Writer’s block—wanting to write and not writing—is a persistent problem that every writer (yes, every writer, even Stephen King) deals with. At its simplest, it manifests as a lack of ideas. What do I write about? At its most pernicious, writer’s block can convince you that you lack what it takes to be a writer. We’re here to tell you: that’s simply not true.
Writer’s block is certainly a tough problem to solve. If we all knew how to get rid of writer’s block, the world would be overflowing with books, completed effortlessly and ahead of schedule.
Nonetheless, writer’s block doesn’t have to be chronic, or debilitating. In this article, we’ll look deeply into what causes writer’s block, and describe how to overcome writer’s block—in whatever way it might be manifesting in your writing. But first, what is writer’s block?
What is Writer’s Block?
What is writer’s block? It manifests in different ways in different writers. It might feel like you’re turning on a faucet, but the water has run out; it might feel like you’re hitting your head against a brick wall, jostling language, waiting for the words to arrive.
No matter how it manifests, all strains and variants of writer’s block share the same issue: a desire to write, and an inability to do so.
More specifically, it’s an inability to get into the flow of writing. The moment you set your pen tip to paper (or fingers to keyboard), your brain is plagued with questions, concerns, distractions. What do I write about? I don’t know how to write that. Where do I start? That wouldn’t make sense. Is this something I would write? I should really do the laundry first.
What causes writer’s block, and how do you staunch the flow of intrusive thoughts? Let’s dive deeper.
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What Causes Writer’s Block
Every writer experiences different roadblocks on their writing journey. Some of those roadblocks are external: rejections from literary journals, disagreements with book publishers, a lack of time and resources, and the like.
However, far more of those roadblocks are internal: self-doubt, perfectionism, low motivation, etc. The internal roadblocks we face around our writing practice are what cause writer’s block.
Our internal roadblocks in our writing practice—self-doubt, perfectionism, low motivation—are what cause writer’s block.
In writer’s block, something internal dams the flow of creativity. Our internal worlds shape how we access our creativity, so getting rid of writer’s block means working through whatever psychological barriers are inhibiting us.
The secret to a successful writing habit is writing every day, without inhibition or prescriptive judgments. So, to overcome writer’s block, we need to work towards a productive writing mentality.
6 Manifestations of Writer’s Block
Below are six common types of writer’s block, broken down one by one. For each type, I give advice I’ve collected and experimented with over the years on how to cure writer’s block.
Here’s what to do when…
1. Writer’s block: You feel motivated but uncreative
Often, feeling boxed in mentally is the result of feeling boxed in physically. When we’re confined to the same familiar spaces, our brains fall into repetition, and we create habits of stasis rather than habits of imagination. You need something to kickstart that creative flow.
Sometimes, the solution is to simply daydream.
Sometimes, the solution is to simply daydream. What happens if you spend an hour staring at the ceiling or out the window—what worlds can you come up with when undisturbed from technology or other people?
Try putting yourself in new, unfamiliar spaces.
Other times, you might need to kick your brain in action by putting yourself in new, unfamiliar spaces. Maybe find a new space to write: a hidden park bench, the back of a library, your best friend’s balcony, anywhere.
2. Writer’s block: You feel creative but have no motivation
Sometimes the opposite is true: you can dream up new stories, worlds, and metaphors, but you can’t seem to put them on the page. Why won’t the words come out?
Create an environment and schedule conducive to writing.
This is where creating a writing habit becomes useful. We need to train our brains to write by creating an environment and schedule conducive to writing. If you can make yourself sit in the same space at the same time every day, you will encourage your creative motivation through sheer force of repetition.
Where do you feel most creative? It may be at your desk or in the kitchen; it may also be in the bathtub, on your roof, or squirreled away in the closet. Find where you’re most creative, and write there frequently.
3. Writer’s block: Self-doubt is getting in the way
For some people, overcoming writer’s block means overcoming the voice of self-doubt. Self-doubt is only natural: when we write, we’re creating new worlds and human beings. That’s a tall order, and it can be easy to doubt that you’re writing “the right way.”
Self-doubt is a natural response to writing, but it doesn’t have to inhibit your creative flow.
Self-doubt is a natural response to the writing process, but it doesn’t have to inhibit your creative flow. Otherwise, you end up justifying your own self-doubt, which prevents you from writing the next Pulitzer Prize-winning book.
This is one of the hardest writer’s blocks to work through, but you’re not alone in feeling it. Many successful authors have their fair share of self-doubt. John Steinbeck, for example, wrote that he was “assailed by [his] own ignorance and inability” while writing The Grapes of Wrath—that great American novel which did win a Pulitzer.
Often, self-doubters will assume their work will be meaningless before it even reaches the page. If you’re experiencing a bout of writer’s block and doubt your ability to create, try to hold back that judgment. Allow yourself to write, even if that writing doesn’t meet your standards: you can always edit later, and the act of creation is the most important thing a writer can commit to. Think of it this way: every word you write brings you a word closer to the Nobel prize.
4. Writer’s block: You’re out of ideas
You want to write, you’re feeling creative, and you have time to sit at your desk and produce something. There’s only one problem: what do you write about?
First, ask yourself this: are you struggling to come up with ideas at all, or are you dismissing every idea you come up with? If it’s the first one, then prompt generators are your best friend. Hit refresh as many times as you want, add or subtract certain requirements, and have fun in the sandbox of language. You won’t be out of ideas for long!
You might also find writing exercises, like the ones in this article on literary devices, useful for juicing your creativity.
If it’s the second problem, then you might need to take a step back and actually slow your thoughts down. You might be rushing through ideas too quickly, and rather than finding your groove and setting words on the page, your thoughts are spinning like tires in a ditch.
