Writer’s block is the fierce dragon of the literary world. It’s the monster under the bed. It’s the malignant force that turns a blank page from sympathetic co-conspirator to vicious, subversive enemy. Writer’s block is every writer’s worst nightmare.
If you’re faced with a bout of writer’s block, we’ve got good news for you:
1.) You’re not alone. All writers experience writer’s block at various stages in their writerly practice.
2.) You can annihilate the beast one and for all, and we’re going to show you how.
What is writer’s block?
Writer’s block refers to the slump writers face when they find themselves unable to move forward in their writing process. You might not be able to come up with any new ideas, or you might have ideas but can’t get them out onto the page. In extreme cases, it can manifest almost like a phobia; the idea of writing might induce feelings of anxiety or fear.
What’s worse is that writer’s block is something that tends to feed on itself. Overcoming writer’s block that’s only been present a couple of days is fairly easy, but if left unaddressed, it becomes harder and harder to manage over time.
That may sound scary, but don’t worry! We’ll show you some foolproof tricks to beat writer’s block before it spirals out of hand.
What causes writer’s block?
Many famous writers struggle with this obstacle. Here are the primary causes of writer’s block that many writers will face at some point during their careers.
Writer’s block seeps into the empty space left behind when creativity stops. The longer you go without engaging in writing or other creative tasks, the more you build a hospitable environment for writer’s block to thrive and grow. And the more you allow writer’s block to overtake your internal creative space, the harder it is to get rid of.
(The creepy tar thing in FernGully may have been a metaphor for environmental pollution, but it definitely could have been a metaphor for writer’s block.)
Too many distractions
We get it—you’ve got lives. Jobs, education, tiny humans that need constant maintenance, the new season of your favourite Netflix binge, Instagram… the problem is that there’s always a reason not to write, and, as we saw above, allowing your writing to slip is what invites writer’s block into your life.
Creativity is the foundation of our world, but can also be… kind of terrifying? Many writers have a fear of beginning to write because they lack confidence and feel what they put down won’t live up to the idea they have in their head. Or they might think they’ll never compare with the authors they love. There’s this sense that by putting words down on the page that somehow fall short of your expectations, you’ll be forced to look your failings right in the face.
Some writers are so demanding of themselves that they don’t want any sub-par scribbles marring the perfect canvas of their work. This means they never trust themselves enough to even begin their first draft. They may also be afraid of writing something imperfect and revealing their own limitations.
The writer’s block fallacy
Dumbledore was on to something when he said, “Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”
Finding yourself in a writing funk is the literal worst. However, be very mindful of assigning writer’s block too much of its own agency. By giving writer’s block a name, we allow it to become an external enemy over which we have no control, like a seasonal flu: I’m going through a rough case of Writer’s Block right now. Oh man, I had that last spring, it’s the worst. Yeah, the doc says I should just wait it out, get lots of rest. Ah well, we’ve all had it, give it time—
By treating writer’s block as something other, we disassociate and give ourselves permission to reject responsibility for our art. The first step to really conquering writer’s block is to take ownership of it as a piece of you—which means that you’re in charge.
Remember: writer’s block is an unconscious choice. Overcoming writer’s block is a conscious choice.
Ways to overcome writer’s block
Easier said than done, we know. Don’t despair! When you’re feeling stuck in a creative slowdown, try one (or several!) of these ways to overcome writer’s block and get your creative juices flowing.
1. Determine what’s really happening
If you’re suffering from writer’s block, chances are something is holding you back. See if you can identify what it is and address it. Are you petrified by existential self-doubt? Do you feel pressured to compare with other writers? Have you lost interest in the project you’re working on? Or maybe you’ve gone so long without writing that you find the act of starting up again intimidating? If you can pin down the root cause of your writer’s block, you’ll be able to determine the best way to overcome it.
2. Get words down on paper
Creativity is a bit like a faucet—you need to run it often for it to function at its best. If you go a long time without turning the faucet on, you might get some water with rust and debris and bits of bird poo coming out before you get to the fresh, clear stuff. But if your creativity faucet is backed up, the only way to clear it out is by flushing out the murky water.
In writing terms, this means getting something down on paper to “flush out” the blocked passages. At this stage, you don’t have to worry about it being any good.
Once again, because I cannot stress this enough: it doesn’t have to be any good. It just needs to exist so you can access the quality juice behind it. If you can manage to start writing, you’ll find your creativity begins to flow a lot more smoothly.
3. Use writing prompts
If you’re stuck for ideas, try out a writing prompt! The internet is full of prompts designed to trigger inspiration, from the silly to the thought-provoking. Writing prompts might include something like the first line to kick off a story, a situation to drop two characters in, or a “what if” question around which to build a plot. Writing prompts are a surefire way to get your words moving and overcome writer’s block.
4. Put it in a letter
In the interest of getting words on paper and uncovering the root cause of your slump, try writing about your writers block! You can pen a letter to your best friend, a family member, your crush, or your pet. You don’t have to send this letter (though you can if you want to), but having an imaginary someone on the other side can give you a focal point and help you unpack your thoughts. Try telling them what your story’s about, what you feel when you look at the page, and what you’d like to accomplish.
