“That frustrating, self-defeating inability to generate the next line, the right phrase, the sentence that will release the flow of words again.” – Mike Rose, A Cognitivist Analysis of Writer’s Block.
Writer’s block. Every writer at one point in their journey has had those two foreboding words squat inside their thoughts. Usually, this unwanted visitor appears after you’ve been staring at a word doc which simply reads chapter five while the cursor blinks on and off…
Writer’s block is a common enemy for all; no matter poets, novelists or short story writers. It doesn’t care who, it doesn’t care what they write, it simply swallows up all creative thoughts and leaves no leftovers.
Even Franz Kafka, considered one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, emphasised his battle with the all devouring creature: “How time flies; another ten days and I have achieved nothing. It doesn’t come off. A page now and then is successful, but I can’t keep it up, the next day I am powerless.”
But are we truly powerless? Well, no. Sure, it settles in our minds, takes more than its fair share, but it isn’t a creature we can’t fight against.
I want to propose a new outlook: Instead of fearing it as a beast, welcome it as a guest.
Why, you ask? Why welcome such a creature which leaves you restless at four am with a bin full of crumpled papers? Well, the reason is simple: writer’s block isn’t a creature which causes the block itself. Rather, it is an effect caused by other reasons which weigh a writer’s mind.
If you treat writer’s block as something beyond your control, you will never be able to address the underlying problems which cause it.
If you do address these underlying problems, you’ll be liberated from your block. After all, like any creature, writer’s block thrives if the climate is right, but if the climate is changed it won’t be able to survive.
Yet is it really that easy to change your “climate”? I’m assuming you’re reading this because you’re experiencing writer’s block right now. But don’t worry, writer’s block can be prevented and overcome, and today I’m going to tell you how. I’m not promising after reading this your motivation will suddenly return and you’ll end up writing the next best essay on Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray. But I do promise after reading you’ll know the stepping stones to gaining control over the pen once again. The climate will slowly change.
Step by step you’ll be out of the mud, and you’ll know the methods to prevent future blocks.
Why Ink Refuses to Flow – Addressing The Problem
The Fear of Failure
The fear of failure is one of the most common reasons why writers experience a block. It’s understandable; you don’t want to put all that hard work into finishing your story, to then have it rejected by your peers and publishers. So, in fear that rejection will follow, you defend yourself against this possibility by simply not writing the story. If you don’t finish it, there is no chance of failure. Perhaps you’ll even point an accusatory finger and tell yourself that the reason you can’t write isn’t because of fear, but because of writer’s block.
Now, remember, rejection is an essential and healthy part of writing, and it is impossible to improve without rejection. Truthfully, your first written pieces will suck, but it is only with practice can you improve and hone your craft. You wouldn’t expect a pianist’s first attempts to be fantastic, and you know the saying practice makes perfect, so don’t put pressure on yourself to be flawless. Accept that your work is likely to be rejected, address what you need to improve on, write again, and repeat.
Even if you’ve been writing for years, I guarantee your writing will STILL be rejected! In reality, you won’t please everyone, and the most established writers still receive harsh criticism and face rejection before their work finally gets accepted.
Don’t believe me? Take a look at this Mental Floss article to see how famous authors like George Orwell have not only been rejected, but blatantly insulted over their writing!
I personally experienced this problem when I was writing my first novel. I got halfway through it, and I knew, more or less, what direction I wanted to take with it and had a vision in my head of how the final scenes would play out. But getting to that vision, and setting up the rest of the novel for it, well, that was another matter entirely. I kept thinking about how long it would take and how much time it would need, what imagery I should include, how I was going to build the setting, if their reactions would be realistic enough to readers…I could go on and on and see – isn’t that overwhelming?
Being overwhelmed is a common reason why writer’s block manifests. It prevents you from writing because the thought of bringing pen to paper reminds you of how much there is to do, how much time and concentration it requires. You can see the destination, but the marathon to get there feels too difficult, too exhausting.
But, like marathon running, practicing in smaller phases and stretching beforehand will help you steadily gain stamina to reach the finish line. Uncertain how to do this? Don’t worry, I’ll be discussing ways to effectively achieve this later on.
Of course, being overwhelmed can also be caused by other events going on in your life. Remember, sometimes forcing yourself to write at a stressful period in your life won’t be productive, and it’s important to know when to take a healthy break!
Too High Expectations
Plain and simple, your expectations of yourself are too high. You expect to spew out a perfect masterpiece in your first go. You’re the type who feels that every sentence has to be polished instantly. If it doesn’t feel perfect, you can’t continue writing. So, you end up staring at the same sentence over and over, questioning your word choice, questioning if this sentence should even be included. You question so much, that, in frustration, you crumple it up and tell yourself: I can’t write. I’m not good enough.
No writer will ever have a flawless first draft! It’s good to aim for high standards, but be realistic and set reasonable goals. The higher the standard you try to reach, the more it will damage your self-confidence if you are unable to meet your expectations.
Importantly, don’t compare your first draft to already published stories. What you are reading is not a first draft but an extensively edited piece of work. You’re always going to be learning, and it will always take lots of drafting and editing!
You’ve Lost Interest in What You Are Currently Writing
You decided that this was going to be the next big story, it’s the one that would get your name published in print. You’ve been working on this idea for months, and when your peers asked what your story is going to be about, you told, proudly, in intricate detail exactly what the story is and why it’s going to be successful. But now you’re actually writing it, your passion has waned. The idea sounded great a few months ago, but now you’d rather just write something else. Yet, in some loyalty to your past self, you feel you must keep at it, watering it until it bears fruit.
