Why is writer’s block such a widespread problem? Why do so many writers struggle with it? What makes writer’s block happen in the first place, and can it be prevented?
And most importantly: how the heck can you overcome writer’s block when it does hit?
Keep reading for an overview of writer’s block, including how to recognize it, how to deal with it, and how to prevent it from cropping up again and again!
Before I can tell you how to combat writer’s block, it’s important to know what exactly writer's block actually is.
When you picture writer’s block, what pops into your head is probably the image we’ve all seen in countless films or movies: writer sits at desk, scowling at a laptop open to a blank text document. Cursor blinks menacingly. Writer groans, slams the laptop closed, and storms away.
It feels like hitting a brick wall.
This all makes for a great visual depiction of the problem, but writer’s block is often so much more complicated than a taunting blank screen.
Sometimes it’s the resistance that you feel to even making your way to the writing desk in the first place. You know you want to write, and you’ve even scheduled time for it in your day, but as soon as that time comes around, you find your chores calling out to you instead—and now, you’re organizing your filing cabinet.
Weeding your garden.
Cleaning all the old clothes out of your closet.
Because you’re just so busy.
Other times, writer’s block is less about getting started and more about hitting a wall in your writing projects in progress. You’ve written your way into a scene you can’t seem to write your way out of, and the more you fret over it, the harder it seems.
You tell yourself that you’ll sleep on it, but the next day you still don’t have any answers.
Or the next day.
Or the next week.
Soon, it’s been a month since you’ve written anything new, and now that unfinished draft has taken on monstrous dimensions. The words sneer at you, lips pulled back to reveal their jagged, dirty fangs.
You’re ready to throw in the towel on the piece altogether.
And after two or three of these half-finished manuscripts, it feels like this is too impossible; you’ve lost all motivation to try and write at all.
Why does this happen?
It’s easy to conceptualize writer’s block as a failing of innovation—a flaw in your brain’s ability to come up with ideas. And that’s why it’s so hard to write your way out of it. You’re waiting passively for the right solution to hit, unsure what you need to do to tap into those creative juices.
But that means you’re not addressing the real issue at the heart of writer’s block:
That’s right—fear is really the culprit here. It’s not that you don’t have ideas; most likely, you do have some ideas. But you convince yourself they’re not good enough, or that you’re not skilled enough to pull it off.
Some of you are probably thinking, Rhonda, you just don’t get it. I really don’t have any ideas at all.
And I understand. I’ve been writing seriously for over thirty years now, and do you think I’ve never experienced a dearth of ideas in all that time?
Of course not… I’ve dealt with it all: staring at that taunting, blinking cursor, egging me on like it wants to see me fail.
Washing all my baseboards, because who has time to write when there are scuff marks that need my attention??
Throwing away my stories and poems because I have no idea how to finish them.
And in every single one of those cases, fear was at the heart of the problem.
Fear that anything I write won’t be good enough.
Fear that I don’t have anything to say that hasn’t already been said a hundred times already by writers more talented than I am.
Fear that the concept I’ve been mulling over is just too ambitious to pursue.
Most of the time, writer’s block isn’t really about a lack of ideas—it’s about anxiety over what to do with the ideas we do have. And sometimes the anxiety is strong enough to convince you they’re not even real ideas at all.
So now that we know what writer’s block is all about, what can we do about it?
If writer’s block is about fear, then that means it’s fear of something—of missing the mark somehow. The catalyst for these anxieties is perfectionism.
You’ve probably heard before that perfectionism is the enemy of something. Winston Churchill called perfection the enemy of progress; Matt Fussell says it’s the enemy of the artist; Anne Lamott says it’s the enemy of productivity; and the proverb “perfect is the enemy of good” is so ubiquitous it’s got its own Wikipedia page.
All these people are really saying the same thing: perfectionism is inherently anti-creative. It’s a manipulative little jerk that convinces you nothing is worth pursuing if you don’t absolutely nail it.
You have to be kind to yourself if you want to pursue writing. You have to make room in your writing practice for flaws, whatever they may be.
Plot holes or inconsistencies.
Excessive use of abstractions.
These flaws can all hurt a good piece of writing, but they won’t kill it. It’s inevitable that first drafts, and even second and third and fifth and tenth drafts, will have some messy spots.
That’s what revision is for, and some pieces take longer than others to figure out.
What is deadly to a piece of writing is non completion. You can’t do anything with a bunch of half-finished manuscripts or a list of ideas that never make it to a draft at all.
In other words, be kind to yourself. If you don’t believe in your writing, why should anyone else?
Let’s get the obvious issue out of the way. I can hear some of you from here: But Rhonda, I still don’t know what to write.
Maybe, even after letting go of your perfectionism, you still don’t know where to begin. Maybe you’re ready to dive in, flaws and all, but you can’t even get the first sentence or line down, because this is all so overwhelming. Where do you begin?
The longer you’ve been dealing with writer’s block, the more you become a fly trying to unstick itself from a spider’s web. You know you need to get out of this situation, but you don’t have the tools to disentangle yourself.
Most flies aren’t strong or clever enough to do anything other than thrash about, which will likely just ensnare them further. But the good news is that you are not a fly.
If diving back into your ambitious-but-undeveloped idea is too intimidating after a long break from writing, then start small. Focus on whatever speaks most strongly to you; maybe it’s an image, or a scene, or an introduction or ending. See how it feels to explore those ideas and emotions.
Maybe on the first day, all you’ll write is a hundred words. But that’s still a hundred more than zero!
Take it session by session, and commit yourself to a certain word-count goal or block of time that is reasonable for you to reach.