5. Set manageable goals
Try setting small, obtainable writing goals for yourself. Some writers aim for a thousand words before they finish for the day, but if that seems monumental, you can start with a few lines, or even one sentence. If looking at a blank page fills you with terror, try telling yourself, “I’ll just write one sentence of my novel, and then I’ll take a little break.” If you get that sentence down, great! See if you can write a second one. If not, come back to it later. Start with tiny victories and work your way up to larger ones.
6. Try a reward system
Some writers respond well to positive reinforcement, so try rewarding yourself every time you reach your daily goal. Maybe you think, “If I manage to write five hundred words today, I’ll buy myself an ice cream cone.” This gives you a tangible objective to work towards.
Just make sure your reward is something you only get when you meet your writing goals, and not something you have all the time. It should be a small luxury that makes your writing sessions feel productive and enriching.
7. Create a writing routine
Professional writers often build a regular routine around their creative process. For instance, you might promise yourself to work from 7:30am to 8:30am each morning before you go to your job, or from 8pm to 9pm each evening. Or, you might devote one of your days off to writing practice and work in one-hour busts with half-hour breaks in between. Everyone is different, so find the rhythm and writing schedule that works best for you.
Another way to create a sense of routine and overcome writer’s block is to always write in the same place with the same accoutrements. This will send your brain a signal that it’s time to write. This might be a certain coffee cup that you use while you’re writing, a particular album that you listen to, or a special “writer sweater” to keep you cosy.
8. Try out the Pomodoro technique
The Pomodoro technique is one type of scheduling that works well for a lot of people, and it might work for you. This involves setting a timer, such as a kitchen timer or the one on your phone (the name comes from the tomato-shaped kitchen timer used by the guy who invented it), for twenty-five minutes at a time. This is proven to be the time span in which we’re most productive.
After twenty-five minutes, take a five minute break to grab a snack or stretch your legs. After four twenty-five minute sessions (sometimes called “pomodoros”), take a longer break of about half an hour. This process is a proven method to maximise your productivity without burning yourself out.
9. Approach your story from a different angle
If you’re in the middle of a story and aren’t sure where to go next, try looking at it in another way. Try writing a scene from a different character’s perspective, or setting a conversation in a different location. Or, you could write a story from the past of one of your supporting characters and learn who they were before they became a part of your plot.
These scenes may not end up in your finished project (although they might, if you discover something about them you want to include), but exploring new facets of your story world may reveal surprising nuances and help you overcome writer’s block.
10. Start in the middle—or the end
You may feel stuck because, while you have some great ideas for your story’s conflict and astonishing twist ending, you aren’t quite sure how to begin. But here’s a deep, universal truth: anyone who says you must begin your story on page one is lying to you.
If you can see your hero’s final battle in your mind, go ahead and write that scene. Or the moment where they meet-cute their love interest for the first time. Or the scene where they finally overcome their flaws and become a better person. During your first draft, you don’t need to worry about getting everything in the right order (that’s what revision is for!)—just worry about getting it all down on the page. You may find you develop a better idea of where to begin as you go.
11. Use placeholders
You might find that a particular scene is giving you a lot of trouble because it’s too challenging, sensitive, or unclear. In this case, you can simply make a note and move on to the rest of your story. For example, you could pause in your narrative to say [THE BEST FRIENDS HAVE A BIG FIGHT], and then continue writing the next scene. You can always come back to it later with fresh eyes. The important thing is to keep moving.
12. Change your medium
Sometimes, simply changing the writing tool of your work can feel like a fresh start. If you usually write on paper, try switching to a computer screen for a while—or vice versa. If you’re writing on a computer, you can also try changing up the size and font of your text. Some writers swear by composing in Comic Sans to maximize their productivity. A small change can signal a psychological shift that kickstarts that initial spark.
If you’re stuck on your current project, try channeling your creative energy into something else. For example, you might take a break from your novel to try writing a piece of low-stress flash fiction or a poem. Or, you may wind down with another creative activity, like drawing or painting. This way you’re still keeping your creativity engaged while taking a step back from experiencing writer’s block.
14. Build a welcoming workspace
It’s tough to write well in a space that’s overflowing with dirty clothes and last week’s takeout. Even if you’re not normally a clean freak, try to prioritise the space you do your writing in and make it as welcoming and creatively conducive as possible. Keep it hygienic, and think about little personal touches that might make it feel like an artistic safe place. Some writers love having fresh flowers around while they work, while others like having warm candlelight nearby (don’t strain your eyes though! And keep that open flame away from your notes). Creating a place where creativity can flourish might be what you need to combat writer’s block.
15. Move to a new environment
Sometimes, though, moving around can be the trick to unstoppering your creative block. If it’s a nice day, try going outside and writing out in the natural world. Or, you might go to a cosy library or café to get the right words flowing. Even if you’re stuck indoors, just moving from one room to another can feel like a fresh start.
If all else fails, curl up with a good book for a while. Most writers are also readers, and dissecting how a well-crafted story is put together is one of the best skills a writer can have. Look at the way other authors have written their sentences and scenes, and see if you find some inspiration after a chapter or two.
17. Take a step back
You can also take a break from your writing session by getting some fresh air or taking time to talk with a non-writer friend. You might find that your best ideas come when you’ve taken the pressure off and are remembering what the outside world looks like.
Overcoming writer’s block is the next step in bringing your story to life
Almost every writer suffers from writer’s block at some point, but it doesn’t have to be a death sentence for your beautiful work. With these foolproof tricks, you can obliterate writer’s block once and for all!