Learn how to break the resistance and get back to work.
It’s a mysterious enemy, an invisible foe. Driving terror into the hearts of those who’ve battled—and perhaps even defeated—it, and disbelief in those who have yet to encounter this hostile adversary. Writer’s block is whispered about, feared, and sometimes even dismissed. It affects new scribes just as it does great writers, including bestsellers and Pulitzer winners. It can last a day, a week, or even a year. And when you’re in the belly of the beast, finding your way out of the darkness can feel next to impossible.
Are you in the throes of a writerly paralysis that’s preventing you from putting words on the page? Here’s what you need to know about overcoming writer’s block and getting your creative juices flowing again.
Table of Contents
- Fix the emotional drain
- Try pre-writing
- Write badly
- Try a new creative process or project
- Remove distractions
- Set rewards
- Write off the page
- Change your environment
- Write something. Anything
What is writer’s block?
Writer’s block or author’s block is a creative impasse that hinders a writer’s ability to produce new written work. It manifests as a state of creative paralysis, where the writer experiences a lack of inspiration, motivation, or ideas, making it challenging to write or continue writing, often for a long period of time.
It’s important to understand that writer’s block is not procrastination and that it’s not unique to any particular type of writer. You know you have writer’s block if:
- You’re struggling to come up with new ideas or concepts for your writing.
- You’re finding it challenging to begin writing or feel stuck at the initial stage of a project.
- Your writing progress is slower than usual, and you’re constantly revising or deleting what you’ve written.
- You’re experiencing higher levels of self doubt and self criticism.
- You often delay or avoid writing altogether, finding ways to avoid the blank page and distract yourself instead.
- You’re having trouble articulating your ideas and often feel frustrated, anxious, or stressed when attempting to express them.
- Your writing feels forced and repetitive, as though you’re not even writing English.
- You’ve lost interest in your writing projects and no longer feel passionate about them.
- You’re experiencing physical symptoms, such as tension headaches or restlessness, especially when you start writing.
What are the main causes of writer’s block?
When it comes to writer’s block, the call is usually coming from inside the house. Or, as bestselling American author Erica Jong notes, “All writing problems are psychological problems. Blocks usually stem from the fear of being judged. If you imagine the world listening, you’ll never write a line.”
In a 1950 paper, “Does Writer’s Block Exist?” psychiatrist Edmund Bergler argued that a writer “unconsciously tries to solve his inner problems via the sublimatory medium of writing.” According to Bergler, if a writer was blocked creatively, it was a sign that the writer was blocked psychologically. Fix the psychological problem and, magically, you’d fix the creative problem as well. The result: a writer who could start producing again. Ta-da!
So what are some of the common causes that lead a writer to develop psychological strain and experience writer’s block? Here are some typical triggers:
- Rejection: If you’ve been facing a lot of rejection or experienced repeated failure with multiple projects, this can trigger a psychological response in you, which can result in extreme resistance to writing or writer’s block.
- Extreme success: In her viral TED talk, Elizabeth Gilbert, the New York Times bestselling author of Eat, Pray, Love, talks about how both extreme success and extreme failure can swing you away from your emotional center. If you’ve experienced a high level of unexpected success, it’s completely natural to feel off kilter, and this can sometimes manifest as writer’s block.
- Overwhelm: Got too much on your plate? An overabundance of deadlines or items on your to-do list can create a paralyzing anxiety and this results in… you guessed it… writer’s block.
- Finishing a project: If you’ve just finished a big project, such as a novel or nonfiction book, your mind and body may need a break. If you don’t take that break willingly, your body will force you into one by freezing up and blocking your creativity.
- Perfectionism: This is a common cause for writer’s block and usually happens when you’re either stuck on a project and worry about moving forward without all the answers, or when you have a vision in your head of what you want the project to look like, but doubt your ability to do it justice.
- Pressure: The New Yorker called. They like the pitch you sent and would like you to work up a full outline or story. You jumped up and down, did a celebratory dance, and then? Paralysis. Overwhelm. Pressure. And yes, that’s right. Writer’s block. Sometimes when there’s work to be done and you don’t want to screw up a good thing, the fear can result in you experiencing a creative block.
