We’ve all been there: staring at the blinking cursor with mounting anxiety as the mind—usually so full of words—remains silent.
Writer’s block is exactly what it sounds like: for whatever reason, the writer becomes “blocked” from being able to produce. Writer’s block isn’t limited to new writers, but affects even the most brilliant and experienced, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Herman Melville, Adele, and Charles Schultz. Whether you’re a literary giant, a hobbyist, or a professional content writer, you will likely face writer’s block at some point in your career.
DIFFERENT KINDS OF WRITER’S BLOCK
As with many afflictions of the mind, writer’s block can be caused by different factors, and take many forms. In addition, different causes of writer’s block require different remedies.
Here are a few we’ve found to be especially common:
1: FEAR OF EXPOSURE
Many writers freeze when they imagine a future audience reading over emotionally raw or intellectually daring pieces. It’s often useful to imagine your target audience while writing, but if that audience becomes too critical or judgmental, it can kill the writing process.
If you’re having this problem, promise yourself that you won’t share what you’ve written until you’ve combed over it carefully. Write for yourself, with the knowledge that most of what you produce won’t go public. The trick is to separate the creative, generative self from the anxious, self-conscious self.
Another idea is to follow John Steinbeck’s strategy of writing to one person. Pick one person to whom your work is most directed (it will often be obvious who) and picture them in your head while you write. Write for them, not the multitudes, and you may find that your fear dissipates.
For many writers, this is the killer: who among us hasn’t been so afraid of writing something terrible that our page remains blank? When the piece exists only in our heads, it maintains a level of perfection that the actual written work will inevitably fall short of.
Give yourself permission to write something terrible. It’s only by writing a mountain of bad and mediocre work that you’ll ever uncover the gems. Maya Angelou once said, “What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.’ And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come’”.
Another tool for dealing with perfectionism is to separate the creator and the critic. If the critic in your head is going, “don’t write that, this is dumb”, you won’t get anything done. Instead, promise your inner critic that it’ll get the chance to speak when the time is right, and ask it to remain silent while the creator has its turn. Both parts of your mind will thank you.
3: PROBLEMS WITH THE WORK
Writer’s block is often portrayed as existing exclusively due to the above causes. However, the reality is more complex. Some writers get blocked because they’ve become tangled or lost in their work. If the novel has a plot hole that’s forcing the writer into a corner, or if the writer finds themselves deathly bored every time they sit down to work, it could be that the subject matter has veered away from what’s really important.
In this case, the medicine might be to stop writing and look at the bigger picture. The writer should think back to when the work was really flowing: what was working then and not now? And how can they shift course to get things back on track? Fiction writers may turn to plotting and storyboarding tools.
Another way to deal with this problem is through Neil Gaiman’s “hibernation” strategy. This is where the writer puts the work away for a few days or even weeks, and comes back to it with a fresh mind. Another angle is to ask a friend or family member to help you workshop the piece and give a second opinion.
A completely different approach is to follow advice from Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway suggests ending the writing day when things are flowing and going well, rather than when they’ve dried up. This means that you’ll start the following day full of fresh inspiration, and that your subconscious will work on the story while you’re doing other things.
4: NO IDEAS
What of the writer with nothing to write about? Maybe it’s not the process of coming up with words that’s holding you back, but the problem of coming up with subject matter. What’s a writer with talent but no topic to do?
Consider giving your mind some fertiliser. Go on a trip, read the kinds of book you wouldn’t normally read, talk to a stranger. When you live outside your comfort zone, your creativity thrives.
What if you’ve tried the above, and still have no ideas? This is where freewriting can come in handy. Take a notebook and write in longhand, without stopping, for three pages. You can write about anything, however nonsensical, but don’t stop ‘til you’ve filled three pages. Do this day after day, and eventually, you’ll have some good ideas.
5: CAN’T GET IN THE ZONE
You sit at your desk, pound out a few words, and soon find yourself staring at the dreaded flashing cursor. You want to write, but you feel further away from flow and spontaneity than you ever have before.
Sometimes, forcing yourself to write can feel like fingernails on a chalkboard. In these situations, the best option might be to get your body moving and expose yourself to new stimuli: go for a walk, hit the gym, jump in a pool. Cardio is great for brain cell growth, and when your body gets flowing, your ideas might as well.
You may also consider following Toni Morrison’s advice: she’d set up rituals that she’d carry out as she started writing, like playing her favourite CD or making a certain type of tea. She was essentially conditioning herself to go into writing mode when those stimuli were introduced, prompting the flow states that produced her greatest works.
6: GETTING DISTRACTED
For many writers, this is the big one: they’re writing, things are going well, and suddenly they’re checking their Facebook. Many might not consider getting distracted a form of writer’s block, but if it’s blocking you from writing, that’s what it is.
There’s the old classic: turn off the wifi and put your phone on aeroplane mode. If you really are chronically distractible, this may be your best and only solution.
If you have the willpower, you can train yourself to work without distraction. Steve Pavlina has designed a method of getting large amounts of work done in 90 minutes; if that kind of hard and fast approach works for your writing style, have at it. It resembles Anthony Trollope’s method of training himself to write 250 words per 10 minutes, to which he attributes his ability to write prolifically.
Writer’s block is challenging, and often infuriating, but it’s possible to overcome. The trick is to correctly diagnose the kind of writer’s block you have, and to seek out the correct and appropriate solution.