Whether an author believes that writer’s block is a cognitive inhibition of what to write or an excuse for procrastination, there are times when it is tough to write. Numerous things can interfere with writing, such as stress, deadlines, meeting others’ agendas, perfectionism, fear, distractions,1, 2, & 3 or even the lack of pressure can start writer’s block reduce creative momentum.
Causes of Writer’s Block
The stress of perfectionism to the point that each line and every sentence must be overhauled before moving to the next sentence results in lost momentum and leads to an unfinished writing project.
Fear can immobilize a writer, often driven by self-doubt or negative self-talk, asking and enhancing the belief that “I can’t do this…,” or “Who am I, to think I can write this work…” Fear of critique by others can overwhelm, particularly if combined with the need to make it perfect before anyone sees the work.
Distractions, another form of procrastination interferes with productivity. Attending to social media or responding to calls and texts that can wait are time wasters and do not advance the writing agenda. Time constraints effect writing outcomes when the writing schedule is not the best for fostering creativity. When do your richest brainstorms occur? Early morning? Middle of the night? Mid-afternoon? Consider arranging the schedule to write when you are most productive.
The opposite of time pressure is having too much time on our hands and feeling like “I have all the time in the world.” Procrastination sets in, not as a deliberate attempt to avoid writing, but as a false sense of having no time pressure. When this occurs, perhaps it is time to adjust the personal writing schedule and take the road less traveled.
Fixing Writer’s Block
Getting a draft on the page is one way to move out of writer’s block. Perhaps at that time, we might explore something totally different, allowing ourselves permission to have a short downtime or break from what we are writing. Find something on your, “I’d like to do but just haven’t gotten around to it” list, such as going for a walk, watching a movie you wanted to see, reading a book in a genre you don’t normally read, or having a night on the town with a loved one or friend. Allowing our self, the freedom and flexibility to engage in something that's creative and separate from the writing project reduces the pressure that freezes our mind. Then, returning to the writing allows fresh eyes to take over fulling the writing task. Separating from what you're doing is another way of helping yourself find those creative brainstorms.
Sometimes scaling the wall of writing means finding a friend to lean a ladder against the wall so we can obtain the needed support to continue upward and over the hurdle. Sometimes we need to hang in the air a moment to catch our breath to lift the fog and create a moment of relief in the writing experience.
A constructive work-life balance allows us to try something that produces a little excitement, a challenge, a change of environment or writing space, allowing refocus of time on the writing goal.4 Freedom to explore helps to bolster our creative side and our writing. The needed breather allows a refreshing of the writing without changing the direction and flow of the desired accomplishment.
There are occasions when writer’s block is not about any of the reasons above, but perhaps is a Lack of Knowledge requiring further research. For example, while writing a mystery scene that takes place in Concord, NH and personally never been there, maybe it is time to schedule a flight to visit the environment or go online and learn about the location before writing about the setting. Lack of knowledge can be a distracter and a means of procrastination contributing to writer’s block. It can also be a necessary detour that furthers exploration and expansion of knowledge before continuing down the writing path.
Two options exist, at least in my mind, between writer’s block when I don’t know what to write versus procrastination where I choose to do any and everything other than write. Terri and I, as co-authors, help each other with getting each other unstuck through conversation about a scene or story line. For example, if I’ve grounded to zero on writing a scene in our fictional series, Nurseketeers, I can call Terri. We discuss the plan for the scene, and the conversation gets me back on track, renewing my enthusiasm and energizing me to write again. This motivating conversation is a proverbial kick in the seat of the pants to moving forward with writing. Do you have a writing coach, maybe a spouse who is an advocate of your writing, or friend who can listen and help put you back on track?
We also use goals as a motivator for us. We meet weekly and set action goals for the following week. Neither of us wants to disappoint the other, so this driving goal helps us achieve the targeted outcome for the week. The carrot is the acknowledgement and self-satisfaction of completing the goal.
At other moments, I find myself truly procrastinating. There is nothing standing in my way of writing, but I choose not to write. Occasionally, if I understand the material, know what I want and need to write, and time is on my side, I may still delay writing. I believe this is because I know how much time it will take to complete the task and I intentionally chose to procrastinate because I can. During these times, I find I mull over what am writing in my head often during a daily walk. There is, however, a point of no return on the timeline, when I know if I do not write, I will not have time to complete the draft.
