How to Overcome Writer's Block
[Updated April 4, 2019]
Novelist Charles Bukowski once wrote, “Writing about a writer's block is better than not writing at all.” Some folks would rather not mention it at all, as if thinking about how to overcome writer's block will somehow exacerbate the condition — like scratching away at a rash.
Unfortunately, writer’s block is a gremlin that rarely goes away by itself, at least not in a timely manner. But by arming yourself with knowledge of what causes this creative quagmire — and how to climb out of it — you’ll be better equipped to deal with future blocks.
To start, let’s answer the question...
What is writer’s block?
Writer’s block is the condition of being unable to proceed with writing or the inability to start writing something new. We all know that much! What can sometimes stump us where this frustrating predicament comes from.
To try and establish a more empirical definition of what it means to face writer’s block, psychologists Jerome Singer and Michael Barrios followed a group of “blocked writers” for several months in the seventies. They determined that there were four broad causes:
- Anxious and stressed writers who felt unmotivated due to self-criticism.
- Angry and irritated writers who felt unmotivated because they didn’t want their work compared to the work of other writers.
- Hostile and disappointed writers who tended to look for external motivation — such as attention and admiration — but couldn’t find any. (Or at least not enough to propel their writing).
- Apathetic and disengaged writers who were the most creatively blocked of all due to intense lack of motivation.
In other words, writer’s block generally comes from a feeling of unhappiness or discontent with the creative act of writing — and not a lack of talent or ideas. So to help all the wordsmiths out there get their pen-and-paper mojo back, let’s jump straight to some tips.
20 tips for overcoming writer’s block
1) Develop a regular writing habit
So, you've just spent an hour in a staring contest with a blinking cursor. What do you do? Keep it up and to the same thing again tomorrow. As author of The Creative’s Curse Todd Brison notes, "Quite simply, sometimes you just have to get used to writing."
Why subject yourself to this? Now let's turn to Twyla Tharp who suggests in The Creative Habit, routine is a critical ingredient in the life of all creative people.
"There's a paradox in the notion that creativity should be a habit. We think of creativity as a way of keeping everything fresh and new, while habit implies routine. That paradox intrigues me because it occupies the place where creativity and skill rub up against each other…
Creativity is a habit, and the best creativity is a result of good work habits.”
How do you establish a regular writing habit? You can follow writing coach Kevin T. Johns’ steps and start scheduling Non-Negotiable Writing Time.
2) If you can’t find the right words, use other words
A writer can spend hours searching for the right phrase or looking for the perfect word to illustrate a concept. A good way to pull yourself out of this fruitless endeavour is to write, “In other words…” and simply write whatever it is you’re thinking — whether it’s eloquent or not. You can come back and refine it later by doing a CTRL+F search for “in other words.”
3) If digging yourself out of your hole isn’t working, try building a ladder
UK-based children’s books editor Maria Tunney finds that one of the best ways to climb out of a writing funk is to take yourself out of your own work an into someone else’s.
“Go to an exhibition, to the cinema, to a play, a gig, eat a delicious meal ... immerse yourself in great STUFF and get your synapses crackling in a different way. Snippets of conversations, sounds, colours, sensations will creep into the space that once felt empty. Perhaps, then, you can return to your own desk with a new spark of intention.”
4) Banish self-doubt with a round of freewriting
Freewriting is when you spend a set amount of time writing without pause — and without regard for grammar, spelling, or topic. You just write.
Of course, what you end up with is unpredictable. 80% of it will be completely irrelevant, but that doesn't matter. The goal of freewriting is to write without second-guessing yourself, free from doubt, apathy, or self-consciousness — all of which are generous contributors to writer's block. Here's how to get started:
- Decide your surroundings. Go somewhere you won't be disturbed.
- Decide your writing utensils. Will you type at your computer or write with pen and paper? (Quick tip: on a keyboard, you’re more likely to hit the backspace — which is against freewriting rules!)
