3 Simple Steps for Staring Down Writer’s Block

image of tire in the desert

Writer’s block feels like the end of your world.

Firstly, there’s the frustration — not being able to do something you love, that normally works like a dream.

Like getting into your finely-tuned, lovingly-polished car, turning the key and hearing a pathetic splutter. Or hitting the ‘Jump to Lightspeed’ button and watching the stars just sit there while the TIE Fighters close in.

Secondly, there’s the professional anxiety. If you’re an author, will you meet that deadline? If you’re a copywriter, can you still cut it for your clients?

Last and worst, there’s the identity crisis.

You’re a writer, right? Writers write, right?

So who are you if you can’t write?

A nobody?

Logically, you know that’s nonsense. But try telling yourself that at 3 am after another day when the sum of your efforts would fit comfortably inside a Tweet.

Now, there are many different types of creative block, and plenty of ways to tackle them and get back in the writing zone. (I’ve written an entire ebook full of suggestions — you can download it for free here.)

But before you start examining this particular block, and tinkering with ways to deal with it, there are three critically important things for you to remember.

Unless you remember these three things, you may not have the energy to do that tinkering. It’ll feel like a hopeless case.

1. Only writers get writer’s block

Beginners don’t get writer’s block.

When they sit in front of a blank screen and nothing comes out, it’s because they haven’t learned how to do it yet.

To be blocked, you have to have written in the past. You have to be a writer.

So, you are still a writer.

2. If you’ve done something in the past, you can do it again

This is something I learned way back when I first trained as a psychotherapist.

I worked with all kinds of people who felt they were hopeless cases — people struggling with depression, anxiety, addictions, divorce, work-stress and all kinds of failures, frustrations and disappointments.

One of the most valuable things I learned to do was to ask them about the past — not looking for the origins of the problem, but for the origins of a solution:

  • Tell me about a time before you had this problem…
  • How did the world look to you then?
  • How did you feel differently?
  • What were you doing differently?

When clients remembered their earlier, happier, more confident and capable selves, their body language changed. They became animated, chatty, even enthusiastic. Their sense of humour returned — along with their creativity.

They started to find new options.

Your ability to write is still there. Maybe latent, but it’s there all right, deep in your nervous system. You don’t need to start again from scratch — just go back to what you were doing before.

Ask yourself:

  • What was it like when I could write fluently?
  • How did I feel?
  • What kind of thoughts went through my mind?
  • What was I doing differently?

Then pick one or two of those things you used to do, and start doing them again, today.

3. Your writer’s block is temporary

How can I be so sure?

Take a moment to remember the other times you’ve experienced writer’s block.

Each time, you were probably racked with precisely the same fear — that you’d never write again — yet you came through and did it.

Statistically, this block will likely be the same.

It feels like the end of the world … it feels like you’ll never write again … until something changes, life goes on, and the words come back.

You will write again.

If you can’t write anything else, write this

Take a sheet of paper and a pen. No keyboard — you need to feel these words as you write them out longhand.

Write these words on the paper — slowly.

  • I am still a writer
  • I still have the ability to write
  • I will write again

Put them in front of you and read them until you feel them.

If it helps, read them out loud. Keep repeating the words until you feel conviction in your voice.

Do this every day when you feel blocked. 

Remember these three things, repeat them until you feel them in your bones, and you’ll start to relax.

And the more you relax, the sooner the words will return.

How do you deal with writer’s block?

Which of these three things is most important for you to remember?

What would you add to the list?

Any other tips for beating writer’s block?

Let’s discuss these questions in the comments …

About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a creative coach with more than 15 years experience of helping clients overcome creative blocks. For in-depth advice on dealing with a range of creative blocks, download Mark’s FREE e-book 20 Creative Blocks (and How to Break Through Them).

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Comments

  1. Hey Mark,
    Thanks for the share FREE ebook – I always appreciate the free ebook that has real value.

    BTW, I really love your article – special is #3 point, well, so great – sometimes self-suggestion yourself has a very special effect.

  2. I recently experienced writer’s block for the first time ever. In my case, I was stressed because of several things going on in my personal life, so I wrote out the things that were distracting me and how I felt about them. It turned out to be a decent post with good feedback!

