It’s writer’s block: the moment you run into a mental wall while writing and can’t think of a good idea or a way to continue your story, paragraph, or even a single sentence. All creatives run into this problem at some point. Most run into it rather frequently. Sometimes it gets so bad that people give up on their creative pursuits entirely.
Thankfully, there’s a solution to the problem. It’s well-known in computer programming circles, but writers can use it, too: Talk to a rubber duck.
I discovered this method the same way I find many writing tips: by randomly browsing Tumblr. I found a post explaining that whenever a computer programmer runs into a problem with their code and can’t think of a way to solve it, they put a rubber duck on their desk and talk to it out loud.
They tell the duck the problem they’re having, why they need to solve it, and even go over the code line by line with the duck until they figure out a solution.
The post went on to explain that the rubber duck debugging method is so effective that programmers have been known to shout at their ducks to vent their frustrations or throw them across the room in a fit of excitement when they reach a “Eureka!” moment.
I’m always up for trying new writing tips, so the next time I got stuck with my story, I started talking to the Animaniacs figure my mum bought me when I was 6, which sits on my desk. To my surprise, the problem started to unravel, and I solved it in less than 10 minutes.
You don’t even have to use an actual rubber duck. Technically you can use anything: a house plant, your pet, or the mascot you keep on your desk (be honest; we all have one).
I told my writer-husband about this method, and he started trying it out with his bobblehead of Vault Boy from the “Fallout Games.” His desk is right behind mine, so sometimes I hear him talking to it enthusiastically.
The Coding Horror blog encourages clients to use the method when explaining their problems to their programmers, since it often helps programmers to figure it out for themselves rather than having to rely upon outside help.
If you haven’t used the rubber duck method before and are concerned about looking weird, try it out when you are completely alone with no distractions. Turn off your phone and internet temporarily if you have to. Give yourself and your duck (or whatever equivalent you are using) time alone together, just to talk about your writing problems.
Rubber duck debugging is fairly straightforward, but to get the best results out of it, there are certain things you should say to your duck:
Remember to keep your computer or notebook close by as you talk to your duck. As you speak and unclog the problems in your head, you will likely be in a rush to get the solution down as quickly as possible (which is why programmers so often throw their ducks against the wall in excitement).
Don’t feel bad if the rubber duck method doesn’t work every single time. As effective as they can be, rubber ducks are still just sounding boards and can’t help us solve all our writing problems.
If a breakthrough doesn’t happen, it probably means that the issue is best solved by talking with another, more knowledgeable, writer. The rubber duck method is only intended for problems that we can still solve ourselves without needing to bother somebody else, but you won’t know if you have that kind of problem until your duck tells you so.
It seems odd to solve complex problems by talking to a children’s bath toy, but there is psychology behind the method to explain why it works so well. Web consultancy service Press Up explains that we tend to think much faster than we talk or act and that when we talk to a rubber duck “you’re likely to slow down and be more exacting than you are when you’re really power-typing.” This is why when you get really into the writing groove, you may often find yourself making obvious spelling errors as you type: Your brain is going at warp speed, and your fingers can’t keep up the pace.
Getting into creative flow can sometimes work against us and make our minds race so fast that we forget about small but important details. Usually when we become stuck, it is because we have forced ourselves into tunnel vision, and we can’t see a way out.
But a change in focus can tear down the tunnel vision and help us see the bigger picture again.
Large problems can also come from simple mistakes made when we assume we are doing things correctly. How often have you written what you thought was a brilliant piece of prose only for your editor or beta reader to point out an obvious flaw, which you had previously missed?
Slowing down, speaking out loud rather than thinking, and going over the problem line by line is a much better way to spot errors than looking at the entire piece of writing all at once. Talking to something is a great way to do this.
Obviously, you might achieve the same result by speaking to an actual human being. And there are some problems that are best solved by talking them over with a writing buddy or mentor.
But the advantage of talking to a rubber duck over a flesh-and-blood human is that the duck doesn’t judge, talk back, or complain that you are taking up too much of its time. It simply sits on your desk, all wide-open eyes and oblivious to whatever you’re saying.
Amateur writers commonly believe writer’s block can be cured by finding the right inspiration, only to find that sitting around and waiting for this mythical inspiration to strike achieves nothing. Sitting down and talking about the problem to figure it out may work much better.
Just as programmers use the method to go over each line of code thoroughly, so can writers use it in editing: It’ll encourage you to go over your work with a fine-toothed comb and spot less-obvious mistakes, such as problems with sentence structure. And in the editing process, you can use it to review your work line by line and question whether each one is absolutely necessary. But it can also work for large meta problems like plot holes.
Next time you are stuck with a creative block, try solving it with the help of a plastic toy or other inanimate object. Don’t worry about how silly you might feel or look; you may find it’s the best cure for writer’s block you’ve ever found.
Jessica is a British freelance arts and culture writer with a degree in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University and now living and working in Finland with her husband, who is also a writer. She has previously had work published in The Bath Chronicle, Fan/Slash Fic, and Blueink Review and is currently a contributing writer for The Culture Trip. You can see more of her work at woodthewriter.com.