6 Ways to Overcome Writer’s Block That Work

December 1, 2022
Updated: Jan 08, 2023
6 Ways to Overcome Writer’s Block That Work

Writer's block. What is it? A psychological condition? A physical issue? An excuse to be lazy?

Whether or not you believe writer's block is real doesn't matter when you need to get an assignment done. What matters is how you deal with it in the moment, how you move past it to get that book, blog post, or Facebook ad copy written, and how you prevent it from happening over and over. As a professional writer, you must meet deadlines or suffer the consequences.

As with most things in life, the way to handle a problem is to acknowledge it exists, mindfully and actively understand the root cause and then find a workable solution. Although there's no singular agreed-upon definition of writer's block, Dr. Patricia Huston offers a spot-on description of how it feels: "a distinctly uncomfortable inability to write." It's vague, sure, but entirely relatable for anyone who has experienced it.

Here's the good news: kicking writer's block to the curb isn't hard once you acknowledge the underlying cause (psychological or otherwise) and find a way to combat it.

Causes of writer's block

An in-depth review of past qualitative and quantitative studies and literature concluded that writer's block could be triggered by one or more of the following:

  • Physiological causes which hinder cognitive processes, such as a lack of sleep, stress, or hunger
  • Motivational causes such as a fear of criticism or not enjoying the writing process
  • Cognitive causes that lead to poor planning or the need for perfection, which inhibits idea flow
  • Behavioral causes like procrastination and irregular schedules

Do any of those sound familiar? Do you find yourself unable to write after a poor night's sleep? Are you paralyzed by the thought of being judged and receiving soul-crushing critiques? In turn, does that cause you to put off writing until the last minute?

Don't beat yourself up if you answer yes. You are not the first person to feel that way, and you certainly won't be the last.

6 Strategies to help you deal with writer's block

What works for one person might not work for you. You might have to try a bunch of different strategies. That's okay. No one is watching. Remember that the best way to get past your writer's block will come from an honest conversation with yourself to identify your stumbling blocks and triggers.

1. Step away from your writing

If anxiety has taken over, deal with that feeling first. There's no point in sitting in front of a blank screen for hours while your heart races. In her book Fire Up Your Writing Brain, author Susan Reynolds explains that in response to anxiety, the brain releases stress hormones, causing your limbic system and cerebral cortex (which controls creativity) to stop communicating, essentially locking you out of your creative brain.

Studies have shown that after engaging in an activity that lets your mind wander, your brain is better able to make creative connections between pieces of information it already knows. Meditate, take a walk outside, or watch a few minutes of a standup comedy special. When I feel really blocked, I take my pup to the dog park because seeing dogs express unadulterated joy instantly destresses me (ah, animal therapy!). If you need to make a quick trip to the supermarket or have a lot of household chores to do, pick one and get it done. Or jump in the shower and embrace the science behind shower thoughts.

2. Stop thinking and just start writing

There's nothing more intimidating than a blank page and a blinking cursor that seems to be doing nothing but mocking you. If the intro is tripping you up, start in the middle. There's no right and wrong here. Nine times out of ten, you'll get inspired as you enter the process, and suddenly your piece starts to take shape.

According to screenwriter John Rogers:

"You can't think yourself out of a writing block; you have to write yourself out of a thinking block."

Write the first draft, even if it's messy. Don't judge yourself (we're often our own worst enemy) as you write it. No one ever needs to see that draft. From there, edit and move content around. Decide what's worth keeping and what needs to be addressed in more depth.

Perfectionism is known to prevent people from writing. You force yourself to write, but the first sentence you write is a few levels below what you expected. Editing and perfecting it is yet another obstacle. The solution here is to take that initial sentence and run it through an AI-writing tool like Wordtune.

In addition to choosing the better sentence, you will divide the two parts of writing into ideation and phrasing. As a result, you will gain the overall writing confidence you need to overcome writer's block.

3. Start researching and reading

Great writers don't just open their computers and magically draft something mind-blowing. They take the time to research their topics, whether they're writing a blog post about e-commerce consumer behaviors or a murder mystery.

David Burkas offers some cold comfort that may be just what you need to hear:

"You're not missing the words; you're missing the research. All ideas are a combination of preexisting ideas. So, if you're 'out' of new ideas, it's probably because you don't have enough old ideas to combine. Go back and read more. Or spend more time mapping out the book. Don't show up to the keyboard without a plan and then tell the world you have writer's block. You're lying to us, and to yourself."

If you're drawing a blank because you still need to develop your point of view, stop trying to write. Start researching again or find a few experts to talk to. You don't want to steal their ideas but build on them with your insights and offer your audience a new take on the topic.

Otherwise, if you have enough ideas but need help figuring out how to organize your thoughts, try creating a mind map. Some people will use an online platform like Miro. I prefer to write each on a sticky note and move them around on a table like puzzle pieces until I understand how to connect each idea. Also, the physical act of writing creates more brain activity and helps the brain make deeper connections.

Free Online Brainstorming Tool For Creative Teams | Miro

4. Forget about perfection

Perfection doesn't exist. You can always do something better or edit something further, but you have a deadline and time constraint.