This is your reminder, then: slow down, chew through your thoughts slowly, and imagine yourself inside of your ideas. You might find something unique or surprising, and realize that everything you need as a writer is already inside of you.
5. Writer’s block: You’re too exhausted to write
Let’s face it: this world was not built for writers. Very few of us have the luxury of dedicating our entire lives to literature: we have jobs to work, bills to pay, kids to raise, and thousands of decisions to make. When we find time to sit at the writing desk, we don’t always have the energy to write.
Try to block out some time, even just 5 minutes, to journal or dream on the page before going to sleep.
Our personal and professional lives are often what causes writer’s block. If this is the case, but you really want to write, then take a step back and focus on your needs first. Try to block out some time, even just 5 minutes, to journal or dream on the page before going to sleep. Over time, this habit will start to produce the writing you want to create.
Overcoming writer’s block usually begins with habits, and habits can overcome even the fatigue of day-to-day life. Be gentle with yourself, but be diligent!
6. Writer’s block: You aren’t sure what causes writer’s block for you
If all writers knew the reason they couldn’t write, then they’d know how to cure writer’s block. Sadly, this isn’t the case. It might take a couple of weeks to diagnose yourself with writer’s block, and it might take a couple more weeks after that to figure out the block. This is something that, sooner or later, most writers grapple with.
If you’ve made it this far into the article and you’re not sure what’s causing your block, try the following. Grab an empty sheet of paper and write the words “I can’t write because…” and then finish the sentence. Jot down as many reasons as you want, including false reasons, made up scenarios, and creative fantasies. If you can’t write because you’ve been abducted by aliens, write it down—and, consider what that could be a metaphor for.
Then, write another sentence: “I want to write because…” and do the same thing. Write because you want to win an Edgar Award, or because you want to heal from something emotional, or because you want your book read in high school English classes.
Finally, write this: “I will write because…” and go from there. I will write because I can. I will write because I’m good at writing. I will write because I’m bad at writing. I will write because I want to, and that’s all the reasoning I need.
This is an exercise in self-dialogue, which helps us navigate our emotions through the sheer act of creation. Instead of overcoming a block in the flow of language, try diverting the river, see where it leads you.
How to Get Rid of Writer’s Block: Make Writing a Habit
Ultimately, working through writer’s block is about developing practices that make writing a habit—on good days, bad days, and everything in between. What this looks like is completely up to you and what will really work in your case. Start experimenting!
Overcoming Writer’s Block Starts with Experimentation
Experiment with where, when, and how you write.
Especially for newer writers, the best thing you can do is understand what writing habits are best for you. Experiment with where, when, and how you write to find a place and style of writing that consistently lets you get words onto the page.
Your next story or poem might be best written on a typewriter. It might also be best written while staring at your phone, tucked in bed at 1 in the morning. That’s not to promote unhealthy sleeping habits, only to suggest that “real writing” can happen in any space.
Maybe you’re too tired to write when you finish work at night. Try writing in the morning! Maybe your laptop keeps dragging you onto Twitter. Buy a notebook! Maybe writing feels boring and isolating. Try it in a coffee shop!
Another great way to get the words flowing is to join a writers group. Depending on where you live, you might find writing groups on sites like Meetup or Eventbrite. If all else fails, check your local library.
Clear away any preconceived notions of what “writing” looks like, and find what will make your writing process work for you. If you try to force yourself to write in one specific way, you might be stifling your creativity and preventing ideas from coming naturally.
Consistent Creative Motivation Comes from Creative Habits
Overcoming writer’s block means setting the words down, no matter how great, terrible, logical, or nonsensical they are. The most successful writers have learned how to get rid of writer’s block by experimenting with when, where, and how they write, found the processes that best suit their writing needs, and developed a rock-solid writing habit.
The most successful writers have found the writing processes that work best for them, and developed a rock-solid writing habit.
Stephen King writes 10 pages each day, even on weekends and holidays. Haruki Murakami runs a 5K to clear his mind. Allegedly, Agatha Christie liked to sit in the bathtub, eating apples and looking at crime scene photographs, especially when she was out of ideas. The lengths writers go to to write!
How to Stop Writer’s Block Before it Starts
Two practices are critical for both preventing and overcoming writer’s block: productive self-talk, and forming a writing habit.
Can writer’s block be prevented? Not entirely, but there are many things you can do to stave off a wave of blank pages. Each of the writer’s block exercises we’ll be recommending below involve at least one of the following two things:
- Productive self-talk, and
- Forming a writing habit.
These practices are critical. Even if you don’t have writer’s block, you should incorporate them both into your writing life.
Positive self-talk allows us to transcribe our emotional worlds onto the paper: if we believe in ourselves and trust in our feelings, then we can shut out the world and trust our fingers to create something beautiful.
And if we put ourselves in a certain place—both physically and mentally—we can “Pavlov” ourselves into being creative during certain parts of the day.
We have to coax our creativity out, in the same way you might coax a cat out from under the bed. Be patient, kind, and habitual; eventually, creativity will curl up in our laps.
Overcoming Writer’s Block: Join a Writing Community
Although writers are often solitary creatures, writing thrives best with community support. Involve some trusted writers into your creative habits: join our Facebook group or sign up for a creative writing class with our award-winning instructors. (We even have a course that’s all about juicing your creativity with daily writing prompts.) Let’s beat writer’s block together!
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“Imagine yourself inside of your ideas” I love this advice.
Thanks for the links in #4– “prompt generator” and “literary devices.”
I appreciate your motivation and techniques to CREATE A WRITING HABIT! —that’s my personal bugaboo.
Great article to bookmark!
Keeping up with a writing habit is definitely my biggest challenge as well. Thanks, Julia!
The tortured writer depicted at the start of this article could be a doppelgänger for someone I know…