Writer’s Block: What It Is and How to Beat It

I write several thousand words a day, both for a living and for my own amusement. And so I get asked about writer’s block more than anything.

“How do you get over writer’s block?” “What’s your secret for never having writer’s block?” “What is writer’s block, anyway?”

I often hesitate to answer these questions because I haven’t had the answers. Writer’s block has never been a longstanding problem for me. In fact, I usually suffer from the opposite problem – I want to stop writing and go do other things, but I’m driven to continue.

Fortunately, other people have done research on writer’s block. Here’s what they know.

writers block

Writer’s Block: What Is It?

When people ask about beating “writer’s block,” they’re typically talking about an inability to write that is separate from the desire to write. They want to write, but when they sit down to do it, nothing comes out.

Often, writer’s block occurs independently of the knowledge or ability to write. People with writer’s block know how to start a project; they may, in fact, have started many writing projects in the past and finished them successfully.

Writer’s block can also occur independently of having a topic or idea in mind. A person with writer’s block may know exactly what they want to write about. They may have both the internal motivation (“this is important!”) and the external motivation (“I’m on a deadline!”) to write.

And yet…they’re stuck.

Tips for Beating Writer’s Block

The logical first step in any case of “writer’s block” is to make sure that writer’s block is what you have.

In other words:

  • Do you have the desire/motivation to write a particular thing?
  • Do you have the tools, time and space to write the thing?
  • Do you know what you want to write the thing about?
  • Do you know how to start this kind of written thing?

If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” fix that first and see if it resolves the problem. If the answer to all four is “yes,” the problem is likely one of writer’s block.

What Kind of Writer’s Block Do You Have?

Not all writer’s block is created equal. In a 1998 article in Canadian Family Physician, Patricia Huston sorts writer’s block into three levels of severity: mild, moderate and recalcitrant.

Huston suggests different treatment strategies for each level of blockage:

  • Mild writer’s block may be resolved by evaluating and revising expectations, conducting a task analysis, and encouraging oneself to continue.
  • Moderate writer’s block may be resolved by engaging in creative exercises, like brainstorming and role-playing.
  • Recalcitrant writer’s block may require therapy.

Huston also suggests a number of strategies for preventing writer’s block, such as writing at the beginning of projects (often called prewriting or freewriting), working with a supportive writer’s group, and “cultivating an ongoing interest in writing.”

Revise Your Expectations

If you know what you want to write and how to do it, the problem isn’t a lack of rules or guidelines. But do you have too many rules and guidelines?

In a 1980 article in College Composition and Communication, Mike Rose discusses several writing students who struggled with writer’s block, comparing them to similarly-skilled classmates who had no such struggles.

Rose found that the blocked writers were often derailed by their adherence to overly-strict writing rules. Their writing “had to” look a certain way, or they couldn’t continue. In some cases, they couldn’t even start.

The strict rules these writers struggled with included:

  • The first sentence has to grab your audience’s attention. If you can’t write an attention-grabbing first sentence, you can’t continue.
  • An essay has to have three or more points. If you can’t make at least three points about your topic, the essay isn’t finished or doesn’t “count.”
  • You must have a clear plan and outline before you begin. You cannot start writing just to see where a topic leads; you have to know where the end is before you start.
  • An essay must be full of “scintillating insights,” so you have to collect cool facts, quips, quotes, etc. before you start. Then you must work them into the paper, even if some of them don’t seem to fit.
  • “Always try to ‘psych out’ the professor” by writing a piece that brilliantly subverts expectations while also meeting those expectations. If you can’t do that, your paper can’t possibly be good enough.
  • All the rules of good essay writing have to be used at once. For instance, you must use transitions for flow and evidence for weight, and you must balance these perfectly as you write.

When used as guidelines, rules like these can help an essay stay recognizable as an essay while also effectively conveying the writer’s knowledge of a given subject area. “Always” and “never,” however, are rarely useful rules in writing.

For instance, one of my high school English teachers insisted on the “attention-grabbing first sentence” rule. While I was willing to play along for the sake of my grade, I didn’t force myself to write that first sentence before I went on.