- Decide a time-limit. On your first time around, set your timer for just 10 minutes to get the feel for it. Gradually increase the time interval as necessary.
5) Don’t worry about making your first draft perfect
Perfectionism isn’t always a positive trait, according to editor Lauren Hughes. Especially when you’re trying to crank out the first draft.
“Blocks often occur because writers put a lot of pressure on themselves to sound ‘right’ the first time. A good way to loosen up and have fun again in a draft is to give yourself permission to write imperfectly.”
Remember that 'perfect is the enemy of good,' so don't agonize about getting it right the first time.
6) Don’t start at the beginning
Anyone's who's attempted a high dive will know the #1 rule: don’t hesitate. The moment you go to jump and then stop yourself, you automatically make the dive ten times harder for yourself.
The same can be said of writing: the most daunting moment is the start, when you have a whole empty book to fill with coherent words.
So, instead of starting with the beginning of whatever it is you’re trying to write, dive in from the middle — or any area of the piece that you feel slightly more confident about. You’ll feel less pressured to get everything “right” straight away because you’re “already at the halfway point.”
7) Take a shower
This isn’t a personal hygiene suggestion. Do you notice that the best ideas tend to come while in the shower? Or while doing other “mindless” tasks? Well, there’s a scientific reason for this: research shows that when you’re doing monotonous tasks (such as showering, cycling, or cleaning), your brain goes on autopilot, leaving your unconscious free to wander without logic-driven restrictions. In other words, you’re more able to daydream and make creative connections that your conscious mind might have otherwise overruled. Lather, rinse, repeat, until you’ve kicked that block to the curb!
8) Establish a relationship with your inner critic
“How prosaic!” “Stuffed dialogue, much?” “This metaphor is overkill.” Ah, the inner critic! Always there to bring your writing to a screeching halt with a big dose of self-doubt. Stephen King struggled with it and Margaret Atwood knew its debilitating effects — you’d be hard pressed to find a writer who hasn’t been blocked by their inner critic.
What successful writers have in common is the ability to hear their inner critic, respectfully acknowledge its advice (because often your inner critic has sound critique!), and push through. You don’t need to totally ignore your inner critic or bow to it: you just need to establish a relationship with mutual respect. If you want to know more, the Harvard Business Review has some great tips on how to make peace with your inner critic!
9) Switch up your writing tool
A change of scenery can absolutely act as a way out of a creative quagmire. But that doesn’t always mean you need to change your location. Sometimes simply switching up your writing tool can do the trick! If you’ve been typing on your word processor of choice, maybe try switching to pen and paper. If your notepad and pencil aren’t encouraging the words to flow, maybe try using a specialized formatter.
10) Change your point of view
If you see writer’s block as knocking on the front door of your story and getting no answer, then Lauren Hughes suggests looking for a side door (or an unlocked window).
“A writer might feel stuck because the plot has lost momentum, or a character isn’t quite developed enough for the scene. Try to see your story from another perspective ‘in the room’ to help yourself move beyond the block. How might a more minor or outside character narrate the scene if they were witnessing it? A ‘fly on the wall’ or another inanimate object?
“Temporarily changing your perspective and placing it outside of the main narrative voice you’ve been writing from can give ‘new eyes’ and help you more clearly see the areas you could improve in the scene and how to proceed from there.”
If you're like to see point of view in action, here's an in-depth look at 50+ examples of point of view in literature.
11) Exercise your creative writing muscles
Any skill or talent requires practice for improvement. And writing is no different! So if you’re feeling stuck, perhaps it’s time for a strengthening scribble-session to bolster your abilities with the pen and paper. Check out this list of creative writing exercises or these writing strategies to get started.
12) Grab the GPS and map out your story
It’s romantic to picture an artist in front of a canvas, letting their creativity flow without strategy or planning. But a common pitfall of novelists who fly by the seat of their pants is that they end up losing the plot. If your story has stopped chugging along, help it pick up steam by approaching it with a more structured approach — specifically the three-act structure.