    I didn’t know you were trained as a therapist – me too! I’m actually leaving my career to (attempt to) write full time. My last day at work is the 15th. Thanks for posts like these; they make me realize there are always ways around the issues I’ll likely experience!

    • Great way to utilize your block! Lemons to lemonade. :-)

      Oh yes, I spend most of my time doing coaching and training these days, but I still keep my hand in as a therapist.

  3. Nice article. I believe it is natural for every writer to go through a writer’s block, the key is how one deals with it. In my opinion, another very good strategy to overcome writer’s block is to take a few days break from writing and indulge in some another hobby. Soon enough, ideas will start pouring in your head again.

  4. I wrote an article on how to overcome writer’s block that was posted on a blog for those participating in NaNoWriMo (WriMosFTW) as well as my own blog, The Wild Pomegranate. I suggest using a WEDGE:
    http://thewildpomegranate.com/2011/11/10/got-writers-block-give-it-a-wedgie/

  5. These are great tips. Thank you for offering up the encouragement that we all face, questioning our own ability and identity when the inevitable happens, regardless of how successful and how experienced we are at this. One thing I’d add as a tip: I strongly recommend loud music and chocolate to help work through writer’s block!

  6. I wrote a little thing about writer’s block a while ago. It may help. It probably won’t though.

    http://whitewriting.com/blog/blog/writers-blog/

  7. Great article.Writers block for me occurs when I’m tired, can’t concentrate then. One thing I would correct you on I once heard there is no such thing as a problem just opportunities, the mind goes to work far better to find the solution then.

  8. When I was an undergrad at Buffalo State College, the best piece of writing advice I ever got was from Bud Wacker, a journalism professor. He said, “Just write it.”

    Get something down on paper or, more precisely now, in pixels. Then you’ve got something to work with. You can play with it in your head all day long and get nowhere.

    Also, deadlines help a lot!

    Thanks for the helpful article.

  9. Hi Mark,

    You ask for other ways to overcome writers block, and this is what works for me which I have taught successfully to others. Very simply sit down and be in the moment, and truly be present in place by describing what you see around you. Descriptions give way to stories. Often we think these things, but do not write them down. I find that the biggest hurdle in having writers block for me is being present.

    The trouble I have is when I need to write something formulaic. Yesterday was hours of struggling with writing a letter. I will write long-hand for somethings as this is grounding, but for others it’s straight to the computer. Poetry comes much easier for me than formulaic writing (first drafts usually written by hand, subsequent editing on computer). Blogging is still a skill I have yet to hone. Short stories, fun. My point is that although we may not have writers block with one form of writing, it is possible to have writers block in another.

  10. While this is an enjoyable post, I’m not sure if it really states how to “beat” writer’s block, it’s more of dealing with the fact that writer’s block happens.

    I would have loved to seen Mark’s take on reading more broadly, keeping an idea journal, and writing techniques to deal with writer’s block.

  11. Great post. I love all of the positive mantras going on here – all of which, completely true. Ironically enough, I wrote a post the other day about a similar subject – coming out of writer’s block, or what I affectionately refer to as a blogging coma – http://www.florida-seo-blog.com/blogging/how-to-climb-out-of-a-blogging-coma/.

  12. I like example number two. Remembering what you’ve done in the past can be key to moving forward. Knowing you have overcome the issue before shows you that you can do it again.

    I’ve found I overcome my writers block by scanning over past posts I have written, looking at the inspiring work of others, and just typing.

    Anything to get the juices flowing. Once they start, they seem to move along.

    • Yes it’s amazing how one’s own writing can (sometimes) improve with age – I find myself reading some things that were torture to write and being pleasantly surprised.

      “I can smile about it now but at the time it was terrible.” ;-)

  13. My number 1 tip is DON’T EDIT WHILE YOU WRITE! So many people do this and it ties them in knots. If you have this bad habit then try turning off your monitor while you write (or hang a dishtowel over it.) Separate the writing process from the evaluating process. When you write, write. When you edit, edit. Sounds simple but I know it’s difficult for many people.

    • I agree that a lot of people get stuck with this. If the inner critic is over-active, it makes a lot of sense to separate writing and editing.

