How to Beat the 3 Types of Writer’s Block

image of woman with writer's block

It’s just about the least fun part of being a writer, and one of the big stumbling blocks a lot of businesses face with content marketing.

You never seem to have enough ideas.

Or you have a bunch of ideas, but you don’t quite get around to writing them.

Or you start a dozen different projects, and manage to finish half a page on each one.

It’s maddening, and it’s got to stop.

And then, some non-writer rolls his eyes at you and says something trite like …

“You know, plumbers don’t get plumber’s block”

Well, duh.

I’m no plumber, but I’d imagine that unblocking a sink is pretty much like doing housework — it might not be fun, but it’s not exactly fraught with creative uncertainty.

Writing is different.

When you write, you pluck ideas out of your head, impose order upon them, and translate them into black marks on a screen.

And you hope that those black marks will mean something. They’ll teach, or entertain, or persuade.They’ll touch the lives of people you’ve never met.

Writing takes focus. Dedication. Energy.

And, sometimes, you’ll get stuck.

The 3 causes of writer’s block

No writer in the world feels inspired every single time they sit down to put words on a page.

Sure, you’ll have had moments when the words flew from your fingertips, almost without conscious thought. But more often, it comes a little more slowly.

You chew the end of a pen. You check Twitter. You delete two sentences. You check Twitter again. And then you find your stride, and get a draft written.

That’s a pretty normal day.

But some days are harder. You try to get started. You try. But you can’t face putting down words. You feel almost sick at the idea.

Why?

There are three types of blocks you’ll face on those tough days.

1: External blocks — when real life intrudes

Family trauma. Financial struggles. Childcare issues. All sorts of non-writing factors can tank your productivity and get in the way of your work.

Sometimes you can battle through. Sometimes it helps to lose yourself in the words.

Sometimes you can’t.

This is the easy one. It’s actually okay to take a break from writing. In fact, it’s often good. Tackle the real-world problems that are blocking you, and come back to your work with a clear head and fresh eyes.

2: Internal blocks — your emotional state

Stage fright. Perfectionism. Fear of trolls. Your worries fill your head and stop the words from getting out.

If you’re terrified of “getting it wrong,” it’s almost impossible to write.

There’s no quick fix for this one, but there are ways to make it easier:

  • Write a journal that only you will see — work through your struggles on paper
  • Write something deliberately bad
  • Write every day, but remember you don’t have to publish every day … give each piece of writing the Rule of 24 and see if it holds up
  • Remember that everyone’s first drafts are crap

3: The writing itself — you’re good and stuck

This is where writer’s block gets tricky.

Sometimes, the problem isn’t you. It’s what you’re writing.

  • You’re six chapters into your novel, and your main character is irritating the hell out of you.
  • You’ve been blogging for a year and you realize that if you write one more post on your topic, you’ll scream.
  • Your sales page just doesn’t seem to come together — however many times you redraft it.

Whatever the problem, you want it fixed.

You want to keep going, but you’re stuck.

So you do what you think will help. You sit down, religiously, and you write. You force out some words. You tell yourself the cliche about Plumber’s Block again.

It doesn’t help.

What you need to do is take a big step back from your work.

Get ruthless

If your writing isn’t on the right path, there’s no productivity tip or trick that will help you.

The only way out is to get truly honest with yourself.

Does your novel need a new cast? Or a new plot? Maybe it should be a short story or a screenplay or a video game.

Are you still interested in the topic you’re blogging about? Do you still feel driven to serve the readers you’ve attracted? Are you still learning and growing in your topic?

You may be able to rekindle that spark and fall in love with your blog all over again. Or it may be time to change gears. You don’t necessarily need to retire the blog, but it may be time to bring a writing partner in who has the energy you’re lacking.

Is your sales page promoting a product you really believe in? Is there something in the product or service that makes you hesitate when you promote it? Do you know who your buyers are? Are you solving a problem they care about? Are you solving a problem you care about?