How to overcome writer’s block
If the problem is in your head, the solution must surely be in your head, too, right? Here are some writer’s block remedies that will have you writing again in no time.
1. Fix the emotional drain
If your real life is causing your creative life to suffer, then that’s where you need to begin fixing your problem. While writer’s block is often a symptom of psychological problems, those problems aren’t always caused by the writing life alone. You may be experiencing major shifts in your personal life—the death of a loved one, divorce, financial stress, or health problems—and all these can wreak havoc on your creative life as well. After all, creation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. As a writer, your mind and your emotions are your creative tools, and if they’re under duress, your work is bound to suffer.
The best piece of advice I can give you is to allow yourself the time and grace to heal. The only way to beat writer’s block when you’re going through a life change is to step back and allow yourself to feel the feelings of what you’re going through. Journaling and meditation are fantastic ways to process your emotions. You may also find it helpful to work with a therapist, writing tutor, or coach.
2. Try pre-writing
“When I have writer’s block it is because I have not done enough research or I have not thought hard enough about the subject about which I’m writing,” Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning author Annette Gordon-Reed said in an interview. “That’s a signal for me to go back to the archives or to go back into my thoughts and think through what it is I am supposed to be doing.”
The lack of clarity about a project or piece of writing is certainly a common reason many writers end up blocked on specific projects. After all, if you’re not sure what you want to say, saying it becomes infinitely harder. In such a situation, pre-writing can be an excellent way to loosen up those creative muscles. Some ways to do this include:
- Freewriting: Write spontaneously without worrying about structure or grammar. This can help you unlock ideas and overcome any initial resistance. You can do freewriting as a form of journaling, where you record your thoughts, feelings, and observations, or use it as a way to explore your project without conforming to a structure.
- Outlining: Create a structured outline that organizes your main points, supporting details, and the overall flow of your writing. This can serve as a roadmap for your story.
- Storyboard: For visual or narrative projects, create a storyboard to plan the sequence of events or visual elements.
- Mind mapping: Use visual diagrams to brainstorm, connect and organize ideas, creating a visual representation of your writing’s structure.
- Clustering or webbing: Start with a central idea and create branches of related subtopics or ideas. This can help you see connections between different elements of your writing.
3. Write badly
Once of the best writing tips for overcoming writer’s block is to write badly. After all, if the blank page is causing pressure and triggering a perfectionist response, the fastest way to get out of your head and into creative flow is to get those fingers moving fast and write something, anything, even if it’s bad.
“I deal with writer’s block by lowering my expectations,” writes author Malcolm Gladwell. “I think the trouble starts when you sit down to write and imagine that you will achieve something magical and magnificent—and when you don’t, panic sets in. The solution is never to sit down and imagine that you will achieve something magical and magnificent. I write a little bit, almost every day, and if it results in two or three or (on a good day) four good paragraphs, I consider myself a lucky man. Never try to be the hare. All hail the tortoise.”
Remember, the goal of a first draft is to make sure you get it out of your head and on to the page. The second draft is when you help it make sense. And the third is when you polish.
For now, the best way to beat writer’s block is to just get the words down. Your draft doesn’t have to be good. It just has to be done.
4. Try a new creative process or project
Sometimes the best way to break free of a creative rut is by exploring a different creative process or undertaking a new project. This change of pace can rejuvenate your creativity and offer fresh perspectives. Scott Barry Kaufman, co-editor of “The Psychology of Creative Writing,” told The New Yorker, “I think one must trust the writing process. Understand that creativity requires nonlinearity and unique associative combinations. Creative people do a lot of trial and error and rarely know where they are going exactly until they get there.”
Here are some ideas to consider:
- Experiment with a new genre: If you’re a fiction writer, try your hand at nonfiction, poetry, or a different genre. Exploring new forms of writing can spark creativity.
- Use creative writing prompts: Use writing prompts or creative writing exercises to challenge yourself with unconventional ideas and scenarios.
- Try collaborations: Collaborate with other artists or writers on a joint project. Sharing ideas and working together can lead to unique creative outcomes.