      And… I often edit as a write (and write as I edit). I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive, especially when things are going well.

  14. Sometimes, I use the same trick to get over writer’s block that I use to get to the gym when I don’t want to go. You know how you’re supposed to slowly put on your gym clothes and then just get up and get into the car to go to they gym – so slowly that your subconscious doesn’t know? You can do the same thing with writing. First, open up Word. You don’t have to write yet – it’s just sitting there, open. Maybe do a little research, on your subject, but nothing too crazy. Then set your Pomodoro timer for 25 minutes and just start writing before your subconscious has a chance to protest :)

    I also sometimes find it helpful to work on a totally unrelated project for a little bit. That can get my creative juices flowing so much that I’m ready to get down to business – writer’s block be damned.

    • “You know how you’re supposed to slowly put on your gym clothes and then just get up and get into the car to go to they gym – so slowly that your subconscious doesn’t know?”

      Yes – sometimes I wonder about my subconscious! Surely it’s obvious what I’m planning? But I find it works really well for starting running (and writing).

  15. I like to call it writer’s constipation. Because it’s in there – you just have to push a little harder to get it out. Also – most of what I write is crap.

  16. I like this article. My problem so far is not writing itself, but deciding what topic to write about that people will care to read. Sometimes it seems that I am the only one who cares about my chosen topic. The advice about going back to a time when you were successful and remembering how it felt and what you did to get there was really good. I never thought about that. I have been feeling discouraged lately, But I think I am finding out the topic more people want to know about – I am an interior decorator and I write in my blog three days a week.

    • Well if you’re an interior decorator, I think we can safely say people care about the way their homes look! :-)

      Supposing you made a list of the 10 most common problems your clients consult you about? I’m sure there would be plenty of material for writing in there…

  17. “Beginners don’t get writer’s block.”
    I believe the opposite. I think it’s typically beginners who complain most about writer’s block. The pros can’t afford to get blocked — they have deadlines to meet and bills to pay. You may not always be able to write exactly what you want to write, but you can definitely writing something, and that will help relieve that stuck feeling. You can free associate — write whatever comes to mind and don’t stop for 20 minutes straight. Turn no the TV or eavesdrop on a coffee shop conversation, then take a line of “dialogue” and use it as the launching pad for a quick story. Read great writing for inspiration — a favorite book or go online and track down the screenplay to a favorite movie scene. And since others are offering up their tips, here are mine: http://www.businessinsider.com/the-myth-of-writers-block-and-7-ways-to-get-unstuck-2011-8

    • Thanks for sharing Rob, great tips and I agree that there’s no such thing as a creative block. :-)

      Having said that, complaining about having writer’s block isn’t the same thing as having writer’s block! If someone is just starting out and doesn’t know what to write, I wouldn’t say they were blocked, just lacking the necessarily skills or knowledge.

      I’ve also met plenty of pros who have experienced blocks. They tend to be book authors rather than those (e.g. copywriters, journalists, bloggers) whose deadlines come thick and fast.

      I agree with you that often the ‘block’ is more about how we feel than the reality of what we produce. It can feel as though we are getting nowhere and the words aren’t coming, even though we do manage to squeeze something out by the deadline. Maybe we could call that a ‘phantom block’?

      • Ha! Great article, Mark, and good points. I agree it’s one thing to be stuck on creating the right conflict to set up the next turning point in your novel and, say, churning out 500 words for a blog post on a specific topic. And if you can always write something, but can’t always come up with something good, is that a block or is that just life?

  18. What works for me every time is setting a timer for 5 minutes and free writing… just writing anything and everything about the subject I want to write about without any self-editing. Timers actually help me at every stage of writing.

