How to Overcome Writer’s Block: 6 Tips that Definitely Work
Who hasn’t experienced writer’s block? You don’t even have to be a writer to experience it. It’s not a unique phenomenon. It happens to all creative people at some time or the other. Anyone who is in the field of creating has experienced it. Many professional artists and writers have documented their doomed visits through the ages. American authors F. Scott Fitzgerald and Herman Melville, American cartoonist Charles M. Schulz, Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, and singer and songwriter Adele have all struggled.
In this article, we are looking at writer’s block, which affects writers. If it helps other creative artists, it’s all the better. American fantasy author Kaylin R. Boyd says, “The only cure for not being able to write is to write.” You know that’s easier said than done. The article will dissect the puzzle called writer’s block, examine its meaning, list its causes, and, more importantly, identify how to overcome it.
What Is Writer’s Block?
Let’s start with a definition. Writer’s block is when you are not able to write or create anything new or of value. It’s a creative slowdown, a traffic jam, or a deadlock. Webster’s dictionary defines writer’s block as “a psychological inhibition preventing a writer from proceeding with a piece.” Dr. Patricia Huston defined writer’s block as “a distinctly uncomfortable ability to write.”
The way it affects the writing differs from writer to writer. Some writers do not believe in it. American bestselling author of twenty-five novels, Jodi Picoult, says, “I don’t believe in writer’s block. Think about it—when you were blocked in college and had to write a paper, didn’t it always manage to fix itself the night before the paper was due? Writer’s block has too much time on your hands.”1 Fantasy author Neil Gaiman believes, “As writers, we’re lucky. If we’re not productive, we can blame it on ‘writer’s block,’ an ailment that doesn’t seem to exist for other professions. For instance, shoe salesmen do not get ‘shoe salesmen block.’”2
Some writers believe in it and have faced it. Nineteenth-century Russian author Anna Karenina and War and Peace Leo Tolstoy could not write for months and years. But he overcame it. British author J. K. Rowling mentioned that the stress of a lawsuit in 2008 when she wanted to stop the unauthorized publication of a Harry Potter-based book led to writer’s block. She recovered too.
Science has tried to understand why it affects some writers. Neuroscientist Michael Grybko explains, “… [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 the writer’s block.”3
The Causes of Writer’s Block
The writer’s block has no definite timeline. It can go on for days, weeks, or even years. That’s why it is essential to know what its causes are. Psychologists Jerome Singer and Michael Barrios researched the reasons for writer’s block in the 1970s and came up with a list. According to them, the block happens because:
- You judge yourself excessively harshly.
- You are afraid of being compared to other writers.
- You lack external motivation, like praise and attention.
- You lack internal motivation, like the desire to tell your own story.
According to them, the writer’s block results from being discontent with the creative act of writing.
Other people have listed the following reasons for writer’s block:
- You are afraid.
- You are exhausted.
- You have set high standards for yourself.
- You are scared of rejection.
- You are afraid of not being good enough.
- You are worried about not having enough time.
- You don’t know how to start/continue.
Tips to Overcome Writer’s Block
Now that you know why you might get writer’s block, you must want to know how to get rid of it. There is no one size fits all solution. You know you must plod through it. Other than that, you will need to find a way or a combination of methods that best work for you. Here are a few tips that have worked for many writers.
Tip 1: Develop a Writing Routine
When you have a routine, your mind is conditioned to get on with the writing. It is a commitment and a habit. It is quite unlike the idea of creativity as a whimsical guest who comes and goes. Having a routine makes writing a habit, and habit stays. In this way, you treat creativity as a habit rather than an on and off event. You can decide your routine and stick to it. That could be every day at a particular time, or every other day, or every weekend. The frequency is up to you. In response to a student’s question on inspiration, American novelist Tom Robbins said this: “I am always at my desk at 10 a.m. So the muse knows where to find me.”
Tip 2: Use Placeholder Words
Sometimes finding the “perfect” word trips you up while writing. If you depend on this perfect word to go to the next step, that might take a while. Instead, you can use a placeholder word and go ahead with the rest of the sentence, paragraph, and eventually story. You can even highlight it. Later, when you complete a significant portion of your writing, you can go back to the highlighted words and replace them with the exact word you are looking for. With this tip, you can avoid bringing your writing to a standstill just because of a few words.
Tip 3: Do Something Other Than Writing
This tip is for when you are tripping up over more than just words. Entire sentences elude you. You don’t know how to proceed in the story. It is time to do something else. Your brain needs a break. Depending on your preference and available resources, you can:
- Go for a walk
- Visit a museum
- Listen to music
- Go to a concert
- Watch a play, movie
- Speak to an old friend
- Spend time with pets
These are just some sample ideas. There is no end to do things apart from writing. What you need to do is get moving. Moving the body helps move the mind leading to the removal of writer’s block.
