How to banish writer’s block with this list-writing exercise

Looking at that first blank page, pen taping or fingers poised above the keyboard, waiting for inspiration to strike, is one of the worst feelings for a writer. If this feeling feels all too familiar to you, then I recommend trying this list writing exercise. All you will need is a pen, notepad and a timer.

First Exercise:

For this, you will write several lists under varying time constraints. For the first list, all you need to do is set your timer to 20 seconds and write a list on everything you can see around you; pen, pad, plant, desk, window. The purpose of this first list is to ‘break the ice’ by making you write down something easy, with a simple brief so your mind is not worrying about what to write. Through writing an observational list, this will also get you in touch with your surroundings, so you are not glued to a blank sheet but rather you are soaking in your environment and putting your mind at ease.

Second Exercise:

For your second list you are going to write down a list of things that you like and give yourself a time of 30 seconds to do so. Although this list is vague and could be composed of foods, people, places or things, again you are given a small brief and a small period of time to complete it. The keyword there is complete – this list is easy to complete and could have 3 things, 10 things or anything in between. There is no ‘wrong list’ so this second exercise will keep your mind energised and focused on things that spark joy for you.

Writing creativityThird Exercise:

For your third list, you are going to move away from singular items, objects and things and construct a sentence-based list; I want a coffee, I walked my dog yesterday, I need a shower. Now you might have already started doing this already with your lists (or maybe not!) but that’s ok.

These small exercises are intended to inspire creative thoughts and if you have already started to move away from a singular-inventory style list, then let’s re-focus that energy into this next exercise. For this set your timer to 1 minute and your sole focus is going to be sentenced-based. The brief for this exercise is different from the previous two, as we are no longer focusing our creative energy on themes of writing, but on the form of writing. With the timing longer and with the format of sentences, this third list will be your longest and that’s a good thing – we are slowly re-introducing our minds back to writing longer passages and paragraphs, still keeping our safety net of writing a list and within a set time. This third list can be created with unrelated or entirely related sentences, remember there is no right or wrong way to do this and in fact, this list form connects us to the literary idea of stream of consciousness, without the pressure of having to live up to the literary giants of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.

After you have written your third list, go back and read through all of your lists and see if you notice any patterns that might have occurred. Are animals mentioned frequently in your lists, certain objects, colours or people that crop up more frequently than others?

Circle these patterns in your lists and re-arrange them into their own list. This last list tells you what your mind is attracted to in this very creative moment. Use this final list as your inspiration board; whether it is a certain place, person or feeling that you recognised as a pattern across all of your lists, use this as inspiration for a setting, character or plot point.

Final List:

For your final exercise, you will write the pattern you have noticed at the top of the page. When I did this list exercise, I noticed that natural imagery re-occurred several times in my lists – probably as a result of being stuck in lockdown! Nevertheless, I decided to choose ‘garden’ as the word on the top of my page. Set your timer to 30 minutes and spend this time writing a brief paragraph or two inspired by the word you have written at the top of your page.

Writing lists

After your 30 minutes are up, take a step back. See how much you have written that all started from a simple list of things you could see around you. Use this as your fuel whenever you feel like you just can’t write today.’

These exercises are easy to do and don’t take much time, so continue to use these list-writing exercises even on days when you are just bursting to write, as they act as great creative warm-ups and on days when starting to write just feels too much, use them as a tool to kick start your writing.

If you continue to do these activities, over time you will end up with lists of writing inspiration and a selection of short passages of characters or places that you can use for future writing projects, or you might realise that all these fragments work well as a whole. And finally, whenever you are in doubt to start writing, in the words of Amelia Earhart “the most effective way to do it, is just to do it.”

If this has helped or not and you still are searching for a little more insight on how to cultivate your writing habits then please see inspirational tips to get you writing