How to overcome writer's block
If you're feeling stuck, it's likely due to one of these five reasons.
Creating content consistently is the fastest way to achieve your creator goals.
But what happens when your flow of creativity stops, when it becomes near impossible to write, and you wind up sitting in front of a blank page feeling stuck?
Writer’s block can be an intimidating hurdle. However, once you understand its causes and cures, you’ll be able to overcome it whenever it rears its unpleasant head.
What is writer’s block?
Writer’s block is the state when a person cannot produce meaningful writing due to a lack of ideas, motivation, or clarity.
Even though this condition is primarily associated with the writing discipline, it’s part of a broader category of creative blocks that can apply to any “artistic, literary, scientific, or professional projects.”
Where does writer’s block come from?
Usually, writer’s block comes as the result of an emotional or practical roadblock.
When that momentum is interrupted, that’s when obstacles like writer’s block can creep their way in.
Common causes include the fear of producing bad work, comparison against more accomplished writers, and a lack of interesting ideas to pursue.
The latter part of this article will help you overcome five of the biggest blocks writers experience:
- Not knowing where to start
- Not knowing what to write
- Not having enough time
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Feeling unmotivated
How long does writer’s block last?
Unlike the flu, which moves out of your system in a week or two, writer’s block doesn’t have any set lifespan.
It could last a day or a decade, depending on what caused it and how actively you work to beat it. Action is the cure, as Mark Manson writes,
The thing about motivation is that it’s not only a three-part chain, but an endless loop: inspiration -> motivation -> action -> inspiration -> motivation -> action -> etc.
The more proactive you are towards your creative block, the sooner you’ll be free of it.
Is writer’s block real?
Finally, if you’re searching for help with writer’s block, you’re bound to come across material that says it’s not real, it’s a made-up condition, and real writers never face it.
Well, that’s just not true.
Creative disciplines work differently than other professions. Trying to guilt yourself into not being blocked won’t work.
If your favorite writers seem as if their creativity is always unlocked, that's because they've built systems that make it possible. The same systems you're going to learn how to build too.
How to overcome writer’s block
Each cause requires its own strategy to fix it. Here are a few ideas to help you get unstuck.
#1 When you don’t know where to start: Write something else
Not knowing where to start can feel paralyzing. It’s a challenge both new and experienced writers face.
The trick is to work out of order.
There are no rules saying you have to write an article, book, or any project from beginning to end. You're allowed to jump around. You're even allowed to work on multiple projects at once, weaving in and out of them as your creativity leads you.
Writing “something else” can take on a number of different forms, such as:
- Freewriting. The exercise of writing your stream of consciousness (i.e., whatever comes to mind) without stopping for a set period of time.
- Begin at the end. Write the last paragraph or chapter of your project instead of the first. This can help rekindle your creativity since now you know where you need to end up.
- Reaction or journal writing. Find a topic that gets you stirred up, whether it’s a news story, a memory, or anything else and simply react to it through writing. This can help you break through stuck periods.
- Change the point-of-view. Instead of writing in your normal way, how would you write this project for a child or for your best friend. Altering the audience can help you find a better way forward.
- Speech text. Maybe the medium of writing is what’s got you stuck. Try stepping back from your keyboard and dictating your words instead.
As mentioned above, creativity is about momentum. If you can get any words onto a page, you’ll find that getting the right words will soon follow.
#2 When you don’t know what to write: Get better input
Creativity is a lot like cooking: you need good ingredients to create a great dish.
For example, trying to write an article on a topic you know nothing about and haven’t spent any time researching is like trying to bake bread with zero ingredients.
If you want a steady stream of good output, then you need a consistent habit of good input. When your writer’s block is related to this challenge, here are a few solid options to try:
- Read more. Every prolific writer is also an insatiable reader. Reading well-written words, whether they're related to your topic or not, will help you produce content on schedule.
- Visit an art museum or concert. Consuming other types of creative work, such as paintings, music, or theatre, can help refill your creative reservoir.
- Talk through your blocks. Having conversations with other writers or subject-matter experts is incredibly valuable. Often, a single meeting can unlock weeks of being stuck.
- Become an idea machine. Not all input needs to come from outside of you. Brainstorm a list of ideas and mix and match them in as many combinations as possible. Practice this every day and you’ll never run short on creativity.