It’s hard to get this kind of perspective on your own. When I’m stuck, I ask around in Third Tribe or on Twitter.

Sure, it’s scary to share something which you know isn’t quite right. It’s hard to be ruthless with yourself and face the uncomfortable stuff.

But it’s the fastest way to smash through a block and get moving again.

About the Author: As well as bouncing around the blogosphere with guest posts, Ali Luke blogs about writing and the writing life at her home base, Aliventures. If you’re looking for a dose of writing motivation, try her most-tweeted post, 7 Habits of Serious Writers.


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Comments

  1. Writers block is such a frustrating experience.
    You almost want to just write something just to write something.
    At times, that strategy works. Starting to write just any old idea can spark a concept in your mind you were not thinking about a moment ago.

  2. “What you need to do is take a big step back from your work.”

    Excellent advice! Sometimes we just get in our own way. Sometimes the best thing you can do is just walk away and forget about it. Come back with a fresh eye.

    • Nick,

      “A fresh eye” is the key. Sometimes our brain needs a break.

      Which could lead to “procrastination”. But there are those times when you’re under pressure to get something written that the magic happens!

      Ali,

      You provide some great points to think about to overcome writer’s block. Reviewing your ideas to “get ruthless” are great to help focus us on what we are trying to achieve.

      Thank you – Theresa :)

  3. Sometimes I get writers block just making out a profile. Great stuff! I have always belived that is is the words we choose that define us – so picking the right words can be a challenge, and rightfully so!

  4. I had a huge writer’s block session last week and couldn’t push through it. It was one of the few times where I was legitimately burned out and no matter how hard I tried, it wasn’t happening. After frustrating myself even more, I decided to pull away and relax. You’ve got to learn when to call it quits.

    Eventually after a good meal, some me time, and a relaxing drive my ideas came flooding back. Sometimes thinking too hard creates more issues, that’s why we get some of the best ideas in the shower or laying in bed. If you’re truly stuck, don’t get upset over missing a day’s post — you can always finish it tomorrow.

    • I absolutely agree! Knowing when to stop is crucial … sometimes, pushing on past a bit of resistance really helps, but often, you genuinely need a break.

  5. Good piece of writing, although I think the best way to overcome writer’s block… is to write first, think second. Then think about what you wrote and re-write.

    In simple terms, you overcome the block by…. overcoming the block. Pretty much like so:

    http://www.copyblogger.com/become-a-better-writer/

  6. Ali

    Good topic – I split writer’s block into 3 areas too – but they’re different than yours!

    My three areas are:

    1) Having nothing to write about
    2) Having something to write about but not getting started
    3) Not finishing what you’ve started

    I’ve got various strategies to deal with each of them – and I’m a big fan of Steven Pressfield and his thoughts on having a professional mindset.

    Good one.

    Paul

    • That’s another great way to split it! I think having a few strategies ready helps a lot, and those areas suit different techniques.

  7. Excellent tips…Dig the idea of “writing something deliberately bad” in which I call, the 1st draft.

    I also like to use sites like Creative Copy Challenge where they give you 10 words and you just write anything you want to has those words scattered throughout. I feel it helps getting the right brain jump started again.

    • Yep, I think CCC are providing a great public service for writers :-) I’ve used writing prompts/exercises in the past when I’ve felt a bit stuck — they’re often a great way to start off a writing session.

  8. Thanks Ali. I’ve found writers block tk be particularly problematic when I’m guest posting to promote a product or offering. It can be tough to stay focused if you feel like you’re writing about the same thing over and over.

    • Agh, yes! I try to get round that one by looking for a new angle each time … perhaps tying my post in to something recent on the blog in question, or focusing on one small part of my product/service.

  9. I rarely get writer’s block. Here are six ways I avoid it. http://www.stickycommunication.ca/2011/02/6-ways-to-become-an-idea-machine/

  10. This post was so practical and helpful. Every writer I’ve ever worked with– especially myself– struggles with the block of perfectionism. We all need to be reminded once in a while that getting metaphorical pen to paper is the best way to get over ourselves. Thanks for the helpful reminder!

