How to Overcome Writer’s Block
Ah the dreaded writer’s block. An ageless, iconic curse and bane of all mortals who seek to set pen to paper. Although it plagues some individuals a great deal more than others, it is pretty much guaranteed that you will experience at least some form of writer’s block over the course of completing a novel. Thus, understanding the nature of writer’s block and possessing a plan to get past it can help you immensely in your quest to keep turning out those pages, allowing you to make steady progress even on your off days.
Part of the problem in overcoming writer’s block is that there is no single psychological process that makes up the phenomenon. In fact, a wide range of creative roadblocks and inspirational speed traps usually get lumped together when talking about and defining writer’s block. This tends to inflate the problem so that it seems bigger than it really is and makes finding a one size fits all solution tricky at best.
What is writer’s block?
By taking the experience collectively known as writer’s block and breaking it down into separate components, you can learn to build a map of your own energetic traps and slowdowns, as well as to apply focused solutions to each form of blockage you encounter.
The first major division I am going to draw out is between:
- Running out of ideas (see my next post on finding ideas for help on this one),
- Not knowing which part of the novel to work on next, and
- Being unable to sit down and put in a good day’s work, even when you know what you need to do (low motivation, energy, or focus).
This article specifically deals with the third case, as finding ideas is a core part of planning a novel (and can often be solved with brainstorming exercises), while temporarily running out of steam can happen at any point in the writing process. As far as the second case is concerned, not knowing what to do next, see my earlier post on getting organized and getting started to learn how to leave yourself with lots of options when sitting down to write, allowing you to pick out a task that excites you and continue to make significant progress each day. Finally, there is another type of writer’s block that occurs when an author is overly critical during the revising process that I will address in the exercises for that phase.
What causes writer’s block?
Being productive during any given day of writing comes down to the combined influence of three key variables:
Low physical energy is usually the easiest problem to diagnose if not to solve, as it is often the result of low sleep, little exercise, or other sources of stress that lead to tension within the body. Simply taking the time to take care of yourself with a little yoga and a good night’s rest can do wonders for a writer’s productivity.
Poor mental focus comes into play when there are problems in your life that you are dealing with, but also from having too many distractions present in your writing environment. Establishing a regular writing routine and maintaining an effective workspace can help to keep you focused and remain on task.
Finally, suppressed emotional motivation can prevent you from getting started on a day’s writing, even if you are well-rested and otherwise free of distraction. This type of blockage manifests most intensely near the middle of a project, once it begins to hit home just how much work still lies ahead before you will finish. Although everyone has natural variance in their motivation levels, setting manageable, daily goals can help.
How to get rid of writer’s block
Now that we have defined writer’s block and separated its main components, it’s time to discuss what to do about it. A number of people have asked me how to get over, get out of, get past, or cure writer’s block, but I am afraid that there is no simple solution that will magically make it disappear overnight. Creating and maintaining a set of healthy writing habits is a skill that you will need to develop and strengthen over time.
That being said, there are several effective strategies that can help:
Establish a daily writing routine
You can reduce your susceptibility to all forms of writer’s block, simply by establishing an effective daily routine. Human beings are creatures of habit, and once you build up some momentum by creating a daily writing routine, it can help carry you into a productive day of work, even when your energy, motivation, and focus are well below their peaks.
Make sure that your writing environment is clean, spacious, and free of distractions, and try to write near the same time every day for your core block. If your home is not conducive to your creative process, find somewhere else to work. Ensure that your workspace is comfortable as well, so that you can maintain your energy and focus for as long as possible.
Pair maintaining a productive environment with setting a goal for writing one hour every day, while leaving yourself with plenty of options for what to do next. Even when you don’t feel like working, just getting started for a few minutes on a small task can often jumpstart your muse and result in a prolific session. Remember that writing a book isn’t a job or a race and that no one is standing behind you and tracking your progress with a judgmental frown.
