The Ultimate Guide to Learning Writing: Writer's Block

Tackling Writer’s Block: The Full Arsenal

The begrudged writer’s block: our worst enemy. All writers amateur and professional have encountered this term, whether through unfortunate firsthand experience while looking at a blank page or overheard table talk. However, many writers actually deny its existence. Writer’s block is a myth - it doesn’t exist. You just don’t have all the information you need right now. Perhaps some writers resist acknowledging its existence because the very act of naming it may lend it credence.

Yet, regardless of how we define it or the name we give it, the feeling does indeed exist. All writers have encountered it - when you want to write but the right thoughts or words aren’t coming to you as easily as they have before. Your flow has been stymied, interrupted. What once was smooth is now a jolty, unnatural-seeming creative process. Your own words are inadequate, even foreign like you’re playing an instrument out of tune. You may feel like you don’t quite “have it.” You may feel blank, helpless even. Decisively stuck.

Whether you are working on the next bestseller or simply under a deadline, writer’s block can feel daunting and insurmountable. It activates our worst inner critics, that doubting whisper many great writers succumb to. However, writing is a creative process - what is most important to recognize here is that creativity is not linear. This is the key to understanding how to nourish the creative process, in order to avoid and overcome crippling writer’s block.

In this guide, you will learn:

  • What is writer’s block and its possible causes
  • How to overcome writer’s block: tips and advice

What is Writer’s Block, Exactly?

Writer’s block may feel a certain way, but what causes it? Is there a science behind it?

Some possible causes can be:

  • Bad timing Your ideas may need to percolate for a while longer. You may simply not have enough time for the task at hand. Or, you may be writing at a time of day that doesn’t coincide with the most productive time of your circadian rhythm, or natural body clock.
  • Fear Fear of critique, failure, success, mediocrity, rejection, risk - all of these can prevent you from even starting that first draft.
  • Perfectionism Fed by fear, perfectionism and getting it “just right” can lead to your work sitting unpublished for years.
  • Emotional stress In a 2016 interview, neuroscientist Michael Grybko describes how relationships within the brain and certain brain activity can facilitate disruptions in the creative process:
    “… [Our brain’s] connectedness also comes with a downside; activity in one area of the brain may affect another area in a negative way. Our emotions can have an impact on our productivity and learning … When activity in the area of the brain that is responsible for processing the information needed to write effectively is altered, the result may be writer’s block.”

Writer’s Block Tips: How to Overcome it and Better Yet, Avoid it

Whether you are currently experiencing writer’s block or want to avoid it in the future, the following writer’s block tips are indispensable, not just in helping to cure writer’s block, but many can also be integrated into your writing process in order to avoid writer’s block altogether.

1. Power Through

  • Just write

Shelve your inner critic and pride and just write. Focus on just doing and quantity, rather than quality. If you’re stuck on finding the right words or phrasing, use the best substitute you have at the moment and mark it for return later. You can always go back and edit, but you can’t edit something that hasn’t been written yet.

In Writers Dreaming, Maya Angelou explains her process:

“I suppose I do get ‘blocked’ sometimes but I don’t like to call it that. That seems to give it more power than I want it to have. What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat,’ you know. And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.’”

In The Physics of Productivity: Newton’s Laws of Getting Stuff Done, James clear writes:

“Objects at rest tend to stay at rest … Objects in motion tend to stay in motion. When it comes to being productive, this means one thing: the most important thing is to find a way to get started. Once you get started, it is much easier to stay in motion.”

Simply put, barrel through - this phase shall pass. The longer you stop for, the harder it can be for your pen to return to paper. The quality and creative juices you seek will come.

  • Freewrite

Specifically, you can try freewriting - for ten minutes write everything that comes to mind that is related to your topic or the part of the text you are stuck in. Almost everything you freewrite will be immediately disposable, however some ideas will stick. Just keep churning out ideas - throw all your darts and some will hit the mark and maybe fix that creative block, too.

