Stephan King wasn’t controlled by writer’s block. At the height of his career, the bestselling author would sit at his desk every day, and wouldn’t leave until he’d written 2,000 words. King is one of the most successful and prolific living writers, having written 62 novels, five non-fiction books, and over 200 short stories. The dedication to his writing schedule and his endless creativity are awe-inspiring.
As the saying goes, writers write. But as all professional writers know, it’s not always that straightforward. Whether you’re a pro or more of an amateur looking to take on a writing project in your spare time, encountering writer’s block is hugely frustrating. What separates those who struggle to get their ideas on the page from those like King, who knows how to write a book and produce volumes of content?
In this article, we’ll explore where writer’s block stems from, and also provide 7 tips to overcome writer’s block and free your creative flow. Consistent writing makes a difference. So if you’re looking to write a novel, start a blog, or enhance your personal journal practice, look no further.
What is writer’s block?
Synapses are firing. You’re inspired. You’ve got an idea for a novel and you can’t wait to get going. All you need to do is translate the vision you have into words on a page. The time comes, you sit down, open a new document, and a blank page stares back at you. Then… Nothing. The words won’t come, your mind clams up, and that blank page suddenly seems to ridicule you. I’ll never become a writer, you think. Writers struggle with this all the time.
Writer’s block is incredibly common, for amateurs and famous writers alike. The Royal Literary fund defines writer’s block as “a temporary or lasting failure to put words on paper. It can hit every writer, if only for a few minutes or a day or two, but it becomes a real problem when the writer is not reaching targets and when they feel incapable of completing a piece of work.”
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to combat writer’s block. Blocked writers might struggle to begin a passion project, such as a novel they’ve always wanted to write. It might be more about self doubt than you might think at first glace. Other writers might see it as the struggle to conclude a paper due the next day at college. Or, it might simply be getting stuck on one paragraph, or one sentence, or struggling to find just the right word that’ll make all the difference.
Writer’s block is a vicious cycle. The more you struggle, the easier it can be to beat yourself up for not being capable of writing. That then adds pressure on the process, making it harder to start writing. Without breaking the loop of self-criticism, writer’s block can become a serious problem.
However, as author Neil Gaiman explains:
“I don’t really believe in writer’s block, but I absolutely believe in getting stuck. The difference is one is imposed on you by the gods, and one is your own damn fault. If you turn around and go, ‘I am blocked,’ this is just something writers say because we’re really clever. It sounds like it has nothing to do with you: ‘I would love to write today, but I am blocked. The gods have done it to me.’ And it’s not true. Cellists don’t have cellist block. Gardeners don’t have gardener’s block. TV hosts do not have TV host block. But writers have claimed all the blocks, and we think it’s a real thing.”
In other words, it’s important not to give your power away to writer’s block as some mythical enemy, a curse that affected writers only. I’ve found this to be the case in my own experience, and it can lead to giving up, or accepting the block as fate. Instead, it pays to explore precisely what it is that caused you to stop writing and producing creative work in the first place. Only then can you begin to dig deep and find workable solutions.
What causes writer’s block?
The causes of writer’s block are fairly well understood. The good news is, the clearer you can define the problem, the easier it is to find a solution. Frank Smith, an acclaimed Canadian psycholinguist, identified three main causes of writer’s block in his 1982 book, Writing and the Writer — physical, procedural, and psychological:
I was never really one to pull an all-nighter in my student days, instead preferring to go to bed early, rest, and wake up early the next day to get going. But many writers do push themselves to write, even when exhausted, hungry, or feeling unwell.
If your body isn’t functioning as well as it could be, it’ll be harder to focus on writing or produce the best ideas, which requires a lot of focus and brainpower.
This comes down to the writing process. Perhaps you’re stuck knowing what direction to take your lead character in, maybe you’re struggling to think of ideas on how to start an article, or you have too many ideas, and you’re overwhelmed. All writers require structure to counterbalance the often chaotic outpouring of ideas.