- Explore new mediums: Experiment with digital media, podcasts, or multimedia storytelling. Embracing new mediums can open up exciting avenues for creativity.
- Work in sprints: Set short, focused writing sprints, where you write as much as you can in a short period, like 10 or 15 minutes. This can help you bypass perfectionism and get your creativity flowing.
- Start in the middle: Begin your writing from the middle or at a random point in your story or project. This can help drop you straight into the storytelling without the pressure of making the opening sing.
- Change your writing routine: Alter your writing schedule, such as changing the time of day you write or where you write. A change in your environment and writing process can refresh your perspective.
- Write using notepad and pen: Step away from your computer and pick up a pen and paper. The tactile experience can foster a different connection with your creativity.
- Work on a different project: If you’re stuck on one project, temporarily switch to another. Sometimes, taking a break and working on something else can reignite your enthusiasm.
5. Remove distractions
One of the most effective strategies for overcoming writer’s block is to create a focused and distraction-free writing environment. Distractions can derail your creative flow at the best of times and hinder productivity. It’s important when you’re already experiencing resistance, therefore, to make the process of writing as easy and effortless as can be.
- It’s crucial to designate a dedicated writing space. Choose a location that is comfortable and free from distractions. This could be a quiet corner in your home, a local library, or a cozy coffee shop where you can concentrate without being interrupted. Having a consistent writing space can signal to your brain that it’s time to focus.
- Take the time to tidy up your workspace. A clutter-free environment can have a significant impact on your ability to focus. Organize your desk, eliminate unnecessary items, and create a clean, inviting space for your writing.
- Electronic distractions can be particularly insidious. Silence your phone, tablet, or computer notifications to prevent interruptions from emails, messages, or social media. Consider using “Do Not Disturb” modes or specialized apps designed to block distracting websites during your writing sessions. Moreover, make use of full-screen writing options on your screen. Many word processing programs offer distraction-free modes that hide toolbars and menus, leaving only your blank canvas. This can help you immerse yourself in your writing, free from any digital temptations.
6. Set rewards
If you’re looking for a fun way to get rid of writer’s block, setting up a system of rewards can be a powerful strategy to rekindle your motivation. Here’s how you can effectively use rewards to inspire your writing:
- Break up writing goals into milestones: Instead of seeing a writing goal as one big, overwhelming task, divide it into a series of smaller, manageable milestones. For instance, if you’re working on a novel, divide up the project into pages, chapters or word count increments, with each milestone serving as a checkpoint for potential rewards.
- Choose meaningful rewards: Select rewards that genuinely motivate you. These can vary widely depending on your preferences, from indulging in your favorite snack to taking a leisurely walk, listening to music, or watching a short episode of a favorite TV show. The reward should be enticing enough to propel you through the writing task.
- Maintain accountability: Share your reward system with someone you trust, such as a writing partner, friend. You can also come join our student community, where we have an open accountability thread each week for just this purpose. Accountability can add an extra layer of motivation, as you’ll be more inclined to meet your goals when you know someone else is aware of your progress and rewards.
- Remain flexible: It’s essential to adapt your reward system to your evolving needs. If a particular reward loses its appeal, switch it out for something else that excites you.
7. Write off the page
One effective technique for conquering this creative paralysis is to write off the page. That is, if staring at a blank page is doing you no good, step away and redirect your focus. You might find that without the pressure to perform, your brain may find it easier to come up with ideas. Here are some ways to do this:
- Daydream and inhabit the world of the story: There are two parts to writing anything—knowing what to say and saying it. If you don’t have clarity on the first part, the second part becomes infinitely harder. By embracing the practice of writing off the page, you bridge the gap between the conceptualization of your story and its written expression. Which is why it’s important to take the time to daydream about your characters, their motivations, and the intricacies of your plot. Visualize scenes and settings in vivid detail until you feel ready to write them down. This mental rehearsal can be an excellent way to breathe life into your story, especially when you’re struggling with the writing.
- Disconnect from everything: Step away from your computer, silence your phone, and find a serene sport where you can be alone with your thoughts. A leisurely walk in nature, surrounded by fresh air and the beauty of the outdoors, can provide the ideal setting for getting through a creative block.