Every writer must find a balance between how much they consume versus create. Once you do, you'll find that blocks seem to almost disappear.
#3 When you don’t have enough time: Schedule to your advantage
So much of what it takes to become a successful writer is learning to make your own rules.
There are no hard and fast guidelines on how many words you must hit a day, or how often you need to crank out content, or what time of the day is best for creativity.
You get to make the rules. You get to define what is right for you. Taking back the power is a surefire way to eliminate the practical limitations contributing to your writer's block.
- Morning person versus night owl. Figure out when you work best and ignore all other productivity advice. Some people do their best work at 2 am, while others prefer to type away during sunrise. There is no right or wrong answer, only what's best for you.
- Write after you’re charged up. Some activities get our creative muscles firing away, such as meeting with a friend or hitting the gym. Schedule your writing time directly after these events so that you can harness the energy to your advantage.
- Quit blockers. Just like there are activities (or relationships) that make it easier to write, there are some that make it many times harder. Do your best to remove these from your life or put as much distance between them and your writing time as possible. Common blockers include negative people, stressful chores, and anything that incites comparison.
- Write less. Most people don't need, nor can they fit, a 4-hour uninterrupted writing block every day. Lower the bar so that it's less intimidating and easier to accommodate. Maybe you can only commit to one 20-minute Pomodoro interval. Start there!
Small, consistent wins are better than big, infrequent ones. Find what works best for you and build a system that feeds your momentum.
#4 When you feel overwhelmed: Get organized
The feeling of overwhelm can stem from several places:
- Feeling like there’s too much to do
- Not knowing what step to take next
- Looking at others' success and feeling like you could never get there.
This type of writer's block is effective because it's vague. It thrives in disorder. And even though it might be hard to see a way forward when you're in the midst of it, adding a bit of order (i.e., organization) can quickly push away the cloud of despair.
Here are a few organizational tricks that will get you back on track:
- Clean your area. Whether you write in an office, at the kitchen table, or on your bed, organizing your physical area can make your mental state feel more ordered too.
- Systematize your notes. Many famous authors rely on composition notebooks, notecard systems, and commonplace books to categorize their notes for easy access. If you find yourself struggling to sort through your sources, this will help.
- Create detailed outlines. Sometimes the best way to prepare for writing is to write about what you plan to write. A detailed outline, one that includes a sentence or two for every single point you plan to make, in order, can make your future sessions a breeze.
- Find public accountability. If you’re having trouble keeping writing commitments, find a way to make your practice public. Join a writing group or online community, hire a mentor, or commit to posting regular updates to your social channels. The right kind of outside pressure can help you prioritize your way through a block.
It’s worth noting that different projects will often require different types of organization. Don’t feel defeated if what’s worked in the past isn’t working now. Keep trying and iterate your way into a new solution.
#5 When you feel unmotivated: Move your body
Last but not least, one of the most powerful concepts you can learn about creativity is that it’s a holistic experience: mental, physical, and emotional.
Most cures for writer’s block focus on the mental obstacles, but taking care of the rest of a person is just as important.
If you’re having trouble getting your fingers to move to produce words, try moving your body instead.
- Exercise daily. Did you know that walking is one of the most effective ways to stimulate your brain? In fact, walking a few hours a week slowed dementia and Alzheimer’s in patients significantly more than medication or “brain exercises” (Source). Exercise expands what your mind is capable of.
- Change your writing location. Our settings influence our work capabilities. A change in scenery, like moving to a coffee shop, coworking spot, or library, could reset your writing motivation.
- Change your writing tools. If you can’t seem to get your brain to link up with your keyboard, switch to a pen or pencil and get your hands moving. Or try dictating while walking around. Movement, even in small amounts, will break your blocks.
- Try another creative outlet. Painting, playing an instrument, joining a dance class — all of these offer you an opportunity to flex your creative muscles in another environment and for another medium. A writing block could be your brain's way of asking for a new challenge.
As a creative, your whole body is an instrument. And if you want to produce great work, taking care of the entire tool is part of the job.
Writer's block happens to even the most seasoned writers. If you're feeling stuck, try out a few of the solutions listed above. They will get you back to publishing in no time.