Tip 4: Eliminate Distractions
Sometimes a writer’s block is the result of your mind scattered in several directions. You need to focus on only one thing—writing. But the alerts on your cell phone, the endless phone calls, and the itch to check that latest post on social media get in the way. Distractions from the outside block you more than anything from the inside can. You can’t eliminate distractions, but you can certainly manage them through these steps.
1. Identify your distraction:
This is probably the most challenging part. The next time you are blocked, note what distracts you. Do you reach for the cell phone? Do you want to cuddle your pet? Write down these distractions so that you know what to do with them.
2. Take social media hiatus:
Social media is a bottomless pit of news, memes, interesting facts, or fascinating phenomena. The endless scroll of various social media websites is designed to keep you hooked to it. Recognize it and learn to deal with it. Your mental wellbeing comes before social media. Take a break by either changing your display name (‘X is on a hiatus’), or pinning a post announcing a break to focus on writing, or deleting social media apps from your phone, or consciously stay away from checking them.
3. Turn off Wi-Fi:
Perhaps writers before you got a lot done because they didn’t have Wi-Fi! Keep all the research downloaded beforehand and switch off Wi-Fi. Then buckle down to the business of writing. Or you can switch on the Airplane mode on your smartphone.
4. Focus on one thing at a time:
You know you have to climb a mountain or swim across the sea. Metaphorically, of course. Writing a book is as demanding a task. The enormity of the task can be a cause for writer’s block. Start small. Break the task into manageable chunks. Then focus on one chunk at a time.
5. Find a positive distraction:
A positive distraction helps you write rather than hinders you. Listening to classical music or white noise, meditating, and exercising are all positive distractions. After a session, you will feel invigorated enough to get down to pen, paper, keyboard, and screen.
Enough to get down to pen and paper or keyboard and screen.
Tip 5: Read Books
Some people reason that, unlike writer’s block, you don’t get a reader’s block. You can read anytime and anywhere. So it’s a good idea to deal with writer’s block by reading. It would help if you were inspired, so classic literature is a good place to begin. You can also go by the genre you are interested in. If thrillers, crime fiction, science fiction, or young adult fiction spark your interest, it makes sense to read them when your flow is interrupted. In short, read good books on the subject that interests you. All writers are first and foremost readers. So the path that other writers have taken might help you.
However, there should be a specific way in which you need to approach this. You should think of it as a personal experience and not just for information download. Only then reading has a meaningful impact.
One word of warning: as a writer, your voice is a unique thing. Some writers stay away from reading others’ words to avoid being influenced subconsciously. If you think you are influenced, this way of tiding over writer’s block is not for you.
Tip 6: Free Write
One last but not the least way to get over writer’s block is to free write. Freewriting means to write continuously for a decided amount of time without thinking about the mechanics such as grammar, spelling, or even the subject. When you write in this way, you don’t doubt yourself. Here is how to go about freewriting:
1. Find the right space.
Your own desk, a corner bench at a park, on the bed—somewhere where no one will disturb you.
2. Choose the right tools.
Whatever you are comfortable with: pen, pencil, paper, and/or keyboard.
3. Select a time limit.
Start with 10 minutes and increase gradually.
Advice from Writers on Writer’s Block
Now, let’s look at what some writers did to overcome their own writer’s block.
Canadian journalist and writer Malcolm Gladwell said, “I deal with writer’s block by lowering my expectations. I think the trouble starts when you sit down to write and imagine that you will achieve something magical and magnificent — and when you don’t, panic sets in. The solution is never to sit down and imagine that you will achieve something magical and magnificent. I write a little bit, almost every day, and if it results in two or three or (on a good day) four good paragraphs, I consider myself a lucky man. Never try to be the hare. All hail the tortoise.”4
Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist Jane Smiley suggests, “If I get frustrated, I’ll go eat something, I’ll go open another Diet Coke, I’ll go to the barn, I’ll distract myself, and then the parts in my brain that was working click and I get an idea. I read an article about how to learn to play a musical instrument. You practice, practice, practice on Friday, then you walk away. And then when you sit down on Saturday, you’re better. Not only because of all the practice but also because of the walking away. I’m a firm believer in walking away.”5
Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck explains his method, “It is usual that the moment you write for publication—I mean one of course—one stiffens in the same way one does when one is being photographed. The simplest way to overcome this is to write it to someone like me. Write it as a letter aimed at one person. This removes the vague terror of addressing the large and faceless audience, and it also, you will find, will give a sense of freedom and a lack of self-consciousness.”6
Overall, you can say that writer’s block is a fairly universal writer’s experience of not writing anything productive. Its causes are diverse: a fear of comparison with others, a fear of not being good enough, the pursuit of perfection, a lack of external and internal motivation, and others. Ways to remove this block include sticking to a writing routine, using placeholder words, doing something other than writing, eliminating distractions, reading books, and freewriting. Now that you know how to overcome writer’s block, you can go ahead and beat it. Good luck and happy writing!