2. Play with Timing

  • Write in timed chunks Developed in the late 1980s by Francesco Cirillo, the Pomodoro Technique is based on research that shows people are most productive when working in 25 minute chunks of time with three to five minute breaks in between. Each 25 minute period of time is called a “pomodoro”, or tomato in Italian after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer Cirillo used.
  • Tune into your circadian rhythm Everyone’s minds and bodies operate on unique circadian rhythms, one example of which is the internal body clock. Each person differs in their sleep-wake cycle. You may already have a sense of when you are most productive during the day - try switching up when you write if you’re not sure. Although caffeine works wonders, it only masks your natural cycle. Try tuning in.
  • Let your ideas marinate Greg Iles, New York Times best-selling author, describes his use of this technique:
    “Writing is a much more passive thing than people think it is … The real work is done passively, in your mind, deep in you when you’re doing other things. I try to go as much of the year as I can without writing anything, and the story is working itself out.”
    Let your subconscious do the work while your ideas are on the backburner. Your brain will work out the next steps and let you know when it’s ready. Or, set your work aside and come back to it anew after a few days - re-read, mark it up, and get back at it.
  • Quit while you’re up The only way to beat the house in gambling is to quit while you’re up. Famous writers like Ernest Hemingway were known to use this strategy in writing. It may seem unnatural, but try stopping writing while it’s flowing well and you’re certain about what’s coming next. This way, your ideas will continue percolating and returning will be easy as you’ve maintained your momentum.

3. Get Out and Play

  • Try “combinatory play” In his book Ideas and Opinions, Albert Einstein explains his concept of “combinatory play”, or the act of opening up one mental channel by dabbling in another. In combinatory play, you take two seemingly unrelated things and put them together to generate new ideas. When Einstein experienced ruts in his workday, he would famously play the violin for a few hours until a new idea would come to him. Put distance between yourself and the problem and allow your brain to flex creatively in another task. Your subconscious will continue on the creative work in the background.
  • Do anything else creative This is less task-oriented than combinatory play. What inspires you? Go to a museum. See a play or a concert. Go on a walk in a beautiful botanical garden. Sit and people watch. Go experience something using different senses. Build, paint, cook. Allow your creativity to flow through other modes and back into your writing.
  • Get your blood flowing Body and mind flow are connected. Go for a walk or do another form of exercise to relax your body and mind. Loosen the vices cramping your creativity and the ideas will flow again.

4. Change Your Perspective

  • Go non-linear Write what’s easy and natural first - you don’t need to write in the order your audience will read your piece. Apply the tried and true multiple-choice test-taking strategy and tackle the easy parts first. Once you have this flow, try returning to where you were stuck.
  • Narrow your audience Perfectionism and writing the world’s next bestseller can be crippling - try writing to one person when you are stuck. Think of someone you know and write specifically to them. This can give you a clearer purpose to guide you through a challenging part of your piece.
  • Interview yourself Turn the tables and ask yourself questions. You may be stuck because you haven’t worked out the details about what you’re writing. If it’s fiction, ask yourself about your character’s fears. Their strengths. What are their desires and what obstacles are standing in the way? Ground yourself in their underlying profile to work out what happens next. Literally walk around as your character.

5. Adjust Your Environment and/or Ambiance

  • Unplug Do you notice how you tend to check your phone or go on social media when you’re approaching a part of your piece you haven’t quite worked out yet? We often subconsciously create our own distractions. Eliminate distractions, turn off notifications, unplug from what can interrupt your flow and provide an excuse to not write.
  • Write somewhere else Change it up and move to a cafe (or a different cafe) or a library. Psychological studies have demonstrated that concentration is a psychological property that is actually “contagious” between people - if you are near others who are very focused, you are likely to do the same.
  • Develop a writing ritual Imagine your writing space when you are at your most creative and insightful. What does it look like, sound like, feel like, smell like? What sequence of actions can you take to create this perfect ambiance to nourish the creative mind? Perhaps you may listen to certain music, go on a walk, or make a cup of coffee. Developing a ritual will help your mind transition into the appropriate mental space.

Cultivating Flow: Beyond Writer’s Block

Be gentle with yourself. Writer’s block is natural - we are not robots - we are sentient and imperfect, and we need to nourish that elusive creativity that exists somewhere in the brain. At the same time, there are definite steps to overcome and even avoid writer’s block. When something works, note what cleared your headspace and add it to your personal arsenal. Develop a writing process rich with strategies and routines that allow your best work to flow unhindered.

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