‘Writer’s block’ – an impasse that stops your writing progress – a square, heavy weight. What causes writer’s block, the feeling of being unable to move forwards in your writing? And how can you fix it? Try these simple ways to get writing again:
5 strategies to beat writer’s block
- What causes writer’s block? Examples
- Prepare what you need to write
- Make time until it’s organic
- Cure writer’s block with freewriting
- Build accountability
- Prioritize freedom over control, to start
What causes writer’s block? Examples
Published authors’ thoughts on the causes of writer’s block include:
a) Fear and feeling stifled
For example, fear of writing on off-limit subjects or parts of your life may stifle writing.
The late author, journalist and winner of the Caine Prize for African writing, Binyavanga Wainaina, has an incisive voice on topics such as politics and race. For example, in his oft-cited essay for Granta, ‘How to Write about Africa.’
In writing about deciding to come out, despite the dangers involved, Wainaina said:
There’s no point for me in being a writer and having all these blocked places where I feel I can’t think freely and imagine freely. There just really is no point.Binyavanga Wainaina, quoted by The New York Times here.
This same principle applies to any writing, any storytelling.
The courage to be true to yourself and authentic is vital for telling the stories that you’re passionate about.
Having to hide parts of your identity, passions or beliefs may vie with the stories you want to tell for focus and energy.
Getting ready to write often mean taking time to learn who you are. What matters to you? It also requires finding the courage to let others know, too.
b) Material doubt or self-doubt
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, the Indian-American author of One Amazing Thing and Mistress of Spices, once described how not being confident in elements of your story material creates writer’s block:
Often, writer’s block will occur when I don’t understand a character or his/her motivations. So I will make notes analysing characters.Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, quoted in The Hindu here.
Lack of confidence comes from an insecurity, which in turn comes from not knowing. Not knowing what a character might do next. Or not knowing how an audience may receive your book, persona, or performance.
If you were to survey people about what causes writer’s block, many would say ‘low confidence’ or a variant of this. We have, and it’s an oft-cited cause.
Remember, doubt – whether in yourself or your material – is a sign you have something to learn. That there is preparation and work still to do.
Staying curious and open to learning (and embarassing yourself, falling down and getting up again) is key to gaining confidence. That and preparation.
c) Trouble in the writing process
A third cause of writer’s block is just as common, as the other two, if not more: problematic process.
Do you start a story and get bored fast, chasing the new bright shiny idea?
Or have you decided you’re a pantser and rush in headlong, only to find by the end of the first act you don’t know where to take your story next?
R.L Stine (prolific author of the Goosebumps horror books) shared this about how he avoids writer’s block:
I start out with a complete list of my characters. What they look like, what their basic personalities are. Then I have my outline. The outline has the beginning of the book, the middle, it’s got the ending. I know where I’m going to go. If you have an outline, it’s very hard to have writer’s block because you know where to go next.R.L. Stine, in ‘Combating Writer’s Block and Developing Routines’ for MasterClass.
‘Process Problems’ – procedural challenges – do not mean you’re a bad writer. They are not insurmountable.
Identifying what causes writer’s block – the offending part of your process – is the first step.
Next, try these 5 strategies to beat writer’s block:
Prepare what you need to write
Maybe you’re not a plotter.
Maybe you enjoy the wild rush, or the living-on-a-prayer nature of writing a rough draft with no compass to guide you.
However you prefer to prepare, do at least some prep work.
For example, try making a complete set of character profiles.
[The Now Novel dashboard simplifies writing character profiles using easy, step-by-step prompts. Try them out.]
Include characters’ goals, appearances, strengths and shortcomings. Gather ideas – you don’t have to use them all. Yet it doesn’t hurt to do it.
Once you have character profiles like this, or whatever other preparation you need, you’ll be well on your way to writing with freedom.
Make time until it’s organic
Many writers dismiss the idea of writer’s block entirely.
Those who have not felt stuck before are lucky. They may have a natural gift and a confidence they have earned the hard way (or not at all!).
What writers say, however, about why they don’t suffer from writer’s block is interesting.
The popular family saga author Jodi Picoult, for example, told The Daily Beast [article is paywalled]:
I don’t believe in writer’s block. Think about it—when you were blocked in college and had to write a paper, didn’t it always manage to fix itself the night before the paper was due? Writer’s block is having too much time on your hands. If you have a limited amount of time to write, you just sit down and do it. You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.Jodi Picoult, in conversation with The Daily Beast.
What Picoult is getting at about what causes writer’s block is the idea of urgency.
Without urgency, actions require more motivation.
People running from a burning building don’t need any prompting. The motivation is inherent to the situation.
The same, to a lesser degree of life-or-death, applies to editors breathing down your neck!
Writing does not always feel as though it has that urgency. But you don’t have to set anything on fire.
Instead, create a schedule and be ruthless in showing up and prioritizing the time you give yourself to write, even if it’s 10 minutes per day to begin.
Cure writer’s block with freewriting
A member in the Now Novel critique groups shared how freewriting has been instrumental to getting her story going.
And it’s true – in the first years of any creative training, acquiring freedom is a vital part of training.
Just as an athlete must feel free to long-jump into hard sand, you need to acquire the faith for your writing to leap across the page towards any possible landing.
Freewriting helps build this freedom by taking self-judgment and indecision out of the writing process.
5-minute exercise: using freewriting to fix writer’s block
Pick a subject you don’t know much about (one that would make you say ‘I don’t know enough to write about this!’).
Set a timer for 5 minutes and open a blank document.
Write anything that comes into your head while thinking about that subject for 5 minutes. Don’t judge grammar, ‘beauty’, sense, argument, cohesion. Just write. Find your favourite line when time’s up and write it down somewhere to recycle, if you like.
Many authors who join Now Novel coaching share a desire for accountability when asked what they’d like from their coach.
Accountability to your goals is often difficult to maintain by yourself.
Without someone checking in on how things are going, it’s easy to come to a standstill.
One of the reasons having a coach or a personal trainer works is because there’s someone who’s invested in your goals, cheering you on (and helping you find solutions when writer’s block strikes). There’s also someone helping you make the hard choices. Asking intelligent and informed questions.
This helps to weather discouraging moments in your creative path.
As Now Novel member Grayson put it:
In the past … I tended to get stuck on these choices, lose confidence, and give up on my stories.Grayson, via Now Novel’s member reviews on TrustSpot
Whether it’s a coach, a writing buddy, or a small writing group online, find people who believe in your growth and serve it.
Prioritize freedom over control, to start
As writers, many of us are perfectionists or control freaks.
To be able to write at all, it’s crucial to let go. To let your first draft be rubbish.
An example anecdote:
A singing teacher had a new student during the COVID-19 lockdown.
The student found 5 times out of 10 they could anticipate how a sound would come out, which was more frequent than before. So they mentioned they were glad to feel improving control.
The teacher said:
I want you to think not of control, but of freedom. Like a dam bursting and sound pouring out. The first year is about learning freedom; you only start working on control at university around second year.
Acquiring control in your writing is similar.
Practice writing and storytelling often. Read as much as you can, as widely as you can.
Both of these will help you build your control, naturally, as you develop the freedom to explore, imagine, and capture surprising and beautiful moments on the page.
Beat writer’s block: Get help from an experienced writing coach.