The idea of using constraints to fuel creativity may seem rather counterintuitive. You may wonder how subjecting your writing to various limits and restrictions can help you to break through writer’s block, ease your writing process and allow you to be more creative.

The truth is that by reducing what is available or possible, you reduce the chance of writing something conventional and feel more motivated to try something new. 

As a writer, how many times have you stared at a blank page not knowing what to write, looking for something to fuel your creativity? You may have a lot of ideas but not know where to start or how to work on them. A lot of writers use freewriting as a technique to overcome writer’s block. Letting words simply flow out without any constraints or restrictions can help spark creativity, generate new ideas and build momentum to write.

Let me present to you an equally effective alternative to freewriting: constrained writing.

The idea of using constraints to fuel creativity may seem rather counterintuitive. You may wonder how subjecting your writing to various limits and restrictions can help you to break through writer’s block, ease your writing process and allow you to be more creative.

The truth is that by reducing what is available or possible, you reduce the chance of writing something conventional and feel more motivated to try something new. There are always millions of stories out there. Writer’s block occurs when you don’t know which one you want to write or how you want to go about it. What constrained writing does is that it takes away this paralysis of choice that is keeping you from getting started and gives you a problem to solve, something to start working on right then and there.

Let me give you a few examples of constrained writing. Ernest Hemingway was having lunch with a group of writers one day when he decided to bet $10 dollars on the fact that he could write a six-word short story that could make them cry. His six-word short story “For sale: baby shoes, never worn” is an example of constrained writing, constructed around the two constraints imposed on him. Georges Perec’s ‘Les Revenentes’ was written around the constraint that he would only use the letter ‘e’. Ernest Wright’s 50,000-word novel ‘Gadsby’ does not contain the letter ‘e’. ‘Never Again’, a novel by Doug Nufer, does not use any word more than once. Michael Thaler’s ‘The Train from Nowhere’ is written entirely without verbs.

While these examples of constrained writing may seem too daunting, you can always incorporate subtle constraints into your writing process in order to come up with creative solutions. Here are 5 ways to use constraints to be more creative and break down writer’s block:

  1. Pick a prompt and stick to it.

This may seem like rather basic advice, but constraining yourself to a single prompt can be useful in generating new ideas and giving you something to start with. Use a random prompt generator or simply choose the first one you see. Stick to it, no matter what you think of it. It may not be something similar to what you usually write or are comfortable with, but it will give you a starting point to build up from. Think of it as a problem you need to solve and your mind will instantly start conjuring up a number of possibilities, innovative approaches to address the prompt. Start writing. By brainstorming your way around the constraint, you’re already writing, thinking and creating effortlessly, and that’s the first step to overcoming writer’s block.

  1. Outline using the Snowflake Method.

While planning out an entire novel might seem extremely daunting, you can always start small. The Snowflake Method is a popular method of outlining a novel through a fixed structure. Write an outline of your story but constrain it to one line, maybe even a few words. See how much depth or perspective you can pack into those words. Coming up with a one-line outline of a story is less pressurising – the constraint helps you think clearly and focus on what is at the heart of your story. Then set another word limit to expand on your current outline – two lines, three lines, and so on. By treating each stage of planning your novel as a puzzle or problem, your constraints may prove to be building blocks for creativity and possibility and allow you to gradually develop an effective and structured outline.

  1. Limit the words you can work with.

If you write poetry, try blackout poetry. Blackout poetry is extremely effective in fostering creativity because as a writer, you don’t have to come up with anything new – you just have to work with what you have and find new ways of looking at it. By limiting the words you can work with, you allow yourself to imagine greater depth and perspective to those words. You start to see connections and put together words, meanings and metaphors you wouldn’t have thought of before. This technique can be used for prose as well. Simply pick up a newspaper and try to use words from a single page to spin a story. It’s a great way to get your brain looking for unique connections, story ideas and inspiration. After all, Dr Seuss wrote his well-known book ‘Green Eggs and Ham’ using only 50 randomly chosen words assigned to him based on a bet and Welsh writer Paul Griffiths completed his book ‘Let Me Tell You’ using only the words from Ophelia’s speeches in Hamlet.

  1. Constrain your process – give yourself a scene, time limit and word limit.

A constrained version of freewriting may be just what you need to get fresh insight and inspiration when you’re out of ideas. Plan out a short scene or chapter from your book – just the characters present and a vague idea of what happens. Don’t worry about the rest of the book, just choose an interesting scene that you think will explore the characters or the tension in greater depth. Decide a word limit and the time you will take to write it out. You may even set some general objectives: explore the motivations of character X or flesh out the relationship between characters Y and Z. Then start writing. Don’t worry about the quality of what you write, just focus on meeting the constraints you have set. By having these constraints set in stone, you won’t be overwhelmed by all the decisions you need to make about your novel – you know what you have to focus and work on so you will spend your time meeting your objectives, getting to know your characters better and coming up with a plausible plot possibility.

  1. Try something different.

All writing is constrained writing of sorts. You constrain yourself to a certain genre, structure, style or POV throughout your piece. It may be one you enjoy writing or are comfortable with, but that comfortability may be risking your creativity and holding you back. Step out of your comfort zone and try something different. Constrain yourself to a structure you have never tried before. This may, in fact, add a new perspective to your work. For example, reverse poetry is poetry that can be read from top to bottom and then from bottom to top, usually with contradictory meanings. This constraint itself adds another layer of creative depth to your work which forms a part of its meaning. It provides a general structure which you must creatively navigate through as a writer. In doing so, you may think of new themes and possibilities you could explore. Similarly, try a new POV or style –it may help you look at your work in a different way.

Psychologists say the presence of constraints causes your brain to deviate from its rational cognition and embrace its creative problem-solving side, allowing you to consider a greater range of possibilities and ideas – or a ‘shift in conceptual scope’ as they call it. Constrained writing can help you experience a sense of boundlessness through the very use of limitations. After all, it’s easier to think outside the box if you create the box first and then find ways to be creative within its constraints.