Maybe it’s three half-hour sessions per week, or 200 words a day, or whatever works for you.
Or maybe it’s less about quantitative targets and more about qualitative ones—maybe the goal is to work on Scene X for one session, Description Y for another, and Plot Hole Z for a third.
The point is that writing can seem like a gargantuan undertaking when you’re starting a new project, so it’s easy to be overwhelmed. But, like with any other huge project, breaking things down into smaller, more easily conceptualized tasks helps make the process less intimidating.
Peel your limbs off that web slowly, and eventually, you’ll wriggle yourself free.
Notebooks can be especially useful for breaking cycles of negativity and lack of motivation.
Simply put, it’s a lot less intimidating to write in a notebook than it is on a computer screen. Why?
Notebooks are implicitly understood to be by writers, for writers. They’re not meant for publishing or even sharing with friends and family; they’re just for you.
That means notebooks alleviate a lot of pressure from writing. They help combat perfectionism because you’re not supposed to share them.
If you’re coming off a long-term writing dry spell and want to ease your way back into it, turn to your notebook first to help loosen any kinks and get reacquainted with your voice, your passion subjects, and even just the excitement of seeing words scrawled across a page—words that you wrote.
Sometimes it’s just the confidence boost you need to get your butt back in the writing desk chair.
Many writers enjoy all kinds of other artistic and creative endeavours. Can you think of other, non-writing hobbies that can help put you in a creative mood?
Some of this can be obvious. Maybe you’re a visual artist or a musician, and spending some time painting or tickling the ivories can help you tap into a creative mindset just before you sit down for a writing session.
Maybe you love to cook or bake. Maybe you’re a gardener. Maybe you knit, crochet, or do needlepoint.
If all of this sounds too hard, or if you’re convinced that writing is your only artistic outlet, there are other ways to enhance the creative process.
Even if you don’t play an instrument and can’t carry a tune with a bucket, everyone loves music. There’s nothing stopping you from throwing on your favourite album and dancing around the room—who cares if it’s not sexy or cool? This is just for you. It’s not a spectator sport.
Adult colouring books—or even colouring books for kids!—can allow anyone to explore their artistic side, even if you’ve never considered yourself a visual artist.
Stretching your creative muscles can even be as simple as going for a walk, reading a good book or literary magazine, or looking outside your window and searching for beauty in anything you see.
Find some way—any way—to tap into your creative self before you start writing, and you’ll find that your artistic muscles are stretched and ready for action.
Now that you’re ready to face your writer’s block head-on, let’s look ahead to your writing future. Is there anything you can do to keep the creative juices flowing long-term, and avoid writer’s block altogether?
What’s true in the medical world is also true for writer’s block: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
If you like to work out, you probably know all about how exercise gets easier when you make it a habit.
When you first started going to the gym, it was probably a struggle to stay motivated. Maybe you had to talk yourself into walking through the door, and you really had to push yourself to make it through the whole workout.
But the more you went to the gym, the easier it got. Not only did the workouts get easier, but they probably became more enjoyable, too. You found you were looking forward to going to the gym instead of dreading it, and the time passed more quickly when you were there.
Eventually, you might have even reached the point where skipping a workout left you feeling groggy or cranky; the exercise had become so routine that your body needed it.
Then maybe one day you stopped going to the gym, because of illness or finances or any other reason. It was weeks, months, or even years before you decided it was time to get back into shape. You laced up your sneakers and went to the gym for the first time in awhile.
But it wasn’t like it was before. The exercise felt draining, not energizing; you were back to the beginning again, before working out had become a habit, and had to really push yourself to stay motivated.
Writing is a lot like working out. At the beginning—whether it’s when you’re first starting out as a writer or returning to writing after a long period away—it can be a struggle to make it through a writing session. You probably need to start small.
But over time, if you make a habit of it, the sessions get easier, and soon you’ll be able to write for long stretches without issue.
The more you flex your writing muscles, the better you get at using them. And the better you are at using them, the less prone you’ll be to succumbing to writer’s block. You’ll find that the “flow” of writing is easy to fall into.
Plus, when you do reach a point in your piece where you don’t know how to continue, your mental toolkit will be sharp enough to respond and help you solve the problem.
A lot of writers advise you to make sure you set aside time to write every day, but let’s face it—for many of us, who might be working multiple jobs or going to school or caring for children as single parents, that’s not always going to be possible.
If you’re coming out of a writing slump, try to get back in the habit by aiming for two or three writing sessions every week—even if they’re as informal as spending ten minutes with a pen and notebook, that still counts. Go ahead and schedule that time into your week if it helps—plan your to-do list around it!
Then, work up from there whenever you feel ready to take on more of a commitment. Whether that means striving for more sessions per week, or longer sessions, or reaching for a higher word count, or any other goal is up to you.
The point is to challenge yourself, but just like at the gym, you get to decide what that challenge ought to be. No one else should be dictating your workout goals, and no one else should be dictating your writing goals either.
Writer's block is a concern so pressing among aspiring—and even actively publishing!—writers that I’ve prepared a special masterclass on beating writer’s block for just $47. Sign up today and you can learn more in-depth strategies that expand on what I’ve discussed above.
Plus, in this Masterclass you’ll learn the TWO essential approaches to writer’s block and why you need both, as well as everything you need to know about the brain science behind writer’s block and writer’s resistance, along the 3 key habits you need to establish in order to *prevent* writer’s block (they’re not what you think!)
The Beat Writer's Block Masterclass also comes with a set of worksheets to help you work through whatever is specifically blocking you. It's the final cure you need for your writing resistance right now AND the secret to preventing it from reoccurring in the future!