If you’re a serious writer, you’re inevitably going to find yourself staring down the barrel of writer’s block at some point in your career. Unfortunately, it’s part of the process, and it’s something that every creative profession has to contend with—artists, musicians, dancers, poets, potters, sculptors, you name it.
Writer’s block is nothing to scoff at. It can cause your daily word count to screech to a near halt for hours, days, weeks, even months. And what’s worse, prolonged writer’s block can take a severe mental toll and leave you wondering why you even want to be a writer in the first place if you aren’t cut out to persevere through the dry spell. As much as we might wish for the problem to magically disappear on its own, a more proactive approach is often necessary.
What is Writer’s Block?
The official definition by Merriam-Webster is “a psychological inhibition preventing a writer from proceeding with a piece.” Within the writing community, there are some who believe writer’s block is all in your head while others will argue it’s a genuine disorder that’s prone to affect some writers more than others.
Regardless of how you feel in the debate, there are four widely accepted broad causes of writer’s block:
- Unreasonably harsh self-criticism / imposter syndrome
- Fear of inadequacy in comparison to other writers
- Lack of external motivation (i.e. publication, awards, praise)
- Lack of internal motivation (i.e. the desire or drive to tell your story)
Overcoming writer’s block is an incredibly personal challenge. Nobody can do it for you. I’m blessed in that a creative blockage is a demon I’ve rarely had to contend with, although I have written myself into a corner several times and struggled to find a feasible solution for my protagonist to escape a tricky situation after closing off so many of his options.
All of the tips I’ve listed below are tricks that I have personally used when that inevitable blockage prevents me from making the kind of progress I want. I hope at least one of these options helps you!
Tips to Conquer Writer’s Block
- Consider the root of the cause so you can take a strategic approach. You need to ask yourself why you’re suffering from this blockage. Is it really as simple as “I’m not feeling inspired today,” or is there something else to it? Consider these possibilities:
• Am I putting too much pressure on myself to succeed?
• Do I feel inferior by comparing myself to other writers?
• Have I been writing so much that I’m experiencing a creative burnout and need to take a break?
• Have I not been writing very much and now feel intimidated by the blank page and very act of writing?
• Did I lose sight of my plot? Do I still know where this story is going?
• Are there too many distractions around me to truly focus?
• Am I writing a story that I really want and need to tell?
Depending on the circumstances that are directly contributing to your writing block, you can take a more targeted approach. After all, someone who is stuck because of an internal confidence struggle isn’t going to take the same recourse as someone trying to write while ignoring the external distractions of the phone ringing and the dog barking and the kids squealing while chasing each around the dining room table.
- Take a break and do a non-writing activity so your mind can freely wander. I know, it seems counterproductive to walk away from a project when you’re stuck, but you might be surprised by how your mind can subconsciously work through issues when you allow it to roam. Go for a walk, take a shower, mow the lawn, wash the dishes, weed the garden, meditate… whatever keeps your hands and/or feet busy while opening the door to daydreams. I’ve also found that reading other books can be a great way to spark your imagination back into rhythm.
- Change your scenery. While routine in a specific work space can be great for some writers, sometimes it helps to move into a different space, whether that means relocating to another room in your home, a picnic table in the park, a coffee shop, or anywhere else.
- Jump to a new scene or a different writing project altogether. I’m notorious for this because I don’t write my novels in chronological order, and while that can result in some headaches toward the end when I’m stitching all of the scenes together, I’ve found that if I’m stuck on one scene, I can jump to another one and work on a different part of the story. I’m still making progress, and then I’ll be pondering the trouble scene in between writing sessions until I eventually work it out and come back to it. I’ve even been known to do an extreme gear shift and jump to a completely different novel since I always have several in progress.
- Do a writing prompt, or several. Sometimes when you’re in a rut, it helps to do a mini writing exercise that has nothing to do with your intended project. There’s also less pressure to write perfectly because this is just practice, and you know it on both the conscious and subconscious levels. You can search for prompts online, or you might benefit from a writing prompt generator or a book of writing prompts.
- Go back to the drawing board. Even if you’re a pantser like me, sometimes it helps to gather your thoughts and jot down an outline so you can step back and gain perspective on where your story is going. It just might help you connect the dots and see what you’ve been missing when you’re staring at your story from a broader birds-eye view.
- Create supplemental information for your story. This is a great way to stay focused on your existing project while broadening the depth of your world building and character building. Sketch a map. Create character profiles so you better understand their motivations, fears, weaknesses, ambitions, et cetera. Even if none of this extra information finds its way directly into the prose, it will help you have a better understanding, and that will translate on the page in the form of small details you may not have initially put much thought into.
- Write for yourself, not your readers. Authors are pressured to “write to market,” which, no offense to my readers, is a tip I take with a grain of salt. I write for myself and tell the story in my heart that needs to be told, and if I loosen the reins, my writing often goes in directions I didn’t even see coming. My characters’ personalities and needs sometimes don’t fit into the mold I’m trying to force them in for the sake of the plot, or an unplanned opportunity arises and I can’t help but steer into the drift to see where it organically goes, even if it wasn’t part of the plan. My characters have developed a life of their own and sometimes behave in ways that surprise me. I mostly let them do their thing and see how they react in situations I throw at them.
I’m definitely not thinking, “hmm, you know, I bet readers would really love to see yet another teenage love triangle since that’s so popular right now, so maybe I should force these three characters who have nothing in common to form an awkward relationship that they’d never naturally form in real life if they were real.” That kind of mindset is a recipe for writer’s block. In my humble opinion, I would argue that writing specifically to market instead of writing for yourself can, in too many cases, result in a flat story that feels forced or falls into tired and predictable clichés. There are certainly exceptions, but I believe that writing from the heart reflects on the page and brings a uniqueness and tangible personal connection to a story. Okay, stepping down off the soapbox now.
- Respectfully shush your inner critic. You know, that obnoxious and persistent voice in the back of your mind judging every word and whispering that this is stupid, nobody is going to want to read your work, and you’re an imposter. Self-doubt is part of the process for every writer, even the legends like Stephen King and Margaret Atwood. While it’s important to not completely block out your inner critic because it may provide relevant caution and valid points, it’s equally important to stand up for yourself and not bow down in submission. Move your inner critic from the front seat to the back seat and turn up the radio when you need to concentrate on driving.
- Actively try to eliminate as many distractions as you can. That’s not always easy, especially if you’re a parent, but you can still take proactive steps like putting your phone on silent, closing your Facebook window, turning off the TV, shutting the door to prevent interruptions, using headphones to listen to music, et cetera. Writing requires getting into the right mental zone, so it’s important to set yourself up for success in a distraction-free environment.
Remember that there’s no single correct answer to breaking through writer’s block because everyone’s root cause is going to be different. This is why it’s so important to step back and carefully consider what is causing your blockage. It’s a personal journey… and it’s not always a pleasant one. But you can’t conquer the demon if you don’t know from which hole it emerged.
Even though writing is a solo endeavor, you might consider connecting with local or online writing groups. Sometimes support from other writers who have been in your shoes and know what you’re going through can make a world of difference instead of trying to deal with the issues on your own.
Hopefully you found this article helpful! Are there any tricks on this list that have worked particularly well for you? Any new ones you’d like to share with writers who may be struggling? Please post in the comments so we can all support each other!