  19. I apologize for my little English but I think they will be interesting to my contribution.
    I currently I have 26 years, I started to write a science fiction novel at age 20, I was very happy with what was going achieved until I saw a movie that was very similar to what I was Cranden. That made me fall into a well are out, leave my novel and I could not create anything for a long 4 years because I was totally blocked. And I realized that most of the time I wrote was a cause of great melancholy. But I understand the cost much to be sad because I needed to write, I wonder if that’s okay?.
    The important thing is to leave my prejudices aside and the only thing that I started to pay out of my block was writing in the early morning, , Of the 1 at 8 am. Maybe this is something very personal, but there is something very melancholy in that hour that helps me a lot, it would be nice if they tried anything they do not come to mind. In particular it was clarified that did not agree to write with melancholy and sadness, because I thought it was “uque teenager that left him a girlfriend and left him disgruntled writes,” among other things. But then I realized it was something I needed to get out of my being, and so I started writing again.
    Greetings!

    • Thanks George, your English is much better than my Spanish!

      Yes, many writers like to write early in the morning or late at night. Maybe because they are more alert and focused, or maybe just because the phone stops ringing. :-)

      Regarding your novel, I don’t think it’s necessarily important to have a completely original idea to write a great novel (or play, poem, etc). Shakespeare famously never invented a story – he would have said the good ones have already been written. What matters is the unique voice, experience and view of the world you bring to your writing. That’s why I sometimes tell people Don’t try to be original.

  20. It appears with all the responses that there are some good techniques, but that each person needs to choose what fits best for them. An award winning teacher I had edits as he writes; times and deadlines put me on edge, and loud music distracts me from being in place. So many ideas! My gratitude to everyone who is sharing!

  21. How do I deal with Writer’s Block? What’s that?
    Seriously though, I created a writing prompt site with Sean Platt and David Wright to deal with this issue. I can’t stress enough how much writing prompts crush writer’s block into a silly, distant memory. I laugh at writer’s block now. After doing 198 writing prompts, my mind is in an entirely different place. I boss my muse around at will now. Click on my name and stop by. James Chartrand chose today’s words.

  22. When I’ve had writer’s block, I been helped by three strategies:

    1. Starting over- I equate this tactic to replacing a spark plug; it’s mostly for when the lights are on, but the engine won’t start.
    2. Leave it alone- I feel like this is a pretty common wisdom among writers. Just walk away from it, and do something else while the unconscious goes to work.
    3. Write a story- I find that starting even the most mundane, boring story often gets my cylinders pumping

  23. Writer’s block is less of an issue for me. Writer’s procrastination; writer’s tedium; writer’s burnout…those are all legitimate conditions that often result in a blank screen and watered down ideas that make me feel ambivalent about my skills. Different diagnosis, I suppose; similar symptoms.

    • Yes, whatever label we put on it, the symptoms still need addressing! But using a different name changes the way you look at it, so it can sometimes make it easier to find a solution.

  24. I came up with a solution to make sure I write every day and keep the gears turning no matter what.

    I created a blog site called exactly500.com and I post a 500 words story every day. So far I managed to keep it up for 21 days. Some days I felt completely uninspired and it was a real struggle, but I still forced myself to deliver 500 words, no matter how crap they were.

    So while not all 21 stories are winners, but I’m actually quite happy with quite a few.

    This is great especially in days where I did no other writing. Just like going to the gym, it’s good to exercise!

    • That’s one reason poets like traditional verse forms. If you’re writing a sonnet, once you’ve done the first line you know there are only another 13 to go… ;-)

  25. The best advice I ever heard to help with writers block was, “give yourself permission to write badly.” Often when I feel like I can’t write, it is because I feel uninspired or unmotivated. I think my writing has to be profound and I am not feeling profound.
    Remembering when I did feel motivated helps, but sometimes I just feel like I have nothing to say. By allowing myself to write badly I take pressure off myself and usually get something written.
    If it really is bad I can bin it, edit it, or use it to inspire me to something better on another day. As previous commenters have said, sometimes just writing though about anything close to hand can get the juices going again. Thanks for the helpful post.

  26. Freewriting.

    Write for five minutes with all of your filters turned off. Don’t correct mistakes. Don’t worry about making sentences. Just get words from brain to paper/computer.

    By the end of five minutes, I’ll have maybe 1000 words with some very strong phrases that actually make it in to whatever I’m writing and usually I’ll have also figured out why I was blocked in the first place.

    • This is one reason I use speech recognition software for my first drafts. I can talk much quicker than I can write, and it’s great for spilling thoughts onto the screen.

