How To Use Improv Techniques To Barrel Through Your Writer’s Block

It’s day 8 of NaNoWriMo 2011. I’m ahead of schedule by a little bit (hooray!), but I know from experience that it’s incredibly easy to hit a wall, fall behind, and throw in the towel all together. Happens to even the best writers.

Ruts, writer’s block, lack of inspiration, paranoia, fear– call it whatever you want; it’s real. Sometimes it comes at the beginning of the process, before you’ve put a single word down on paper. You’re gripped with anxiety over making a mistake or failing.

But sometimes it doesn’t rear its head until your project is well underway. By the time you’ve already expended so much energy on your work, you start to feel the drag and then the eventual halt.

Do you know how to handle the dreaded writing paralysis once it hits?

Let’s call it writer’s block (even though I don’t believe such a thing even exists). You have some options for getting through it: you could stop writing and abandon your work (yuck), you could plow through and put crap on the page and meander around until you find your footing again (not a bad option), or you can flex some mental muscles and employ the help of writing exercises (duh– this one is the best).

Recently I was reading Tina Fey’s Bossypants (super funny read, btw), when I was struck by a section called “The Rules of Improvisation That Will Change Your Life and Reduce Belly Fat.”

Amazing claims, right?

Even better, her basic improv tips are actually fantastic ways to bust out of a writing rut if modified slightly and applied to whatever project you’re working on, be it NaNoWriMO, a short story, an essay, a pitch, a novel written in more than 30 days, whatever.

Here’s how to put Tina Fey’s improv tips to use when you feel “writer’s block” settling in:

  • Agree. “Now, obviously in real life you’re not always going to agree with everything everyone says. But the Rule of Agreement reminds you to ‘respect what your partner has created’ and to at least start from an open-minded place. Start with a YES and see where that takes you. Approach your writing with this mindset. Respect what you have already created, whether in your head or on the page. Agree with your creativity and your ideas instead of questioning them. This step alone might open up your writing greatly, whereas disagreeing (which is what writer’s block does to you) closes your creativity off.
  • Yes, and. “Agree and then add something of your own… To me YES, AND means don’t be afraid to contribute. It’s your responsibility to contribute. Always make sure you’re adding something to the discussion. Your initiations are worthwhile.” Right on, Tina! Think about this in terms of your solo writing project for a second. Are you afraid to contribute your ideas to your own freaking project? Maybe you are and that’s why you’re feeling blocked. Give yourself the chance to say YES, AND to your ideas. They’ll expand and grow if you take the time to see your contributions to your own work as worthy.
  • Make statements. “This also applies to us women: speak in statements instead of apologetic questions. No one wants to go to a doctor who says, ‘I’m going to be your surgeon? I’m here to talk to you about your procedure? I was first in my class at Johns Hopkins, so?’ Make statements with your actions and with your voice.” Spin this idea around in your head for a second: make statements with your actions and with your voice. Now try doing this. Check yourself before you wreck yourself– are you making statements with your writing, or are you so full of self-doubt that your writing is weak and basically apologizing for existing? Try writing something with a voice of authority and sureness, not weakness. Banish all writing that implies “I don’t really know what I’m doing.” Maybe you don’t– but you should never let them see you sweat.
  • There are no mistakes, only opportunities. “In improv there are no mistakes, only beautiful happy accidents. Any many of the greatest discoveries have been by accident. I mean, look at the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, or Botox.” Amen! Think about all the beautiful happy accidents you miss out on when you worry about making mistakes with your writing. Of course, in a first draft of anything you’ll probably make some decisions that, on revision, you edit and change, but how would your writing change, expand, and improve if you stopped seeing mistakes and only saw opportunities? Every word you put down is the opportunity for a new character to emerge, a new plot line to take root, a new conflict to open up for you. I think you’re missing out on the best part of writing if, while you’re working on something, you don’t have moments where a “mistake” changes form and gives you new, better ideas.
Maybe you’re not going to get up in front of an audience anytime soon, but you can still learn improv tricks and utilize them in your writing. Next time you feel stuck, try to move yourself forward with some of these techniques. After all, writer’s block totally isn’t real. And I think we all know that. (But it is an awfully convenient excuse when we fall into a rut, isn’t it?).


What are your techniques for banishing writer’s block and moving forward with your work? Share in the comments! I’d love to hear what works best for you.

7 thoughts on “How To Use Improv Techniques To Barrel Through Your Writer’s Block”

  1. I keep a fragment journal it not only clears my head but it gets the words moving and shaking around in my head. Thanks for this read it was excellent!


  2. This is great! I love how improv applies so well to the rest of life and writing. 🙂 The YES AND is huge because it forces me to stop questioning what I’ve alread started with and to then move forward, treating my beginning as plausible instead of rethinking and rehashing over and over. I mean, didn’t I write those starting words because I thought at one point they were awesome and full of life?

    One way I overcome writers block is that I agree to write a certain amount every day with myself. Even when I start out not knowing what I’ll say, I find that the agreement to write gets my creativity flowing, and then soon enough, an idea emerges on the paper.


    1. You’re so right– there’s a reason we write those first words! YES AND is such a good way to keep moving forward. I accept what I wrote down, AND I’m going to add the next idea and keep building this story like I intended.

      So glad you enjoyed this post! Thanks for leaving a comment 🙂


  3. I really like the last point– “there are no mistakes, only opportunities.” This is such a great viewpoint to take. Even as you’re spitting out whatever you can muster for your first draft, you’re making progress. You might change an entire paragraph, or an entire page– but the result evolved from what you originally wrote. It’s all part of the process. Love it!


    1. I love that point, too! If we can appreciate the writing and revision process and recognize our work as full of opportunity instead of just a big heaping mess, we’ll produce better work overall. Thanks for leaving a comment, Carly!


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