Stress, particularly time, works in both positive and negative directions. Too much stress creates inaction and too little stress produces the same level of inaction. Finding the right balance of time and stress for best writing keeps the muse active and the writing flowing onto the page.
When a writing project is overwhelming and stifling progress, focus on it as a project manager would, by dividing it into small achievable bits. When all the bits are organized, celebrate the creative and massive tome of work accomplished. It does not matter the size of the writing project; it does matter how one can accomplish the task of writing.
Whether an author is a plotter (detailed outliner) or a pantser (seat of the pants writer) doesn’t matter; focusing on incremental steps of writing does matter. For example, if the goal is to write one scene or blog for the day, a plotter might capture copious annotated notes in an outline before writing. A pantser may have a general idea and direction and sit down at the computer and allow the free flow from mind to fingertips, taking the story where it needs to go and achieving the outcome. There is no procrastination nor writer’s block in that process, and both plotter and pantser achieved their writing goal for the day.
Completing a simple task such as placing a header on the page, opening a writing template, and saving it to the new file name marking it as the scene under construction can help with soothing the lines of writer’s block. Basically, any action on the writing task can help. Terri and I use a consistent writing template with a header, font and size, paragraph formatting, and file nomenclature, therefore, saving time as we individually write our assigned scenes for the book. The simple act of opening the template, changing the header to the new scene number and title and saving the file is action that can help me move towards writing the draft. Some may say that type of activity is nothing more than a brain game, but if so, it works. It helps me by allowing me to perceive (or fake me out) that I have accomplished something useful and helps me move forward with the real writing. In a way, it is a procrastination, but it is a technique that advances the goal.
The creative author, Julia Cameron’s book “The Artist Way”5 provides a 12-week course on overcoming artists’ (writer’s) block and rediscovering one’s creative self. During one week she asked the reader to put aside all reading other than essential elements such as “must dos” at work. No social reading at all. When I did this, I found myself placing any and all reading from work in the “must do” category. Something about telling myself that I cannot do it caused me to miss the act of reading terribly, and I found ways to circumvent the no reading rule almost daily. I stayed away from reading outside work but had to fill the time with other things because I felt like I was depriving myself of something important. Perhaps doing something similar as authors, such as saying for one week, I cannot write anything unless it is a “must do” for work (external employer, not our writing as an author) can have a positive effect spurring us to value the writing in a different way. An alternate option might be, I can write nothing but can use the recorder to record my thoughts. Do you see that alternative as a work around to the rule, or a detour that allows you to engage creativity?
Finding that element of creative freshness that we didn't have for a moment is what must come to the forefront. Using whatever it takes, including mind tricks and games, to rejuvenate, reduce stress, and reconnect us to the writing with fresh eyes is both the challenge and excitement to prevent writer’s block.
TAKE ACTION TODAY
If you normally reduce stress or the foreboding sense of writer’s block by walking and it does not seem to be working, perhaps it is time to go for a swim or go to the movies instead. I challenge you to do something outside of your norm. Journal about the nuances of the day, the people watched, look around and see what is not being seen. Dream up and write two short scenarios/paragraphs about two people you saw on your last walk. Make one sinister and the other loving. Explore their chance encounter.
Another option is drawing a set of 6-12 pictures one per 3x3 sticky note. Then juggle them and write a new story from the images.4
The story may not matter, but the act of writing something that is totally different, maybe even frivolous, can tilt the balance away from writer’s block and back to an engaged writer.
Enjoy the freedom to choose to write again by taking control, writing, and then celebrating the action taken.
Horwitz, E. B., Stenfors, C. & Osika, W. (2018). “Writer’s block revisited: A micro-phenomenological case study on the blocking influence of an internalized voice.” Journal of Consciousness Studies. 25 (3-4), p 9-28
Bastug, M., Ertem, I.S., Keskin, H.K. (2017). “A phenomenological research study on writer’s block: causes, processes, and results.” Education + Training. (6), p605-618.
Duistermatt, H. Writer’s Block: 27 techniques to overcome it forever. https://smartblogger.com/writers-block/ Retrieved May 27, 2019.
Baker, J. & Goodman, T. (2019).A, B, & Cs of author partnering. Baker & Goodman, Watauga, TX.
Cameron, J. (1992). The artist way. Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam Books, New York, NY.