  27. There are a lot of different methods I use to escape writer’s block, but one of the most effective fixes I have found is to step away for a second and perform a mundane task. Cooking, brewing coffee, dusting furniture. Anything that requires physical focus, but very little mental focus helps.

    Usually the words start forming in the middle of whatever short-term project I’ve chosen and a fresh flow of ideas is ready when I return to my computer.

    Thanks for the tips and the free ebook! Awesome Monday morning bonus, look forward to more ideas on how to escape writer’s block.

  28. I deal with writer’s block by preventing it before it starts. When I am out in public, I turn everything off. No computer (unless I’m writing), no cell phone, nothing. In order to be creative, the brain needs a chance to allow its thoughts to wander. Your mind can’t do that important work if it’s constantly focused on texting, tweeting or playing with apps.

  29. Good advice!

    For me, writer’s block usually hits after I finish with something I think was exceptionally good. It’s the follow-up that gets me. wanting to top the last one.

    I usually find that writing something simple and not at all ambitious cures writer’s block. The simpler the better.

    Then, once I’m back into the writing mode, I can build on that small start.

    • Heh, the perils of success! I remember hearing Seamus Heaney saying it took him a while to ‘forget’ winning the Nobel Prize for Literature so that he could focus on writing poems again.

  30. Mark I always appreciate your work. Thank you.
    As a creative, my writers block came in the form of having way too many ideas to get to the core of my point.
    Aside from excellent writing lessons in the Damn Fine Writing course,I have just completed, James Chartrand gave me a tip that’s working to unblock my idea mania.
    That was to start by ‘blowing off creative steam” for 10 minutes. Just to get it out + let it go. It was just one of many tips – but its working!
    So – I’d say a pro. course is an excellent place to start. You’ll pick up points that will help every aspect of your writing.

    • My pleasure Siita. I’m glad to hear my words are useful to someone who works in a creative field that’s so very different to my own!

      Good tip from James (as usual).

  31. I’ve heard some people say that writer’s block is just stage fright.

  32. What a timely article. I have been seriously blocked for weeks now. It began during NaNoWriMo – despite having a complete outline, I got stuck and haven’t come out of it yet.

    Thanks for the e-book Mark. I will be going through it tonight.

  33. Whenever I get blocked, I’ll try to stir my emotions by listening to some music while reading the liner notes so I can also read the lyrics. Sometimes, going out for a run would quiet my brain and let it wander. Sometimes those random thought are enough to get the juices flowing again.

    • Have you ever tried that with a Pulp album? They have a note saying “Please do not read the lyrics while listening to the music.” :-)

      Seriously – I often choose my ‘writing music’ to match the mood of what I’m trying to write.

  34. wow great one…

  35. Thanks for this. Writer’s block can drive you insane when you’re up against a deadline. It helps me to take a break and read or watch a movie or take a walk.

  36. I think that sometimes, the best way to deal with writer’s block is to do… nothing. Or simply, let it pass. Perhaps, it’s your mind’s way of telling you that you need a time off so fresh ideas can come in. How about blogger stagnation? Like, you have all the ideas in your mind and you want to write– but, there’s just a fear that what you will produce is something stale, so you just hold on to that thought until some other blogger beats you to it. I think this is harder to remedy.

  37. Mark

    Personally I don’t believe in Writer’s Block – see Steven Pressfield’s THE WAR OF ART for what I believe is the definitive guide to the principles of resistance (what people call Writer’s Block). Once you understand Resistance you can come up with your own creative strategies to ensure that you produce regularly.

    Here’s a list of some of mine:

    1. Never start on a blank page. (I usually start with a headline, and an outline which provides subheads).
    2. Never stop to edit. (Writing and editing use different hemispheres of the brain – split those activities).
    3. Committing to take care of the quantity – and letting quality fall as it may.
    4. Leveraging deadlines to your advantage.
    5. Using writing music to get in the ‘writing zone.’

    HTH.

    Paul

  38. I think there should be more post dealing with writer’s block because this is something that so easily affects us as writers and as it has been rightly stated earlier,this post kinda of like lays more emphasize on the fact that writer’s block exists,but the big question remains how do we beat it?Thanks for the post anyway atleast you got to bring out an important topic which should be given top priority.