- Stop writing to start writing: It may seem paradoxical, but sometimes the most effective way to overcome writer’s block is to stop writing. Allow yourself a break from the physical act of putting words on paper. Go see your parents or best friend. Have dinner somewhere you’ve never been before. Join a class or take up a new hobby. This respite can provide much-needed relief and rejuvenation. During this pause, your mind may continue to work on your story, sifting through ideas and finding creative solutions to narrative challenges.
8. Change your environment
Another helpful strategy for how to get rid of writer’s block? Change your environment. The shift in surroundings can spark your imagination and inspire fresh ideas. Remember, the key to success lies in exploring, experimenting, and finding environments that resonate best with your creative spirit. Some ideas to try:
- Change the time you write: The time of day you choose to write can have a significant impact on your productivity and creativity. If you typically write in the morning, consider shifting your writing sessions to the end of the day, or vice versa. The change in the day’s rhythm and your own energy levels can introduce a new perspective to your work.
- Explore different writing spots: If you’re accustomed to writing at home, venture out to new and inspiring locations. Coffee shops can provide a dynamic atmosphere, while libraries offer a quiet and focused environment. Parks and nature spots are great for removing pressure.
- Travel to a different city or country: Explore new cities or landscapes, soak in different cultures, and use that to draw inspiration from your surroundings for your work. Travel experiences can add depth and perspective to your writing, giving you ideas that you simply don’t have access to in the routine of your life.
- Go on a retreat: Consider attending writing retreats or workshops that immerse you in a new creative environment. These experiences offer dedicated time for writing, expert guidance, and the opportunity to connect with professional writers who share your struggles and aspirations.
- Become a member of a co-working space: Co-working spaces, designed for productivity and collaboration, can offer a structured yet flexible environment that can improve your focus and motivation.
9. Write something. Anything
Charlie Kaufman had a problem. A major studio had hired the celebrated screenwriter and director, most famously known for “Being John Malkovich,” to adapt a book into a screenplay. But writer’s block had hit, and no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t get himself to write the script. So Charlie had a different idea. He wrote himself into the story. Half the script ended up being based on the book and the other half told the story of his writer’s block and the associated struggle. Kaufman turned the script in, knowing full well that he’d be fired. Instead, the studio executives loved it. “Adaptation” was not only released to critical acclaim but got Kaufman an Academy Award nomination for best adapted screenplay.
Not every bout of writer’s block is going to end with a major award nomination. But what’s key to remember is that Kaufman got out of his own way and got started. He took what he thought was a terrible idea and ran with it anyway. Between the choice of writing and not writing, he preferred to write, even if it wasn’t what he’d intended or hoped to produce.
When faced with writer’s block, you only ever have two choices: You can write. Or you can not write. The best advice I, or anyone, can ever give you is this: Choose the first option. Write something. Anything. An email. A social media post. A podcast summary. Loosen up. Get those fingers moving. It may not be what you wanted or intended to write, but the writer’s block will loosen its grip once you begin. So begin. Just begin.
Want to write more faster?
To shake off writer’s block faster—or prevent it from showing up in the first place—you need to understand both the psychology and the practicality of writing.
At Wordling Plus, we’re all about diving deep into the psychology of the creative process, while offering up super practical advice to help you bust through those pesky roadblocks. Our unique approach helps you figure out what’s holding you back, whether it’s a certain mindset or some not-so-helpful behaviors, and give you the tools you need to tackle them head-on. Ready to get started? Join us for your first training session today.
Natasha Khullar Relph
Founder and Editor, The Wordling
Natasha Khullar Relph is an award-winning journalist and author with bylines in The New York Times, TIME CNN, BBC, ABC News, Ms. Marie Claire, Vogue, and more. She is the founder of The Wordling, a weekly business newsletter for journalists, authors, and content creators. Natasha has mentored over 1,000 writers, helping them break into dream publications and build six-figure careers. She is the author of Shut Up and Write: The No-Nonsense, No B.S. Guide to Getting Words on the Page and several other books.
Sign up for The Wordling
Writing trends, advice, and industry news. Delivered with a cheeky twist to your Inbox weekly, for free.