walking in slow motion

The opening line of each stanza could also be a rhetorical device like “It might be love if,” or “Childhood is over when,” or “You know it’s flag day because.”

for example:

It might be love if she pulls her punches
It might be love if she wipes the blood off for you
It might be love if she slides you a lock pick
Right before you need it

Your poems might not be peppered with as many action movie cliches as mine, but I write what I know.

List poems are flexible. You could write a list of demands that fate has yet to deliver on, a will filled with assets you don’t possess, or a bucket list of mundane tasks you simply haven’t done yet. Think of list poems like brainstorming sessions. There are no bad ideas. Just get something down on paper. If you edit the piece to a mere forth of your ideas you might end up with something great.


Portrait Poems

Portrait poems are composites of personalities I’ve seen around me. I cherry pick character traits and combine them into a profile of a fictitious person. For instance I could write a poem about a polyamorous friend that’s actually a list of observations from every polyamorous person I’ve ever met. If my theme is the polyamorous lifestyle is at once fascinating and bewildering I need to cherrypick the weirdest examples I can.

I could also write a more intimate portrait poem, say one about myself that I try pass off as a friend. I wrote a poem about a serial venter who had to own every conversation. I chronicled his linguistic rhythms and castigated him. “He” of course being “me.” This was my way of acknowledging a personal flaw that I’d been meaning to work on.

Spoken Word poet Nicole Blackman says, “It’s kind of like training a puppy: just put your shit on paper, so you don’t have carry it around as much.”

Blackman is a master of portrait poems. Her character studies are equal parts comical, vulnerable, and brutally honest.

Flash Fiction

I like flash fiction because of its built in limitations. Limit yourself 500 hundred words to tell a story. Don’t worry about setting up every scene. Don’t worry about writing dialogue for every interaction. Don’t even worry about wrapping a bow on the ending.

This is a great format for the twists you’ve been stockpiling but don’t feel like developing:

  • The story about the sad loner who kills because his split personality commands him to, only to realize his split personality is a real person who’s been using him the entire time.
  • The story about the drug trial that made the participants see a haunting hell-scape only to realize they were seeing the world as it actually was.
  • The story about the stray cat that peered in from the window whenever a couple was making love, until they broke up and the boyfriend spent all night trying to find that cat again.

Use A Writing Prompt

There are a number of sites running Flash Fiction contests right now. They provide writing prompts like character traits, images, and themes. The last one I participated in gave us a photo of a beach sunset and the theme “the end of a relationship.” Naturally I wrote a story about witches.

If you don’t feel like using someone else’s writing prompt create your own. Every Halloween I issue a flash fiction writing challenge to myself. I put my own spin on gothic horror figures, scary movie icons, and urban legends. I pry established characters from their eerie elements and put them into my own warped situations. I find the contrast hilarious.

I like to use established characters like Dracula, the Wolf Man, and Cthulhu because they come fully formed and that lifts part of the creative burden. It’s the literary equivalent of a band working on a few cover songs before going in to write a new album.


Short Fiction

Long form narratives have three acts. The first is all about setting up what drives the hero, what breaks their routine, and gives them a goal. The second starts when the hero is past the point of no return. It develops the situation and showcases the opposition. The hero evolves throughout the second act until they reach their lowest moment, get their goal only to realize what they wanted isn’t what they needed. The hero always goes into the third act climax as changed person.

When I sit down to write a short story I throw most of that out. I’m restraining myself to 7,000 words at the very most. This self imposed limitation forces me to be more economical with my storytelling.

I lop off most of the first act. When the audience meets my hero they’re already into their journey, I’ll have to explain somethings on the way. I also try to limit the story to 4-5 scenes and cut the story off once it’s obvious where the ending is going. I enter the story late and leave early.

Closing Thoughts

Before you learn to juggle it’s best to start throw two balls in an X pattern before adding a third in. When you’re trying to get out of a writing funk it’s best to start with something you can finish in a single sitting. Hopefully you’ve found some prompts here to help get you going.


This is my first collection of musical spoken word recordings. Each recording puts a satirical slant on self improvement, self medicating heartbreak with humor, and dropping the mic on depression. The recordings are scored with synth melodies, backing beats, and radio drama sound FX.

11 thoughts on “Quick Exercises to Beat Writer’s Block”

  1. Love flash. Am always writing flash or micro and challenging myself to write a specific word count (or participating in a prompt) but I love your Portrait and character List Poems ideas. Will try those. Thanks!

  2. I think I’ll try the lists idea. I discovered Blake Butler lists a while back and loved how the surreal entries can prompt the wackiest of genre-bending stories. Once again, a great post.

  3. I am a list person too! They just put your brain in order so handily. ^-^

    Thanks for a great post, and a peak into your writer’s block battle armory! Writing prompts are in mine too. In fact, they’re among my favorite weapons. ^-^ Although, I think I prefer a song or a picture to a straight out prompt.

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