Determining where your story needs to go will help you plot it out of its current hole. As author Tom Evans says in this interview, "What happens is that the information that you need to write that following chapter has that uncanny way of just showing up. There are a few neurological reasons for that, but basically your brain tunes in to what you need to write, so you get into that lovely zone on the given day and the chapter just flows."
13) Keep writing — but write something else
You’ve probably heard that the best way to get over a fear is to face it. Often times, the best way to get over writer’s block is the same: write. But that doesn’t mean you should try to achieve your breakthrough by banging your head against your story.
Push your current piece to the side and write something totally new. It’ll help you keep your writing routine and you may find that the idea you’ve been grasping for pops up in an expected place. For inspiration, check out this list of short story ideas or sign up for a writing prompts newsletter.
14) Talk to your characters
You could argue that at their core, all stories are really about characters. So if your characters are not clearly defined in your mind, you’re likely to run into writer’s block. But don’t worry! Here are two great resources for when your characters are giving you the cold shoulder:
- Character Development Exercises — these will help you establish your character’s current emotional motivations, and really bring them to life.
- Character Profile — this blog post takes you through all the steps of creating a character profile. It also comes with a handy character template you can use to really get to know your cast.
15) Stop writing for your readers temporarily
If you’re well acquainted with the Reedsy blog, you will have come across the advice to “write to market.” And this is important when you’re working on a novel you’re intending to publish. But the pressure to meet the expectations of others can be a huge inhibitor, and — you got it — manifest itself as a major block. If this sounds like you, throw the market and your potential readers out the window moment and sit down to write just for yourself. It will help you reclaim the joy of being creative and get you back in touch with your “author’s voice.”
16) Make your creative process more visual
When your words are failing you, throw out the dictionary and get visual. The Inkflow app works like a visual word processor, so you can get your ideas on the page and then move them around (or doodle all over them) as you wish. If you’re the kind of person who likes to outline their ideas by placing sticky notes on the wall — but aren’t ready to ditch the technology and go totally old school — then this app might be your new best writing friend.
17) Look for the root of the block
As psychologists Singer and Barrios pointed out, writer’s block often comes from a problem deeper than simple “lack of inspiration.” That’s what Unstuck can help you with! It can help you identify the root of your block, and provide a range of solutions to get your pen moving again. In other words, it’s a friend in time of writer’s need!
18) Go cold turkey and turn off the internet
It’s a small miracle that people are able to get any writing done on a machine that offers access to a whole internet’s worth of distraction. If will power isn’t your strongest suit and your biggest challenge right now is staying away from distraction, Cold Turkey might be the app for you. It turns your computer into a typewriter until you reach your writing goal. In it’s own words, it’s “probably the most stubborn text editor ever made.”
19) When you can't find the words... let the words find you
This is essentially the point of this “fridge poetry-esque” app, Word Palette. Featuring a keyboard of random words, simply click your way to your next potential masterpiece. Or at least, a bizarre poem that get the fire started.
20) Find your inner Hemingway
If your biggest block is your own self-doubt, Hemingway may help curb that anxiety by offering suggestions to improve your writer as you go. Advice includes things like: “too verbose,” “use a forceful verb,” and “use active voice instead of passive.” This app is so sharp, it even provides editorial feedback to the writing of its namesake: Ernest Hemingway. (Try pasting the line: “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self” into the app.)
There might not be a magic trick or formula when it comes to inspiration. But add these 20 tips to your creative arsenal, and you’ll be on your way to kicking writer’s block to the curb. And remember: if you're still stuck, you always have these writer's block memes to keep you company!
Did you try any of our tips? Did they work for you? Do you have your own tried-and-true methods for eliminating writer's block? Leave any thoughts or questions in the comments below!