This is for people who really want to write and aren’t, and for people who are already writers and can’t. As a writer too, I feel your pain. You want to get your story down and yet this thing called writer’s block is ruining everything.
You know how it goes. You sit at the computer, you hover above a notebook, maybe you begin to put some words down although just as frequently you don’t write anything. As writer’s block continues you begin to talk yourself out of even trying. You say, “This won’t go anywhere,” or “It’s not even worth trying,” and “This won’t be any good.” Writer’s block can occur at any point in a project. In formal learning institutions, it commonly occurs when writers finish their foundational studies and are suddenly asked to begin working on a project of their own choosing, whether a series of stories, poems, or a novel. Writers who suffer from a block often feel as though they’ve lost their creative urge and let’s be honest, writer’s block is debilitating and demoralizing. It can last for a day. It can linger for months.
I believe that I can offer some techniques to help you conquer writer’s block. There are, in my view, three primary reasons that writers block takes over a writer’s practice. Each has a simple fix. What allows me to say this with confidence? I’m a writer and university level educator. In these roles I’ve paid careful attention to writers who suffer from writer’s block and I’ve thought a lot about what they said. As a result, I’ve considered their reasons and then I’ve tried out possible solutions when teaching, some worked, some didn’t. In a formal learning institution, with defined semesters, student writers need to conquer writer’s block quickly and efficiently, meaning they just don’t have time time to flounder about in the Slough of Despond, to borrow from Bunyan. If they flounder they flunk because they did no work. What I suggest to conquer writer’s block works in most instances. (I say most with the acknowledgment of the breadth of human experience and the fact that some people often also need support from those with expertise outside of the field of writing, for example a medical professional in the case of severe depression.)
You’re not writing. You want to write. First off do a check, a main reason people get sidetracked by writer’s block is:
1.) You’re not writing what you want/need to write.
In my view, every writer has something they want to write, and I would go farther and say something they need to write. Let’s call this your writer’s goal. We don’t like doing what we don’t like. The same for writing. If you want to write, then figure out what you really want/need to write and writing gets easy, or at least easier.
Instead we continually accept all sorts of external goals. We want to create work that our friends and family will like, we want to write good or great works, we want to make money off our novel, we want the writing to be in the style of writing we admire, we want a thing finished as soon as possible. When we set our eyes on external goals, we lose track of our own. We begin projects with goals over which we have no control. And then when our book doesn’t sell well, or people we care about don’t like our style, we lose faith, and perhaps we stop writing.
You need then to back up and lock onto your original goal of the project. What did you want/need to say in the first place? And if you really feel like it, ask yourself why, knowing that, did you accept external goals?
The answer is now obvious. Banish all the external goals. Be clear: You no longer care about selling, about whether anyone likes it, whether it’s good or bad, whether it’s long or short, or what your natural style looks like. All you care about is saying what you want/need to say as clearly as you can.
This requires a shift of thinking. For some people it’s easy and they just need to be reminded. For others it’s really hard and it requires a near constant reinforcement.
So are you writing what you absolutely want/need to write, what you feel over the moon excited about? Yes? Great! Continue. If not, stop what you’re doing and start a new work that arises from your want/need goal. Put the other stuff you’re “just doing” away and no you don’t have time to “just finish this project first before moving on to the real stuff.” I’ll say it straight, if you’re not working on the project you really want/need to work on, you’re wasting time.
The point here is simple. Choose to write only what you absolutely want/need to write, and I can’t stress this enough: No matter what anyone else says.
Now let’s add a bit of nuance. If you’re writing is going well but you find you’re losing interest on a particular lengthy project, this is normal. Perhaps you’ve set up some knotty problems that you don’t readily have the answers for, or you just feel burned out by the amount of work you put into it. Take a break, by which I mean put this project aside and start another. This is the reason that authors often have more than one project on the go; when their excitement drops for one, they turn to the other, knowing they’ll come back to the first.
I’d say most writers know what they want to say so I often think the above problem isn’t a big problem. Yet when I press, I find many writers actually keep one eye trained on external goals even though they talk the talk of a personal goal oriented process. They’re not being fully honest. You have to be relentless in double checking your reasons for and goals of writing. Assuming your goal is in order, some writers still stall out. Here’s the reason:
2.) You’re prejudging your writing at the start.