These causes are unique to each individual, but tend to come down to certain beliefs, fears, or self-critical thoughts. Smith notes that the biggest challenge for writers is separating the creative part of the mind from the judgemental part of the mind, a task made harder for writers because writing does have to be judged (or edited) at some point.
Our main focus in this article will be psychological blocks.
How to overcome writer’s block: Common hurdles
Some of the most common mental hurdles that contribute to writer’s block include:
Fear of failure
Writing is a pursuit of the soul. It’s mildly terrifying to share your writing with the world, especially if the story or the message is meaningful to you. The best writing comes from a place of freedom, as if the words write themselves. Yet, with pressure on your shoulders, it hinders this process. The fear of failure can be at the forefront, stopping the creative flow and preventing you from staying focused and creating new ideas.
Writers tend to be introverted types, at least to some degree. It’s an incredibly solitary act, with many hours spent alone, just you and the keyboard or pen and paper. At the same time, social comparison can surface. You might read a bestselling author, and feel a million miles from their standard. Or you might compare yourself to people who produce a high volume of content.
Elizabeth Gilbert is another high-profile writer who doesn’t believe in writer’s block. She acknowledges that usually, the “blockage” is caused by an emotional issue. Gilbert has found that her number one cause of blockages is boredom. “Now, boredom is not nearly as glamorous and tragic a condition as ‘writer’s block’ but boredom is usually what it is. Here’s how I get out of it: I remind myself that a great deal of the creative process is about sitting through your boredom.”
Imagine having someone standing over your shoulder, watching you type, criticizing your ability, or telling you you’re not good enough. You’d probably tell them to go away (likely in a less polite way). If your self-critic is active when trying to write, it’s essentially the same, and won’t be a surprise that the words are hard to find.
This is an extension of the self-critic, a way of viewing your ability, or originality, or ideas through the lens of perfectionism. As Anne Lamont, the famous writing teacher and author of Bird by Bird, warns: “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.”
7 tips for overcoming writer’s block
Hopefully, you’re feeling more optimistic about overcoming writer’s block by having a greater understanding of its causes. The next step is to explore solutions. Below are seven tips that’ll get your creative juices flowing, and provide reassurance for the times when you get stuck.
1. Schedule writing time
If you want to take writing seriously, you have to view writing as both an art and a discipline. You can’t write a novel on wishful thinking or trying to find time here and there. You need a regular schedule, one that you can stick to most of the time. The time you set aside for writing has to be defended; it’s sacred.
I’d recommend setting aside at least an hour each day to write. When you write depends on your natural creative rhythm — for example, I write best in the early hours of the day, with a second wind after lunchtime. But towards the evenings, my creativity sinks. Others get creative bursts late at night.
Put the time in your calendar for writing, and make sure to show up. Don’t worry about how much or how little you write. The point is being consistent with your practice, through the highs and the lows of the process.
2. Make writing a ritual
Once you’ve scheduled time, the next step is to add a ritual or routine to get you into the zone. As Stephen King says, “I have a routine because I think that writing is self-hypnosis. And you fall into a kind of a trance if you do the same passes over and over.” My writing routine consists of waking up, showering, meditating, making a fresh coffee, and then sitting down to write in my paper journal. I then write on my computer after dusting off the cobwebs.
Do whatever works for you. You might put on a specific music playlist, light incense, spin around on the spot five times before sitting at your desk. Specifics don’t matter, just make sure you set the environment to prime you to write. The build-up to sitting down to the page makes all the difference.
3. Get rid of distractions
Of course, it’ll be almost impossible to get into flow if you’re distracted by people talking to you, receiving notifications on your phone, or scrolling social media. When you write, you want to create as intimate a space as you can between you and the page. So switch off your phone if you can, and create an environment with minimal distractions.