  11. “impose order on them”

    And THAT is exactly where I get stuck. I usually only get stuck on longer peices and since I write how-tos or technical advice, then the order is really important. Sometimes I have to write a bit, rearrange, write some more, edit, go back and reorder. Then I get sick of looking at it. Maddening.

    • I agree it can get frustrating. Sometimes, I find it helps to ask another writer to take a look — other people may be able to see order in the chaos!

  12. It’s good to know that I’m not the only person who doesn’t ALWAYS like to sit down and write.

    Although there’s nothing I’d rather do for a living (well, except for being a pop star. lol.), sometimes it’s just not fun to get started. But when it’s flowing… or when it’s done and polished… there’s no feeling quite like it.

    Jennifer

  13. An interesting read, thanks. I wrote a a little piece about writers’ block myself a while ago. Possibly not quite as serious but you may find it interesting. http://whitewriting.com/blog/blog/writers-blog/

  14. Love this post Ali! Perfect timing for where I am right now. I had a small taste of stepping back this weekend when I didn’t do a smidge of work all weekend *gasp*! I think I need a little more of that and I’ll be right as rain :)

  15. Ali, I constantly fight #3. I tend to think too highly of my half-baked ideas, thus having trouble letting go.
    It’s always a relief when I discard them – I don’t even try to “fix” them.

    It’s always nice to see a shout out for CCC! I love that place.

    Cheers,

    Mitch

  16. As a writer, a blogger, and a copywriter, I have to say most times, writer’s block has nothing to do with writing. It’s usually about fear of writing, or fear of producing, or fear of failure. When it really is about the writing, sometimes the only way out is through. As Anne Lamott says, “write sh***y first drafts.” Writing is more revision than inspiration, truly. There has to be a drop of the latter, but a boatload of the former, in most cases.

  17. I think today I have all three types of writer’s block.

    FEAR of writing badly, family stress (teen home from school for the summer).

    Plus WordPress has up and left me for another blogger! WP ate my post content (Yes, I have a copy of my draft & no, their magic people haven’t fixed it yet.) Thanks for your, as ever, fine thinking on writing and blogging.

    • Ack, WP sympathies! I lost two hours this morning to some sneaky little bit of malware that had wriggled into my blog … I’d much rather have been writing than poking around admin panels.

      Hope the family stresses ease up … and the fear too.

      • Ali, I tried to check out your site using Chrome, but got a “Malware Detected” warning page.

        “www.aliventures.com contains content from llyiuyfmtt.co.tv, a site known to distribute malware. Your computer might catch a virus if you visit this site.

        Google has found malicious software may be installed onto your computer if you proceed. If you’ve visited this site in the past or you trust this site, it’s possible that it has just recently been compromised by a hacker. You should not proceed, and perhaps try again tomorrow or go somewhere else.

        We have already notified llyiuyfmtt.co.tv that we found malware on the site. For more about the problems found on llyiuyfmtt.co.tv, visit the Google Safe Browsing diagnostic page.”

        Don’t know if this is the same malware issue you’ve been dealing with, just thought you might wanna know.

        • It is the same one … I did a lot of reinstalling from backups yesterday, but it’s come back (and it’s affecting several of my sites). The web host is looking into it currently, because I’m starting to suspect it’s a problem on their end.

          Sigh!

  18. Hey Ali. I read this article at the perfect tine. Im finishing up lunch and getting ready to head over to Coffee Bean and start writing. But I have major uncertainty running through my mind right now about many things. And I had this feeling my writing session was bound to be unproductive.

    But you’ve energized me to jump right in and get some amazing articles written. Thank you.

  19. My biggest struggle is always the opening and the conclusion. I’ve been finding myself jumping into the very middle of the prose and attacking the meat, then going and tapering the ends.