It’s common and natural. You put one sentence on the page and you start to revise, you reach for the thesaurus, you start questioning whether the sentence is good, and then you wonder whether you’re developing the work in the right way. What you’re doing is stopping the writing to criticize. I call this prejudging. You’re judging your work before it’s done. Writers who prejudge barely create one chapter and they bring it into a reading group, or they give it to friends, or they present in a class for critique. They get feedback, normally a praise/criticism sandwich, and they start to lose faith in their project.
A writer cannot move forward if at every step the work is judged.
In my view this and the next reason are the two most common causes of writer’s block. Writers prejudge because are afraid that what they write will be horrible (the first draft always is) and that it won’t be clear (the first draft never is) and that they will feel demoralized by their lack of ability (they might). The problem here is they’ve accepted a bar that is set too high. They must realize that not much good is found in a first draft. On the other hand a first draft is a completed first draft that often has raw excitement throughout, and this is something worthy.
Think of it this way: the first draft will be a mess, the second draft a bit less of a mess, the third draft a bit better, and so on. Novels, short stories, and poems get good over time and by way of serious revision. Reframe writing as 10% getting the idea out, 90% clarifying that idea.
Consequently, stop prejudging your work. Stop judging your work while you’re creating it. Stop asking for feedback from friends or family or other writers while you’re writing and revising the work.
This doesn’t mean you give up judgement and critical analysis and feedback, it means you postpone these activities until after the first, or second draft is done, after you’ve said what you need to say as clearly as you can and you can no longer see any obvious flaws. A good time to request feedback is when you’ve moved onto a new project and your head is out of the one you’re getting feedback on. You’ll be able to consider more clearly any feedback given, and if you deem revision is needed, you’ll be a more ruthless in doing it.
Ok, you’ve gotten excited (by following your goal) and you know you can stay excited by not getting wrapped up in critiquing what you’ve written to this point. So far so good. Now you must develop the habit that will allow you to get the project done. Or in the case of severe writer’s block, to get back to writing. Most likely:
3.) You haven’t developed a reliable writing habit.
“I’ll write when I get inspired,” you say. No you won’t, not in my plan. You’ll write five or six days a week. See I’m a nice guy, I give you a couple of days off. Force yourself to sit down or stand or whatever and write. Use computer or pencil or crayon, it doesn’t matter. Set a timer, start writing and end only when the timer dings. A good amount of time to start is 15 minutes. As the days progress and you feel that 15 minutes is an absurdly short amount of time then up it a bit, not a lot, remember it’s about developing a habit at this point. Later on, when you get into the zone and want to write for three hours, sure go ahead, except know you also must write tomorrow for at least 15 minutes or however long you’re doing it every day. The practice of writing is a marathon, not a sprint. We have to train up in order to guarantee that we can retain both our goal and excitement for marathon sessions.
This forcing of a habit develops two things: First, you train your brain to adopt a routine of writing. You learn that every day you’ll be writing. At the start this may be hard, but over time you’ll start to crave the writing time and you may get cranky if you don’t get some thoughts out.
Second, you will train your brain to get into the creative mindset. I call this the zone. Eventually you’ll find that you can click right into the zone, just as you can click a light switch. You sit down, and as soon as that cup of coffee is placed on the table and your fingers touch the keyboard, click, almost immediately you are in the mental writing space, the zone.
But, you say, I have writer’s block, I don’t know what to write so when I sit down I have nothing to say. I find this a bit odd since you were asked to identify your desire and/or need to write, that was translated into a goal. Maybe you said, “I need to write about my family’s interesting history,” or “I’m super interested in writing about travel to another planet.” These are goals. Let’s assume however that you have no idea about what to write. Well, you still are tasked with writing for 15 minutes, no excuses. Set the timer, start writing and keep writing. This is called freewriting. You don’t worry about what you say or how you say it, you simply start writing, anything, you jump around or not, you keep writing until the timer dings. What you’re doing is forcing the creation of a reliable habit. True enough, freewriting generates a lot of junk (see above about not prejudging) but interestingly, freewriting often generates some amazing, slightly under our consciousness thoughts that we can use in works at some point. But that’s all for later. Your goal now is to develop and reinforce the habit.
My guess is that if you’re suffering from writer’s block, the problem is situated in one of the reasons above. And again, I didn’t make these up out of nowhere. I tested them with lots of writers who have been mired down by writer’s block and since it worked for them, I suspect it may work for you. See if you can identify exactly where the problem is, apply the fix, and stick with the fix for a couple of months. I look forward to reading your results.