Instead, I’d start my first draft with a thesis statement, then move on to the points I wanted to make, then the conclusion. Once the conclusion was finished, I’d use its summary of the points made in the essay to inspire an attention-grabbing first sentence.

I used this method throughout my academic career. I still use it today. And I still get compliments for how well my articles are “tied together.”

Resources

ReadWriteThink: Essay Map – a user-friendly way to organize ideas.

EndNote – organize sources and references.

Hemingway App – helps you analyze the readability of a draft. You don’t have to make perfect sentences; you just need to write down any sentences, then put them through this app.

InstaGrok – put in any topic, get an interactive mind map linking it to other topics. Great for when you “want to write about ___,” but don’t know where to go from there.

Get Creative

Rose notes that over-planning can trip up writers of non-fiction essays and articles. The desire to plan perfectly may lead to paralysis.

The same thing can happen to fiction writers, whether or not they see themselves as the planning type.

Author Mercedes Lackey notes that “writer’s block” may actually be the writer’s subconscious recognizing that, for some reason, the story cannot continue in the direction it’s going. Sensing that the story won’t work, the subconscious puts on the brakes.

This kind of writer’s block “can happen whether you are a meticulous outliner or a seat-of-the-pants writer. You are about to make a big mistake, and your subconscious is stopping you,” says Lackey.

This type of block may be best resolved with Huston’s strategies for “moderate” writer’s block: Get creative. Ask, “what else could happen here?”, and generate ideas before evaluating or criticizing them. Try role-playing one of your characters to see what other reactions they might have.

For me, the “two for one” method works well to generate new plot ideas and potential character arcs. It follows one rule: Every solution to a problem must generate two new problems. 

Typically, I’ll run 30 to 50 iterations of this as an idea-generation method. In the finished story or novel, of course, it won’t go on forever; eventually the characters find a way to wrap up enough loose ends to bring the story to a satisfying conclusion. As a means to figuring out the story and the characters’ responses to conflict, however, it can be powerful – and a lot of fun.

Resources

Seventh Sanctum – plot, character and setting generators

The John Fox – story idea generator

Reedsy Plot Generator – over 1 million components. Click various components to lock or unlock them, then generate again to fine-tune ideas.

When Writer’s Block Isn’t

Writers spend a great deal of time not writing. Writer procrastination and delay is a running joke in writing communities. It’s the reason so many writing-related hashtags on Twitter are full of people making fun of themselves for tweeting instead of writing.

This type of “writer’s block,” however, isn’t a hurdle. Rather, it’s what Donald M. Murray calls “essential delay” – the soil from which writing sprouts and blossoms. Writer’s block is a state of being stuck; essential delay is a state of preparation. If essential delay is wintertime, writer’s block is Narnia’s “always winter and never Christmas.”

The good news? It’s possible to turn a case of writer’s block into a state of essential delay, using the same strategies recommended by Huston, Rose and Lackey. Murray finds several different processes occur during essential delay:

  • Information-gathering. Professional writers “collect warehouses full of information, far more than they need, so much information that its sheer abundance makes the need for meaning and order insistent,” says Murray. When the need for meaning and order reaches critical mass, essential delay turns into writing.
  •  Insight. When various ideas start to coalesce into “a single vision or dominant insight,” writing may commence as a way to test that vision or insight. For instance, finding a problem that can be solved by writing may help a writer overcome the delay imposed by having a lot of ideas with no common theme.
  • Need. Writers often experience two needs: The need to write, and the need for the audience to listen. Until these needs coincide, however, the writer may stay in the planning or musing phase.

Planning and organization also play a role in the essential delay phase. In some cases, they’re necessary to move a writer forward – as long as they don’t absorb all of your attention.

When All Else Fails

When all else fails, use writer’s block itself as the source of creativity.

My favorite example of this by far is Dennis Upper‘s paper in the Fall 1974 issue of the Journal of Applied Behavioral Analysis. Titled “The Unsuccessful Self-Treatment of a Case of ‘Writer’s Block,'” Upper’s paper is a masterwork on the effects of writer’s block on otherwise trained and productive professionals. (I suggest you read the entire paper for yourself; it’s quite short.)

