Writer’s Block: 5 Ways to Overcome ItApr 28, 2021
“Why can’t I write?” As writers, that’s a common question we ask ourselves.
We want to write, but sometimes the words just don’t come. Good news: curing writer’s block is as easy as diagnosing the cause and applying the right treatment.
Like any ailment, the first step is identifying the cause. There are 5 main reasons why we stall while writing. Each reason has a unique, highly effective treatment. Identify what’s causing your writer’s block, and apply the cure listed below.
Which of these is the reason you can’t write?
- Fear of Failure
- Lack of Inspiration
- Lack of Direction
1. Fear of Failure
Are you afraid you won’t be a successful author? That fear can be paralyzing.
The Cause: Fear is often caused by our inner critic telling us we aren’t good enough to accomplish our goals. For many of us, that critic is constantly pointing out what we’re doing wrong and how our efforts might be in vain.
Inner critics can be relentless. If you take them seriously, they can tear down your confidence and leave you unable to proceed.
The Cure: You might not be able to silence your inner critic, but there’s a simple way to make it less intimidating. Try this. Give your inner critic a voice that you can’t possibly take seriously.
For example, every time my inner critic starts talking, I change its voice to match that of Charlie Brown’s teacher. You know the one. It’s the voice that says, “Wah wah wah wah, wah wah wah.” Try it. Your inner critic might say, “You’re not good enough. Give up now.” Translate that to, “Wah wah wah wah. Wah wah wah.”
If the “wah” voice doesn’t work for you, try another one. Whether you choose the voice of Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, or some other silly character, it should help you discredit any disparaging comments.
It’s hard to take a critic seriously when it talks in a goofy voice. With this trick, see if you can disarm those critical comments. Plus, you might even get a chuckle when you imagine that critic speaking to you.
Do you believe everything you write must be free from errors? After all, what’s the point of writing if it isn’t perfect?
The Cause: If you believe every word, every paragraph, and every chapter you write must be perfect, you probably have a debilitating case of perfectionism. Sometimes perfectionism can be a good thing. It drives us to write books that people will want to read. But often, it can be debilitating.
Striving for perfection is an impossible standard to achieve, and it stops many writers dead in their tracks. There is a time for perfectionism, but as I’ll explain, it’s not while you’re writing.
The Cure: Don’t dismiss your perfectionism entirely. It will be useful later in the process. Just disable it until your first draft is done.
Accept that your first draft shouldn’t be perfect. In fact, give yourself permission to write complete crap. After all, first drafts are … well … first drafts. The more you write, the more raw material you’ll have to work with. Then you can rearrange, refine, and perfect that raw material later.
Try this when you’re writing: think of it as dumping raw material out of your head. Transfer those ideas into written form without trying to put them into clear, cohesive sentences. Your raw material will get refined and perfected in the editing process, which will come later.
The best writing comes from putting incomplete and imperfect ideas on paper (or into your computer). If you wait until each idea is fully formed, it might never get out of your head.
Writing a perfect first draft is impossible for most of us. The process of writing imperfect thoughts, organizing them, and refining them is what makes a great book, not writing something perfectly the first time.
So, give yourself permission to write imperfectly.
3. Lack of Direction
Have you come to a place in your book where you don’t know what should happen next? That lack of direction can feel like you’ve reached a dead end, and there’s no way to proceed.
The Cause: Lack of direction happens when the story we want to tell is unclear in our minds. It’s a common occurrence, especially for pantsers. What’s a pantser? It’s someone who writes by the seat of their pants. They don’t plan their stories ahead of time. They just write whatever comes to mind.
Pantsers are highly susceptible to experiencing a series of “lack of direction” dead ends. Plotters, on the other hand, have a sense of direction. These are people who plot out their story before writing their first draft.
The Cure: If you’re a pantser, you might not want to hear this. The cure for “lack of direction” is to plot. If you don’t know which direction to go next, it’s time to start planning ahead. You don’t need a fancy, alphanumeric outline with Roman numerals and such. You just need a few bullet points to get you going.
