Writer’s Block: What It Is and How to Overcome It

10 mins read

This article discusses 4 causes of writer’s block and 5 steps to open your mind creatively.

Writing is often romanticized as a serene activity that is accompanied by a warm atmosphere, relaxed tunes, and a fresh cup of coffee. In reality, many struggle with writer’s block, a phenomenon “that is best described as an overwhelming feeling of being stuck in the writing process without the ability to move forward and write anything new.”1 Being creatively “blocked,” is an incredibly frustrating experience that can heavily weigh on a person’s confidence or self-esteem. The good news is that is there are ways to deal with it, so it doesn’t remain a permanent issue. Let’s take a deeper look into what causes writer’s block before diving into the 5 steps to overcome it.

What Causes Writer’s Block?

In the 1970s and 80s, Yale psychologists Jerome Singer and Michael Barrios wanted to further understand why some writers get “blocked.” To begin their experiment, they recruited professional writers from a variety of different, creative backgrounds including fiction, nonfiction, poetry, prose, print, stage, and screen.2 From there they were separated into two groups, those who did not struggle with writer’s block and those who did, with the latter having to prove that they hadn’t made any progress on their main projects for at least three months. After following the writers’ progress for a month and administering close to sixty different psychological tests, they found that the source of the writers’ woes could be categorized into one of four categories:

    1. Excessively harsh self-criticism
    2. Fear of comparison to other writers
    3. Lack of external motivations, like attention and praise
    4. Lack of internal motivation, like the desire to tell one’s story3

This proves that writer’s block is more than just a “lack of inspiration” and to fully remedy it, one must look inwards and possibly seek professional help. Still there are ways to jumpstart your writing while doing important self-reflection in the background.

5 Ways to Overcome Writer’s Block

1. Freewrite: Freewriting is the practice of writing for an uninterrupted, set amount of time. The purpose of this exercise “is to write without second-guessing yourself — free from doubt, apathy, or self-consciousness, all of which contribute to writer’s block.”3 To start, you can employ what’s called the Pomodoro technique, which requires writing for twenty-five minutes straight with five-minute breaks in between. Repeating these two steps will help your projects progress at a steady pace, even if you must edit out few sentences later. If twenty-five minutes feels like too large of a challenge, just narrow it down to ten-minute sessions to make sure you get that breakthrough.

2. Embrace the Mundane: Staring at a piece of paper and trying to will inspiration to strike won’t get you very far. Give your brain a break by doing a monotonous activity such as showering, cleaning, or walking. This allows the brain to “go on autopilot, leaving your unconscious free to wander without logic driven restrictions.”3 By encouraging unfettered creativity, you gain a fresh perspective to tackle your writer’s block with, as well as generate new ideas you might not have considered before. However, be careful not to get lost in the mundane, as it can go from a helpful mental break to an overall distraction.

3. Start Midway Through: There is no rule stating that you must always start at the beginning and write in a rigid, linear fashion. Sometimes, it is easier to just skip the intro and proceed with the sections you’re most confident about. In addition to building that much needed momentum, it will also give you a “clearer idea of what the main idea and purpose of the piece will be.”4 Once you have all the written parts, assemble them together, making sure your transitions are smooth to create a seamless finished product. That way, the reader “will never know that you wrote [it] ‘backwards.’”4

4. Take Care of Your Body: While you might feel the urge to obsessively troubleshoot a project, neglecting your body in the process will only make it harder for you in the long run. Writing takes a lot of focus and concentration, which you simply don’t have if you’re dehydrated, hungry, or sleep deprived. Along with maintaining a regular schedule to eat and sleep, it’s important to wake up the body through movement. Regardless of what exercise you prefer, any action that gets your blood pumping will start firing off your brain as well. Even if you don’t have a lot of time or space in the office, engaging in a few active stretches will help reinvigorate both body and mind, letting you get back to work with ease.

5. Talk it Out: As individual as the writing process can be, you don’t have to do it alone! Often, writers get “too caught up in the rules and structure of writing”1 or are unable to see past their own perspective. Bouncing ideas off co-workers will not only guide you to see things in a new light but it will also improve and build upon your original thoughts. If there happens to be no one you can directly talk to, try “composing an email or text”1 to help reframe how you would explain or describe what you’re stuck on. Then refine your message afterwards to better fit your needs.

Writer’s block has been misunderstood to be a lack of creativity, leaving many people waiting around for their “Aha!” moment, or in other words, a strike of inspiration. But it goes much deeper than that, as we have seen there are 4 primary reasons as to why writers get “blocked,” ranging from excessive self-criticism to lack of external motivators like attention or praise. To fully push past writer’s block, self-reflection is key and if you’re not sure what kinds of questions to ask yourself, seeking out the advice of a professional could be beneficial.

Nevertheless, there are still ways you can overcome writer’s block while working on all the important stuff, with strategies such as freewriting, embracing the mundane, starting midway through, taking care of your body, and talking it out. What’s great about these exercises, is that they can be applied to any creative process, especially when brainstorming or seeking out unique solutions. There’s no need to wait around for inspiration when you can conjure it yourself by actively opening your mind up each day to let new ideas come flowing in.

Download this resource article Writer’s Block: What It Is and How to Overcome It (pdf).

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1 MasterClass Staff. “Overcome Writer’s Block With Step-by-Step Guide and Writing Exercises.” MasterClass. https://www.masterclass.com/articles/what-is-writers-block-how-to-overcome-writers-block-with-step-by-step-guide-and-writing-exercises#what-is-writers-block

2 Konnikova, Maria. “How to Beat Writer’s Block.” The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/how-to-beat-writers-block

3 “How to Overcome Writer’s Block: 20 Helpful Tips.” reedsyblog. https://blog.reedsy.com/writers-block/

4 “Symptoms and Cures for Writer’s Block.” Purdue Owl. https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/general_writing/the_writing_process/writers_block/index.html

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