    Introductions are intangible without context. Making them prior to the body copy is akin to building the road before the city. It can be done, but it takes a craftier writer than I.

    Great job Ali. For sure, you’re the most prolific guest blogger the Internet has ever seen.

    • I hate to tell you this Martyn, but roads are the first thing built when building a city. ;)

      • Bummer. I told you I wasn’t very crafty.

        P.S. I should start moderating your comments on my blog. You know, just to even things up a bit. :P

        Okay, I’m kidding.

        Maybe.

        • Thankfully, I don’t think anyone will ever ask me to build a city! (Words, I’m good with — power-tools, not so much…)

          Like you, Martyn, I generally write the introduction after writing the main body of a post / ebook / etc, though it depends a bit on the topic and how clear it is in my mind — and on how much revision I’m prepared to do!

  20. Hi Ali. What a timely post. For a while now I have been doing everything trying to get out of writing, and this is so unlike me. Most days I can’t wait to get up, I am buzzing with ideas. These days, I make healf hearted attempts are writing something and then go back and think what a crappy job I have done. I have at least a half dozen half finished posts that I know I can salvage but ideas are escaping me right now. Emotional black seems to be my road block. For me, I need to let it run its course. Hopefully it won’t be too long. Great post :)

  21. Great post, Ali. I am highly aware of the fact that every other writer gets writer’s block too, but it’s still comforting to know that I’m not alone – and that even a natural writer like you gets stuck sometimes!

    I also really appreciate your thoughts on balance and dealing with life’s issues when they come up. Trying to write something profound when you can’t stop stressing about your real-world problems just results in a crappy post.

  22. Great Post, really helpful information to beat the writer’s block

  23. Before I was a copywriter I sold and serviced dental equipment. One of the tasks I often had to do was to coordinate the installation of new equipment between tradespeople, our team of service people, and the dentist.

    I’ve heard the comment about “plumber’s block” and writer’s block in the past, and I can tell you that I’ve seen “plumber’s block” many times. Not every plumbing situation is as straightforward as they may seem.

    Now that I AM a copywriter, I run into writer’s block all the time. I just start writing about something, anything, and eventually the words come out. Keep moving forward, and you will always reach your goal.

    • I’m very thankful I’m not a plumber, and I have every admiration for those who are — I’m not good with anything involving mechanical skill! The point I was trying to make in the post was that plumbing doesn’t necessarily require a lot of motivation, in the way that writing does (though I’m sure it does require ingenuity and creativity at times).

      • I loved the article and hope I didn’t come across as argumentative. I just thought it was worth mentioning. Every career has its own set of challenges. As you mentioned, many non-writers look at us when we complain about writers block and roll their eyes, but it is an obstacle that we face everyday.

        Thanks for the tips!

        • No, not at all; it was a good point! And I’m sure to plumbers, sitting at a computer and typing doesn’t look too hard…

  24. As a professional medical/ scientific writer by day and blogger by night, it is so frustrating when you get those days and your mental cogs just won’t turn. I hear what you say though – I’m going to have to be ruthless with myself if I want to achieve any goals! :-)

  25. Wonderful post, Ali. I love your writing. I believe it’s about what you said, digging in deeper. Going deeper within the post topic, ourselves and digging out those ideas, topics and stuff that compel us to write.

    I sometimes have a fear of perfectionism. It bothers the hell outta me and limits my ability to write (a lot). Yesterday I had a troll on my site criticizing my post. Nice, huh? But lately, I’ve been working on reconditioning my negative thinking and blocks. I’m trying to use more positive thinking, working with my knowledge and resources. So today, I scheduled a post about believing in yourself and positivity. Ha – take that troll!

    Agree with you about reaching out to people around you. It’s much more fun to get involved in a community and bounce ideas off each other rather than sitting by our computers alone feeling stuck.

    • Aww, Gabrielle, so sorry to hear about the troll :-( I’ve had a few quite spiteful comments in the past, and however much I tell myself that it’s just some jerk out for attention, it’s still been a knock to my writing confidence.