  39. Extremely timely article. I am wrangling with writer’s block at this very moment. Well, maybe it’s time. It seems that these are interchangeable. The mantras are helpful. Can I add another one perhaps? ‘Get up and go!’ Thanks for the inspiring article!

  40. I actually just had a bit of writer’s block earlier today. I like to think of it like a stomach ache that lasts a few hours. It comes, it’s there, it goes. No big deal, and I go do something else (that has nothing to do with writing). Then, this is key, once I start to feel a little better (after a few hours or so), I go back to my computer screen and I just write anything and everything that comes to my head. I do not care about sentence structure, grammar, hell I don’t even finish some sentences. I just get everything out there on the computer screen.

    Once it’s all there, I go back through and edit the good parts, get rid of or re-arrange the bad parts, and do more research on the parts where I obviously sound like I have no idea what I’m talking about.

    For me, the longest part of writing is not writing, it’s editing. And I don’t think I’ve ever gotten writer’s block when editing. I think people try to hard to get that perfect sentence or paragraph out the first time- and that’s probably not going to happen. So don’t worry about it. It can all be fixed in the editing process.

  41. I get writer’s block when I expect perfection in the first round of writing. When I feel that I have nothing to write about, I just force myself to sit in front of the computer and write something–anything–and before I know it, that writer’s block is gone!

  42. Awesome post! And thanks for the free eBook link. :-)

    I like this one ;)
    ■ I still have the ability to write

    One good way to get more writing ideas is to sit and write just article titles. 25 – 50 titles would be good to start and then brainstorm from there after letting them sit for a day or two. :)

  43. I have had a few of those moments/days when I can’t write. When I know I have something to say but it refuses to surface. When it happens I’ll allow myself 10-15 minutes of down time, then I take on the Eugene Schwartz 33 minute challenge. Set the timer, stare at my computer and drink coffee. I don’t allow myself to deviate from that space for the entire time. I’ll stare for a bit an begin to doodle on my notebook, which leads to a narration of my doodles then ultimately turns into writing.
    I really like the self talk. I can see how writers, especially seasoned ones can get all up in arms about writers block. Great article, Thanks!

  44. Excellent post with great tips. I think the affirmations can be stronger by removing the word “still”. Great, succinct suggestions. Thank you!

  45. As a copywriter I do face these “inspiration” blocks. I love those moments when *flash* inspiration hits and the words seem to flow, but when they don’t I’ve developed a structure process I work through.

    It starts at research (time limit applied), moves onto a features/benefits analysis and progress to just writing what I know. It feels like getting the rusty cogs moving in my brain and I find that once I build some momentum my creative brain comes to the party!

    It’s amazing what structure and routine can do for a rather creative process.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
    PS I agree wit Daphne’s comment – no editing!

  46. It may not be writer’s block, but first thing in the morning and staring at a blank screen and nothing happens, I just start writing. Anything. Even if it makes no sense! It gets the cogs rolling, and I go back later and fix it when my brain is revved up. It’s kind of like preparing for a jog, got to stretch the muscles first! Sometimes you’re in a fog, just don’t feel like going to “work” and like anything else, “just do it”. I probably have more trouble with discipline than with writer’s block! Because if I just start writing, it comes up. Eventually.

  47. Great Post Mark – It’s very different from the regular writer’s block articles you find around. Thank you for sharing.

    I think the best way to get rid of writer’s block is to do something different (something you’ve never done before) that will help you get back your creativity. – Mitt

  48. As a sophomore in college, I am more familiar with writers block than ever before. Anyone can sit down and rant about something they feel strongly about. The real test is writing about something you are not passionate about or even interested in. Thanks for the tips! I can’t wait to read your ebook.

  49. Hey Mark I like to thank you! first for your free ebok second for your excellent words they put real value in everything you believe, I particurly like the way you came here and answer every post, this is basically already a therapy to start get back to writing

  50. I have a list of topics for each of my websites so I always have something to write about. Fortunately my topics list grows faster than I can get through them.

    That said, some days, even with the help of topics, writing isn’t happening. I just take a day off and recharge.