Ted Kooser once shared one of the best pieces of advice he ever received, and since he's a Poet Laureate, he must be doing something right:

"William Stafford, one of our great poets, said that the best thing to do about writer's block is to lower your standard, and it's the best advice to give someone who's stalled."

I'm not saying to turn in sloppy work. Instead, focus on producing excellent work that you're proud of, and don't let the elusive concept of perfection petrify you.

5. Set a schedule

There's no perfect time to write. Whether you choose to schedule your writing first thing in the morning or super late at night, it doesn't matter; the only thing that matters is that it's during a time when you feel productive. You need to find that sweet spot and block out that time to get to work.

Once you know your most productive hours, block those out for writing tasks. If you work in an office, mark your calendar as busy, so co-workers don't interrupt you. Put your phone on Do Not Disturb. Close all those tempting Google tabs and get to it during that time, even if it feels difficult.

Need more structure? Many productivity experts tout the benefits of the Pomodoro technique; however, I've never found 25-minute concentration sessions beneficial for writing. If you're like author Tony Schwartz (or me), you might find more success with 90-minute sprints, which closely reflect our body's natural rhythms known as the ultradian rhythm.

6. Reward yourself

A recent study found that people who were frequently rewarded after completing small tasks enjoyed their work more than those who were rewarded when a long project was completed. Additionally, when people were rewarded early on in the process, they were more engaged and had a more positive attitude, causing them to be more motivated and produce better work.

So, reward yourself during each break if you choose to use one of the timed techniques. When you have to write 25 Google Ads, treat yourself each time you finish five.

Neuroscience: Your brain on writer's block

Your brain is a complex organ that is also somehow incredibly organized enough to control your thoughts, emotions, motor skills, breathing, and every other function by sending different chemical and electrical signals to your body.

Writing combines two tasks – using language and telling a story. When you write, two different areas of the brain are at work. On the left side of your brain, within the frontal lobe, is Broca's area, the part responsible for language. If this area is damaged, you would be diagnosed with aphasia and would have trouble actually understanding and forming words verbally. If you can write and express yourself under normal circumstances, this is not the cause of your writer's block, so say goodbye to the 'I just can't write right now' excuse.

What's plaguing you could stem from the inability to connect concepts and form a story – a key skill you need to have, regardless of whether you're writing non-fiction, how-to-guides, or crafting a brand story. In one study, scientists observed participants' brain activity during the two phases of the creative writing process: brainstorming and creative writing. During both stages, the language areas of the frontal lobe showed increased activity.

However, while brainstorming, participants showed additional activity in the parietal-frontal-temporal network, which is responsible for planning, problem-solving, manipulating information, and decision-making. When participants worked on the creative writing task, the motor and visual brain areas that control handwriting lit up, as did the temporal lobe, which controls automatic responses such as fear, other emotions, and fight or flight response.

Social and natural science agree that controlling your emotions and being in a good mental state can beat back the dreaded writer's block.

What the pros say about writer's block

When it comes to professional writers, there are two main camps: those who believe writer's block is a complete farce and those who understand how fear and perfectionism fuel the fire. Maybe some of their wise words will create an 'ah-ha' moment for you that will help you cure your own block.

One of my favorite quotes comes from author Philip Pullman:

"All writing is difficult. The most you can hope for is a day when it goes reasonably easily. Plumbers don't get plumber's block, and doctors don't get doctor's block; why should writers be the only profession that gives a special name to the difficulty of working and then expects sympathy for it?"

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld isn't a believer either:

"Writer's block is a phony, made up BS excuse for not doing your work."

Honestly, it's hard to argue with Pullman and Seinfeld's thinking. Writing is a demanding job, but so are plenty of other professions, and none of them get a free pass. That said, as someone who has experienced writer's block, many times it feels like a real issue.

On the other side of the aisle is one of my favorite self-help authors, Mark Mason, who, in his typical tone, says:

"Writer's block is just another name for anxiety. People always have something else to say. It's not like you ever run out of ideas. There's just a filter in our brains where we decide what is "worthy" of being put down on paper, and when that filter gets too strong (due to high expectations or fear of being judged or whatever), few ideas will get through it. This happens to me at times, and I just have to remind myself to chill out, get over myself (or my ego) and trust the process to take care of everything."

And Erica Jong:

"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."

If you agree with these two writers (and the science), that might give you more insight into your writer's block.

The point is that, regardless of how they feel about writer's block, they all push through and get work done. That's what you need to do too. Now, let's see how you can bulldoze through because you've got a job to do!

Write more, stress less

Everyone has work challenges and has doubts about their output, writer or not. The more you stress, the harder it will be to move forward, so be kind to yourself. Having writer's block doesn't make you a bad writer - it's just another challenge to face. Learn which processes work for you and follow them. Embrace the creative chaos.

As Tony Robbins says, 'The secret of success is learning how to use pain and pleasure instead of having pain and pleasure use you. If you do that, you're in control of your life. If you don't, life controls you.'

This article was co-written with Wordtune. Wordtune didn’t write the whole piece. Instead, it contributed ideas, suggested rephrasing alternatives, maintained consistency in tone, and of course - made the process much more fun for the writer.

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