how to overcome writer's block woman writing in a notebook

Writer’s block is that phenomenon when you feel stuck in your story and don’t see a way forward in your writing.

It happens to the best of us.

And more important than avoiding writer’s block altogether, is learning how to deal with it constructively when it happens.

The process for every writer is different, and even the process to move through each writer’s block is different.

Several things trigger writer’s block.

Some people think it stems from a lack of talent or ideas. Do not listen to those people.

Back in the 1970s, Yale researchers Jerome Singer and Michael Barrios studied a group of “blocked” professional writers from screenwriters to poets, and they found that self-doubt is a large part of writer’s block.

After several months, they concluded the four main triggers of writer’s block:

Apathy: these writers felt constrained by the “rules” of writing and struggled to find their creative spark.

I often see this happen when a writer tries to take on board all well-meaning, but ultimately detrimental, advice given by other people who aren’t there to advocate for a stronger narrative or more engaging characters.

If you find yourself on the receiving end of advice that is attempting to overwrite your voice and how you feel the story needs to be told for maximum impact, run the other way.

Anger: these writers were often narcissistic and would get angry if something they created went unnoticed.

When all you want is yes-men to look at your story and praise your work, regardless of quality, don’t ask for feedback. Only show your work to people who you know will tell you they love it and tell you what a good girl you are.

Issues with others: these writers didn’t want their writing to be compared to others’ work, resulting in a fear of writing anything at all.

Confidence in writing comes from practice. Lots of it. If you feel like your work isn’t living up to the (often arbitrary) standards you’ve set for yourself, keep writing and don’t stop. There will come a day when you can look back at your work and see that it wasn’t at all what you thought at the moment.

Anxiety: these writers worried they weren’t good enough.

Being concerned with your working being good enough is a good sign that you’re on the right path. It’s usually the writers who suffer from the Dunning-Kruger effect that don’t have any reason to question the quality of their work.

The solution? Add more narrative tools to your toolbox and how to apply them, brush up on your story theory, and just keep writing more.

Writer’s block is basically just emotions. And emotions are data.

If something feels off, that means something is off. The best thing you can do is to learn how to observe yourself and parse the information feed you’re constantly being fed about your story.

Sometimes it’s information about something not working in your story. Other times, it’s a sign that you’re not managing your creative resources properly.

Creativity is a limited resource and you can’t pour from an empty cup.

If you want to make a living with writing, you need to learn how to manage that resource and recognise when it needs a top up.

How to make friends with your writer’s block.

  • Take a break. Get away from the thing that’s making you feel stuck and do something else for a while. When your creative energy for that project begins to return, go back and try again. Time is an essential part of the creative process.
  • Do something different. Your brain has evolved to thrive on periodic change – you are descended from nomads, after all. That means that when you go do something else, you get a hit of dopamine which will unlock your brain for creative work again. So, go for a walk. Do the laundry. Watch a movie. Go live your life for a bit before coming back again.
  • Jump ahead. If you feel stuck in a specific spot, you can jump ahead to where it feels easier and come back to fill in the holes later. You don’t even have to know how they’ll fit together, the important thing is to keep going. You can always rewrite later.
  • Set a deadline for yourself. But only if this works for you, deadlines don’t work for everyone. But if you find that setting a deadline creates a positive time pressure that aids in your focus, forcing you to make decisions you may have been avoiding, go for it.
  • Read your work with fresh eyes. If you feel stuck, go back to the beginning of your story and read it through. This can make it obvious where you’ve gone off track. It’ll also remind you why you fell in love with this story in the first place – enjoying your story is an essential part of writing it because if you’re not enjoying writing it, no one else will enjoy reading it.
  • Make your process more visual. Unsure of how to continue a section or chapter? Turn to diagrams, sticky notes, sheets, or just plain pen and paper and start doodling. Sometimes, visualising the problem can really help as it allows you to work through the problem. Pen and paper are especially good for engaging your brain better. My favourite way to work things out on paper is with a pen and notebook because it improves your focus (up to 3x), memory retention (up to 13%) and idea generation (up to 4x) – click here to grab a notebook from my shop, if you want.
  • Do something thoroughly mundane to generate a state of white noise in your brain. Monotonous tasks like cleaning, showering, exercising, vacuuming, and so on make your brain go on autopilot, leaving the creative side free to daydream about all kinds of things—including how to solve the issue that’s causing your writer’s block. If you want a day job, brick-layer is the perfect kind of job for a writer looking for space to think.
  • Free-write or journal dump. This is good advice for any kind of issue you’re grappling with. Your brain was designed to be a thinking tool, not a storage device, so dumping out all those things you’re trying to hang on to will clear out overwhelmed cognitive capacity and make it available for thinking again. Write without pausing to worry about sentence structure, grammar, spelling, or whether it makes sense or not. Just write without second guessing anything. While most of it will be unusable, it’s a good way to push through the block.

Other ways to get your brain moving again

When you find yourself staring at a blank page and don’t know what to write, use writing exercises and prompts to jog your brain into fulfilling a task.

If free-writing isn’t doing it for you, one of these things might help instead:

Sometimes you just get too caught up in the rules and structure of writing.

Try to write as if you’re talking to your BFF. Explain a scene as if you’re chatting with a friend in a bar and you need to get them to relate to the scene you’re working on.

If that won’t cut it, you can also write a letter, email, text, whatever as one of your characters to another character (whether the other character is “on” or “off” screen in your novel).

You never know, you may end up with something useful for your novel!

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