But, as time goes by, you find yourself easily distracted and pushing it aside to do other things. So you wait, hoping that one day the spark you initially had will return, and words will pour out of you once again.
I’m going to be blunt: stop writing it. Write something else. This is not “giving up”, this is letting go to allow yourself happiness once again.
Shut it away in a drawer, let go and leave it there. No matter how much you water it, if you no longer enjoy what you’re writing and find it draining, it will never bear fruit. This is the best and healthiest thing you can do for yourself. And, after taking a break from it, you might even find that your enthusiasm for this story has ignited once again.
Refilling the Ink – Methods of Overcoming.
So let’s pick up the pen and let’s get stuck into it, these are some effective ways to help you get the words flowing.
Set Up a Writing Space
It is important to have a writing location which is comfortable with limited distractions. This will help you solely focus on the writing task at hand. Here are some suggestions:
- Favourite Café
Consider setting up at your favourite café. For some, it’s the perfect blend; soothing cups of coffee, the occasional cake, and the light background noise of chatter and laughter.
- A Park
If it’s nice weather outside, a park may be the perfect place. Being surrounded by nature will not only help relax you, but nature itself has been known to boost creativity. As a bonus, you get to catch the sun while listening to the chirrups of birds.
- Local Library
There’s a reason why writing at libraries is a trope in so many books and movies: It genuinely works. With books everywhere you look, it’s impossible not to feel motivated to write. If you’re a writer who needs silence when working, the library is the sure way to go. (Plus, you can easily find any resources you might need while writing, and libraries always have free Wifi!)
Nevertheless, if you hate travelling, don’t worry! You don’t have to venture out to different locations to write. Instead, consider setting up your own personal writing space at home. A home writing space is also perfect if you’re the type who needs privacy when writing to feel truly comfortable. And of course, nothing beats writing in cosy pyjamas and slippers.
Ensure natural lighting
If you do decide that you’re going to set up your own personal writing space, I can’t stress enough the importance of having it near lots of natural light. Natural light is a great mood booster and artificial light can strain your eyes, particularly when reading and writing. And, while I’m on the topic of self-care, if you find yourself left with back pains after a good writing session, make sure to invest in a chair which will enable you to maintain good posture and write painlessly. Have no clue where to look? I recommend checking out this useful article.
Set Small Goals
Setting small goals and making a routine is a great way to combat the feeling of being overwhelmed.
Instead of telling yourself you have to finish writing this chapter tonight, tell yourself you just have to write 50-100 words a day. Break it down, small goals make tasks a lot more reachable and manageable. Even if 100 words doesn’t seem like a lot, it is important to remember that 100 words every day is 700 words a week, and it trains your brain to become accustomed to writing habitually.
A great complement to this is setting a specific routine time for writing every day, as it’ll help your mind focus on that task without other worries.
Have a Scrap Writing Journal – Make It Messy!
Write everywhere in gel coloured pens, have arrows all over the place to different ideas. Cross out, scribble out, underline like crazy, the lot! Every writer needs a journal where they can sprawl ideas without the pressure that it needs to be a “polished” piece.
If your expectations are too high and you feel your work needs to be flawless, this is one of the best ways to help overcome those thoughts. In this journal, it should be anything BUT perfect.
The more you write pressure-free, the more you’ll become accustomed to writing without setting expectations too high.
Freewriting is the process where you write without stopping for a set time period – typically five minutes. In this period, you can’t take your pen off the paper. Freewriting may seem daunting, after all, is it really possible to write something coherent without stopping to pause? And, truthfully, it’s not possible, but with freewriting, that’s the point! It’s not meant to be a completed work, it’s meant to be your thoughts pouring out, no matter how jumbled.
After your exercise, you may find that out of all the jumbled words, there’s a singular phrase you really like, and that can motivate you to make a whole new piece of work. Freewriting is a perfect kick start activity for those who find it difficult to initially put pen on paper. It’s also a great method to keep those who have a fear of failure actively writing daily, because there is literally no way of failing!
To truly make the most of your freewriting, mix in some prompts. You can even incorporate a slide show with randomised images to help. A good random prompt website you can use is writing exercises generator.
How NOT to Deal With Writer’s Block
Do not procrastinate! Do not stop writing! The less you write and the more you deter away from it, the harder it will be to start writing. It will be tough in the first few weeks, but you need to force yourself to write to break through the difficult period.
A lot of writers tell me they don’t write because they never feel inspired. They feel as if they should wait for inspiration to simply “hit” them. Never do this and never expect it to happen.
Inspiration, of course, may “hit” you at some point, but this could be weeks or even months. Inspiration comes from your active engagement with the world around you. If you wait passively and do not try to encourage it, your chances of inspiration “hitting” you are remote. Saying you’re waiting for inspiration is like saying you’re waiting to watch a train go by on an unused rail. Instead, make an effort to walk to the rails where trains regularly travel.
Writer’s Block as a Guest and Its Departure
Remember, writer’s block isn’t a beast. It’s a guest, and it is there to remind you that there are reasons why you are struggling, and you should listen to them and engage with ways to actively act on the concerns you find yourself battling with.
Feeling overwhelmed, setting too high expectations and fearing failure can all be confronted with patience, time, and active changes.
Treat writer’s block nicely, welcome it instead of seeing it as something that’ll consume you. Soon enough, with the right dedication and care, it will depart, and you’ll be using up ink cartridge after cartridge once again.