      Yay for your post about believing in yourself — great way to bring something good out of the experience!

  26. Oh, how I can relate to this. “You chew the end of a pen. You check Twitter. You delete two sentences. You check Twitter again. And then you find your stride, and get a draft written.”

    Sometimes I just have to walk away from the pen and clear my mind before I try and tackle it again. It’s comforting to know this happens to other people too!

  27. Great Article! Sometimes the cure to writers block is good old fashion R&R. Writers block is a signal that your brain is doing too much and your wearing your self thin. Take a moment to just do nothing or take a nap and you’ll be surprised how rejuvenating that can be!

  28. Great advice, Ali. The trick here is to whittle away the other possibilities before ditching your blog, project or overall direction. But, as you mentioned, sometimes, the reason we’re stuck is because we have lost our way or our priorities have shifted.

    Getting an outside perspective is always a great thing to do in these situations, but at the end of the day, you have to trust your gut. Deep down, you likely know the answers – it’s just sometimes difficult to face them.

  29. Great post and topic Ali.

    One thing that helps me is to take a walk. Getting away from the computer eases some of the stress and the ideas flow a little easier. Sometimes just writing it on paper and getting away from the keyboard helps too.

  30. Hi Ali!

    I do get writer’s block all the time. More so when it’s vacation time and I try to juggle my time between planning trips and getting the job done. When my sense of balance is at stake, I get in a rut.

    I appreciate reading about posts on writer’s block because it actually gives me a sense of community that I’m not alone. So, thanks!

    • You’re absolutely not alone … I’d hesitate to say that *EVERY* writer gets blocked at times (just see the comments below yours!) but most will have had some experience with feeling totally stuck or unenthused, however much they normally love writing.

  31. I always liked what Hemingway said: “Don’t understand writer’s block…I’ve never heard of a farmer getting farmer’s block”

  32. Meh. I’ve never ever struggled with writer’s block. But you know what they say: boring people get bored.

  33. The biggest mistake I make with writers block is taking a step away from my blog. The longer I stop writing, the harder it is to start again. If I commit myself to writing an article every day, good or bad, I can get it done, but trying taking a few days off and it’s impossible to get back into the grind.

  34. When I’m sleeping or trying to sleep, I don’t experience writers block. Ideas swim in my head, I write the first line over and over again in my head, more ideas, more sentences. Somewhere in the deepest part of my brain I’m telling myself that I will spring out of bed at day break and sprint to the computer and be done for the day.

    No…that doesn’t happen because I’ve forgotten the whole thing before my first cup of coffee.

    Solution: Wake myself up and write down what I’m thinking? I could try, but something tells me that I would never get back to sleep.

    I write my first draft, leave it and come back later and remove the emotional outbursts embedded in it. Sometimes I leave them, drama is good on occasion.

  35. Anytime I feel a writer block. I get off the PC and try and relax for a while. Relaxation seems to be a fine antidote for this awful experience.

  36. Ali,
    Really enjoyed your “plumber’s block” which parallels “doing the dishes block” I mention in this article http://blogsnewsreviews.com/2011/8-ways-to-beat-writers-block-avoid-writers-block/
    Your three categories of writer’s block parallel my 8, most of which fall into category 2. Ultimately, self awareness followed by positive action offer a path out of writer’s block. Get ruthless is write!

  37. Great ideas! I write blogs for several of my web sites and nothing sparks more creativity than getting out of the office and into the field where my trade is being practiced, and seeing what is being done correctly, incorrectly, or seeing who is taking advantage of whom. With that being said, frustration directed at something is a great way to unblock your creativity.

  38. I hate it when I get a writers block! When I do, I’d usually spend some time in the beach or I’d watch a good movie. It helps put me back into focus. But half of the time, it doesn’t. I haven’t tried being ruthless but I will, the next time I come across another writers block.