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.

Should You Write Your First Draft By Hand?

We’re in a love-hate relationship with handwriting. Some studies claim that writing by hand makes us smarter than keyboarding; others insist that while handwriting remains a relevant skill in general, teaching cursive handwriting has become a waste of students’ time. Still others think handwriting is already obsolete.

Writers are split as well. Some insist that writing by hand is a waste of time, particularly in a world where easy connectivity means you can type or tap out any note at any time and have it instantly stored in a centralized (typically, cloud-based) location. Others, like me, say that you can pry my pen from my cold dead hands.

I write all my fiction first drafts by hand. Here’s why.

Leave The Office ASAP

Writing is Personal

There’s no consensus as to who first penned (pun intended) the image of writing as “sitting down and bleeding,” but that image keeps being invoked because it’s so illustrative of the process.

Fiction writing is intensely personal. Its intimacy can intimidate beginners into never starting, and it can stall veterans who decide to open a vein rather than simply write to deadline.

Since I also make my living by writing copy, sitting at the computer feels public to me. I draft most of the work I do for clients on the computer; when I’m sitting at it, I’m in People Mode, even when there’s no one else in my house. People Mode is necessary in order for me to occupy the same space as my audience, which I have to do in order to ensure I’m writing a piece that will make sense to them.

I cannot, however, both write fiction and be in People Mode. I can edit that way, but forming ideas into words is, for me, incompatible with performative extroversion.

In my notebook, I’m free to write the worst crap in the world. I can fill five pages with crappy false starts. I can doodle until I figure out what I came to say. None of it matters, since nobody but me will ever see it. I’m alone with my thoughts, which is exactly where I need to be in order to tell a story.

Handwriting is More Secure

Sure, I can’t password-protect a notebook. But I’ve never lost a notebook because I failed to hit “save” or had one eaten by the Blue Screen of Death.

I lost my first round of typed fiction drafts in 1998, when my mother’s Gateway 2000 crashed. I lost another round, including two full and three partial novel drafts, in 2004 when my then-boyfriend botched a backup job.

Even files I haven’t technically lost, I’ve lost due to advances in technology and/or the degradation of digital media. I have zip disks from the late 1990s with my work stored on them, but neither I nor anyone I know owns a zip drive any longer. The floppy disks containing my earliest work, from the late 1980s, are probably corrupt – even if I had an Apple IIGS that could read them.

My notebooks from the 1980s, however, are still entirely readable. Embarrassing, but readable.

The problem with preserving digital works and the degradation of media hasn’t pinged only my radar, either. Check out, for example, the 2015 art project that printed 106 volumes of Wikipedia in English – of nearly 7,500 total volumes.

Speaking of Wikipedia….

Ever hop online to check just one little thing, and suddenly you have 83 tabs open, are reading about the social life of aardvarks, and it’s Tuesday?

Falling down the Wikipedia rabbit hole is really easy to do, and it’s even easier when you have ADHD. But I can’t fall down the research hole or get wrapped up in a social media argument when I don’t have access to the Internet.

The notebook prevents me from getting sidetracked by the Intertubes. It removes the quick-hit solution to intermittent boredom. And since boredom appears to be essential to creativity, it may also make me a better writer.

I’m Old

I also like the notebook for deeply personal, even idiosyncratic reasons.

For instance, writing by hand angers my arthritis far less than typing on my phone. I like being in less pain.

I also like notebooks because they’re an old habit: I grew up at a time in which computers weren’t a standard household object. My dad bought an Apple IIGS not long after they hit the market, but he was very much in the minority (even my school hadn’t sprung for the IIGS, preferring to stick with the IIe when anybody used a computer at all). My mother was gifted a Commodore 64, but it had no word-processing program.

My computer time was limited until I was in high school, but I was allowed to have all the notebooks and writing utensils I wanted. Today, when I think, “I want to write,” my brain spits out images of notebooks, not of my laptop, tablet or phone.

…And I Used to Be a Smug Little Snot

I also (major confession time) used to love being smug. Loved it. I was one of those college kids who carried around a Moleskine and said “I’m writing a novel” with just the right elitist inflection.

Notebooks let you be smug in a way laptops simply don’t. Look around your local coffee shop: Chances are you’ll see half a dozen people on laptops or tablets. What are they doing? Are they writing, checking Facebook, making dinosaur porn?

There’s no way to know. Everybody buried in a device looks exactly the same, which is how we get endless smug Boomer memes about phone use instead of acknowledging that half the people on their phones in public at any given time are probably doing some kind of business, especially in a world where people think that just because you can answer the phone any moment of the day or night means you should.

But write in a notebook, and everybody knows you are writing. More importantly, everyone knows you are serious about your art. Otherwise you’d bang it out on a keyboard like a Philistine.

(Philistines had keyboards, right? I’m pretty sure they had keyboards.)

Smugness lost its appeal right around the end of my sophomore year of college. That’s when I realized I was filling a Moleskine every month, and that my habit of carrying it everywhere was making it look…no longer smug. Plus my favorite pens are Pilot V5s, which are not smug.

Besides, I almost never write in coffee shops.

Notebook vs. Laptop: Which Should You Use?

Honestly? I don’t know. I’m not you.

Some folks struggle with handwriting for various reasons, or can’t do it at all, making the keyboard their only realistic choice for writing in a manner that can even begin to keep up with their brains. The ability to store things in the cloud is great if you’re constantly losing your notes. And someone, somewhere, probably possesses the self-restraint (or the Internet restriction apps) to write without getting sidetracked by Instagram.

The best method for writing is the one that lets you finish. Everything else is window dressing.