Rumour has it that when Victor Hugo was procrastinating on a writing deadline, he instructed his valet to hide his clothes and return them at the end of his writing session. Naked with nothing but his pen and paper, Hugo removed all temptations to get the job done. This is admittedly a bit extreme, but it’s a fun anecdote to show the value of hiding distractions.
4. Be patient with the incubation process
I write roughly 2,000 words per day. It’s taken me a while to be consistent with my output. When I wasn’t working as a professional writer, I’d occasionally consult my journal, staring at the page, unable to express what was alive in my mind. It took practice to become consistent, and that meant sitting down to write when I didn’t feel like it.
When I started working as a full-time Staff Writer I had to write two or three articles per day, no questions. It was a teaching experience, reminding me of the need for discipline. But I was taught something else that remains true to this day: patience.
If I tell myself I have to write freely and try to force words on the page, nothing happens. At least, it’s a struggle. But when I relax and trust the words will flow, I get struck by the “muse” and then the words pour out of me. It’s only through experience that I’ve learned to be patient with the incubation process, knowing that the words will come, eventually.
5. Be self-compassionate
Sometimes, the words don’t arrive, even after the incubation period. That’s when I get frustrated or angry towards myself for not writing, which interrupts the natural ebb and flow of creativity, and I end up not writing at all. You’re human, not a robot. At any given moment you might have worries on your mind, you might feel tired, you might be struggling to remain focused — it’s all okay.
Love yourself through blockages! Understand the paradox that forcing yourself to write by reprimanding yourself is more likely to stifle your creativity. The more you extend compassion to your writing process, the more likely you are to move through it.
If you require some form of external motivation, think about setting yourself up for a reward after hitting your daily writing goals. It could be something as simple as a cup of tea or a muffin from a nearby shop. Incorporate whatever motivates you and becomes a positive part of your routine.
6. Ease the inner perfectionist
Part of that process is working with the self-critic, and the inner perfectionist. One of my favorite writing mottos is “write drunk, edit sober.” While some writers take this a little too literally, it’s a useful metaphor that shows the importance of separating the creative part and the judgemental part, as Frank Smith noted.
Easing the perfectionist comes in many forms. It means doing your best to ignore any snap judgments that arise as you’re attempting to put words to the page. It means finding a healthy balance when editing your work, and not getting stuck in trying to make the final product perfect.
7. Adopt a growth mindset
One way of looking at perfectionism is through the lens of the growth mindset. The pioneering work by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck shows the importance of the growth mindset in many areas of life, including learning new skills, self-development, and relationships. Whilst the fixed mindset may focus on the end result, and accomplishments, the growth mindset always looks to learn and improve.
Applied to the process of writing, this has a transformative effect. Rather than judging writing harshly, be inspired to always refine and improve your craft. The “art” of writing takes a lifetime to master, and then there’s still more to learn. By focusing on the process, rather than the outcome, you’re much more likely to produce work that feels true to you.
Thoughts on improving your writing process
Writing can be the source of joy, meaning, and fulfillment. You can write without the intention to share with the world. But if you want to take the next step, thanks to the internet, there are growing opportunities to share your message, from blog posts to self-published eBooks. Content creation is a growing trend, and people will always be hungry for stories that describe fantastical adventures, deep thoughts, the internal conflict of characters, among many other creative choices.
Writer’s block can be viewed as the enemy of the process. But in reality, it’s a chance to learn more about yourself. What gets in the way of your writing is likely a microcosm of patterns that affect your day-to-day life, from perfectionism to impatience. Anything you can manage to put down on the page (or your own personal blogging site) constitutes acceptance of the fact that you have both limitations and a great deal of potential.
Life is an opportunity to learn, and the process of overcoming writer’s block is no exception. And, you never know — once you go through the process and the words start to flow, maybe you’ll end up writing about writer’s block, and pass on your own tips to help others.
HURDLES MAKE YOU STRONGER
Ready to get over the hump?
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