Learning to court inspiration throughout your day
Although I have just finished advising you to write at the same time each day as part of a core routine, most of you probably already know that part of the writing process tends to happen as you go about your daily life. You can be in the grocery store or chatting with a friend when the next big idea strikes, and productive writers learn to pounce on these tidbits and jot them down before their muse escapes. Carrying around a small notepad or digital equivalent is a great way to capture ideas on the fly and many writers find that this habit results in significant progress on a story, simply by going about their daily life.
Part of the reason for this is that we are immersed in countless stories that are embedded into our everyday interactions, and developing an eye for spotting them is like casting a net into a river. Every now and again, a great catch will simply float your way. Keep the pad near your bed at night as well, so that any ideas that come while falling asleep or even in dreams are easy to capture too.
Starting is almost always the hardest part of any given day of writing, for once your inner muse finds the slightest bit of inspiration, she often opens the door to a productive day of work. Additionally, thinking about writing hundreds of pages can be rather overwhelming, but writing just a few pages each day isn’t so bad. Learn to focus on the task before you and not the months of work to come. That being said, don’t distract yourself once the words start flowing. Get out of your own way and just keep writing once you enter a productive space.
Every time you feel like taking a break, encourage yourself to push just a little bit further, as many times the urge to stop will retreat after a few more minutes. To strengthen this trend, avoid procrastinating during your scheduled writing time whenever possible, as this will tend to stress you out and make your writer’s block worse over time.
In order to facilitate a healthy daily writing routine, I recommend that you get into the habit of keeping a comprehensive list of the various of parts of your novel that still need some work. In addition to writing down ideas, keep this list of potential writing tasks (starting places) with you as well, so that when you sit down for the day, you will have lots of options for where to begin as well as other tasks you can switch to if you feel yourself running out of gas.
Create short writing assignments to conquer the blank page
Many people find that it is much easier to complete a brief writing assignment than to stare down at a blank page and force the words to come. While I have included as many examples of these as I can in this guide, learning how to creating structured tasks for yourself is a powerful way to help focus your energy and maintain steady progress. Remember, there is no need to write a novel in chronological order, so pick a part of the story that excites you each day.
Examples of self-created assignments might include:
- “Write a two paragraph description of a character’s daily routine.”
- “Decide how I want to open and close this scene.”
- “Outline the core events of this chapter, then write a few sentences describing each in greater detail.”
Full length sample exercise: Talk your way through a scene (by explaining it out loud to an imaginary audience) until you find a good place to begin writing. Simply start describing the events as if you were chatting with a friend over lunch. Every time you come up with a good idea, write it down as a bullet point. If a concrete line of description or dialogue comes to mind, jot that down too, then see if you can write the sentences that come before and after.
What to do when you have writer’s block
- Review/list the things that still need to be accomplished until you find a task that appeals to you.
- If nothing catches your interest, try working on a totally new part of the book.
- If all else fails, simply focus on revision for today.
“Whenever life is overwhelming, ignore everything else and just focus on the next tangible step.” – Bryan Dickerson.
On writing and flow
Have you ever sat down to write, play a game, or work, only to realize later that hours have passed without you even being aware of the minutes ticking by? Or been so engaged in something that everything else seemed to disappear? If so, you have likely experienced the condition known as flow, which is kind of the opposite of encountering writers’ block.
In psychology, the experience called flow, also known as “being in the zone,” is mental state in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, total-involvement, and enjoyment of the task. In essence, flow is characterized by a complete absorption in what one does and a resulting loss in one’s sense of space and time.
Without intrinsic motivation it is virtually impossible to establish flow, but when motivation is high and the task is challenging, flow can be achieved naturally. You can’t force flow or expect that it will be there as part of every writing session. However, I bring it up here because it is one of the ways you can accomplish significant progress on your novel without having the process feel like work. Learning to court the experience of flow will not only make your daily writing as effortless as possible, but can lead to extra productivity without feeling like you are exerting more effort.
Using these techniques, even severe writer’s block can be mitigated and managed over time, allowing your novel to keep growing a little bit every day.
That’s it for the introduction to my approach to the wring process, now it’s time to dive into the details with the first major section of this guide, “The Planning Process.”