Think of writing a book as planning a long journey. You’re the tour guide, and your readers are the travelers. You need to share the details to hold their attention before they reach their destination.
If you don’t plan that journey and you don’t know the destination, you won’t know how to guide your travelers. However, if you know your destination, you can plan some interesting activities along the way. Once you know what those ideas are, you can figure out the details.
Try this. Before writing your first draft, write one sentence that describes each chapter in your book. If you do this for every chapter, you’ll always know what comes next.
But won’t this stifle your creativity? What’s worse, planning the journey you’ll take your readers on or stalling because you don’t know where you’re going. If your writer’s block is caused by lack of direction, your best way out of it is to plan your story so you always know where to take your readers next.
4. Lack of Inspiration
Do you feel like you can’t come up with interesting ideas? Maybe you have a good topic, but the details aren’t coming to you. If that’s the case, you might be suffering from a lack of inspiration.
The Cause: Lack of inspiration is often caused by lack of input. As writers, our brains need information and ideas to generate output. Without input, there won’t be output.
The Cure: When you don’t feel inspired, it might be time to fill your brain with input. Try to find something that will help your mind generate more ideas that you can turn into content for your book.
For nonfiction writers, this typically involves research. Read articles, watch videos, or interview people who have information about your topic. For example, when I was writing about publishing books, I wasn’t inspired to write a chapter about proofreading. I watched five or six YouTube videos with tips for proofreading. My brain absorbed that information, processed it, and reinterpreted it. Then I was ready to start writing again.
This can be more challenging for fiction writers. Since direct research might be less relevant for fiction, you might need to seek inspiration in more creative ways. Try looking at artwork or listening to music that relates to the story you’re trying to tell. For example, if you’re writing a romance novel set in 1920, look at photos from that era. If you’re writing a futuristic sci-fi book, look at futuristic artwork for inspiration.
I have one student who was writing a mystery novel set in 1970. For inspiration, he would listen to music, read news articles, and watch movies from that timeframe.
Be careful not to read books or watch movies that are too similar to the topic you’re writing about. You don’t want to find that you’re copying ideas from those sources. Instead, try to find content that is one step removed from your book. For example, look at paintings or listen to music related to your topic.
If you read books, find ones that were written in the timeframe of your story but are in a different category. For example, if you’re writing a romance novel set in 1500, reading a history book about that era might be a good idea. Reading a romance novel set during that timeframe might be a bad idea if you want to avoid copying someone else’s work.
I find that this process of simply gathering content related to my book topic triggers the inspiration needed to continue writing. See if it works for you.
Are you feeling too stressed to write? Maybe you have a busy job, bills to pay, family obligations, or other things weighing on you and you can’t relax your mind.
The Cause: Stress is typically caused by the pressure we put on ourselves. If you’re feeling stressed about any aspect of your life, it can be nearly impossible to focus on writing.
The Cure: While it’s not realistic to remove all stressors from our lives, finding a way to relax can certainly help before sitting down to write. There are as many ways to de-stress as there are ways to become stressed.
What helps you to relax? It might be as simple as putting on some comforting music, drinking a glass of wine, or taking a warm shower.
Is the process of writing your book stressing you out? If that’s the case, do something different. I often walk my dogs when I feel stressed. After breathing fresh air and getting a bit of exercise, I’m typically ready to resume writing.
Distractions can cause stress and prevent you from writing. If that’s happening to you, it might be time to find your “quiet place.” Maybe it’s a specific room in your house or a nearby coffee shop. Some writers go as far as booking a cabin where they can escape from civilization. Others find that going to a library or a hotel lobby is far enough from distractions for them.
The Bottom Line
If writer’s block is shutting down your productivity, it’s time to diagnose the cause and apply the proper treatment.
The ultimate cure for writer’s block is to write. By definition, to be a writer you must write. Remember your writing doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t even have to be good. It just needs to get done. Remember, you can always go back to re-write, refine, and rework during the editing process. Diagnose the cause, apply the cure, and you’ll be back up and writing in no time!
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