My own best piece of writer’s block advice is this:

Don’t let yourself think that writing the piece itself is the only thing that counts as writing.

Brainstorming, freewriting, outlining, doodling mind maps, reading the thesaurus entry for a particular word in order to see how that concept is connected to other concepts, falling down the Wikipedia hole – all of these are part of writing. Your “writing time” is just as productive if you spend it freewriting about a character’s motivations than if you spent it actually writing the story in which that character appears.

The trick is to find the balance between these activities and actually writing the piece you intend to show an audience. That’s what separates those who write from those who merely aspire to do so.


Inspired to beat your writer’s block? Here are two ways to say thanks: buy me a coffee or share this post on social media.

How to Get Better at Art By Producing Fifty Pounds of Crap

Art & Fear, by David Bayles & Ted Orland, has been one of my favorite books of creativity since my now-spouse introduced me to it in graduate school. In particular, I’ve come back to this story again and again:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.

His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”.

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

Which brings me to a seemingly unrelated topic: Why do I keep spamming my blog audience with terrible Christmas songs?

Simply put: I’m trying to make fifty pounds of terrible pots.

Beginners are frequently the loudest about their struggle with “perfection paralysis,” but it can plague creators at any stage in their learning curve. For those of us in the performing arts, attempting to switch from performance to choreography or composing can cause a mental Blue Screen of Death. We’ve always executed what we were told to do; what should we do when there’s no one telling us how?

I became interested in composing back in high school, but it wasn’t until recently that I had both the tools and the time to try my hand at it. I’ve been playing music since my mother taught me how to plunk out the chorus to “Jingle Bells” on the piano when I was five, but except for a brief course in blues improv in high school, I’d never tried to write any.

And the sheer volume of my knowledge of music served to stall me out – big time. With thousands of hours of playing and hundreds of hours on music theory behind me, I should be able to produce something good on my first try, right?

…If you believe that, go listen to the Bad Carols, in order.

They get consistently better as you go down the list. The first one, in fact, is crap compared to any of the others. I didn’t really hit my stride until “Skin Carol” at the earliest, and I wasn’t close to happy with a piece until the melody of “By Candlelight Swans Three.” Halfway through “In Christmas Hot Damn” I switched gears to writing an arrangement of “Riu, Riu, Chiu,” which I also currently hate.

I had to get past my belief that I had to produce something good. I had to produce just anything.

And I was getting bored with just asking Botnik’s predictve-text keyboard to generate histories of various holidays. I wanted to do something more involved with the tool.

Hence “Christmas Carols Nobody Asked For.” They didn’t have to be good – in fact, limiting my lyrics to those generated by predictive text pretty much guaranteed they wouldn’t be good. They just had to appear regularly. And the automatic deadline of December 25 made it fairly easy to ensure they’d happen on time.

I generate a lot of creative work, every day. It’s literally my job. And I recommend this method for improving in any creative genre.

Want to be a better writer? Assign yourself half an hour a day in which your only goal is that your pen/fingers never stop moving across the page/keyboard. If you write “I’m a terrible writer and I should go walk into the sea” fifty times in that half hour, so be it. Eventually, you’ll learn what you need to know from that and try something else.

Want to be a better choreographer? Write 32 to 64 counts (4-8 sets of 8) at every rehearsal/practice session you have. If you can’t decide on a piece of music, set your playlist to random. If all you do is plies for your first 32 counts, fine. Eventually, you’ll learn what you need to know from that and try something else.

Want to create a better vlog, host a better podcast, draw better Lovecraftian horrors? Generate five new ideas every single day. Hell, make it ten. Make it twenty. If the first hundred are all variations on “Interview [insert Lovecraftian horror here],” fine. Eventually, you’ll learn what you need to know from that and try something else.

A lot of beginners, in particular, fear that if they just start with the basics – simply writing “My mind is a blank and I suck at writing” over and over, or drawing the same anime characters again and again – they’re wasting time. They’ll never move past those basics. Their masterpiece novel/manga/interpretive dance will never materialize.

As the ceramics class proved, however, the masterpiece won’t materialize if you don’t make fifty pounds of crap first.


If you found this post useful, help a fellow artist: share this post on social media or buy me a coffee.