Stop us if you’ve heard this one already – a person has a fantastic idea for a book, and enthusiastically gets to work. The first day of writing goes really well; the words flow seemingly of their own accord, and all is well. The second day goes really well too – the entire first week in fact! But then something happens. Ideas start to fade, writing time seems harder to come by, life gets in the way. Not too long after that, the writing project is abandoned, only to be remembered with a slight tang of guilt every few months after that, before it’s finally forgotten entirely. And so, writer’s block has smothered another novel in the crib.
Sound familiar? You’re not alone.
We see a lot of authors who get off to a promising start writing their books, only to abandon it shortly afterward. Whether you’re one of these writers or suspect you will be one, then consider this article a personal pep talk. In this article, we’re going to talk about some of the potential causes of writer’s block, and then list several tips for how to overcome it that we’ve gathered from successful authors and within our own team.
So, what’s causing your writer’s block?
Being stuck in front of a blank page (or screen) is something that happens to a lot of writers. While writer’s block has probably existed since writing was invented in the first place, the term we’re now familiar with was first coined in 1947 by psychoanalyst Edmund Bergler. He noted that writer’s block could be total or partial and that early manifestations might take the shape of feelings of insecurity regarding one’s own creativity (you can read a brief excerpt about it here).
We all know what writer’s block feels like; we’ve been feeling it since the first time we had to write that essay on the green light in “The Great Gatsby” for Ms. Anderson’s English class. That’s probably also part of the reason why writer’s block can feel so intimidating when you experience it in connection with something you actually want to write – we usually associate the feeling with something we have to write, and we don’t want to feel that way about our own work. Associating unpleasant writing memories with your own projects can be very off-putting, and that’s why it’s important to unpack and understand the reasons for your own writer’s block.
We have extensive experience with writer’s block, both as writers ourselves and via our users. We’ve drawn on this experience to compile a list of the most common causes of writer’s block, as well as the methods by which most people overcome them:
Your expectations are too high, and they’re holding you back. You want everything to be just right before you even start to write; you think you need to be in a state of nirvana, that celestial bodies need to align and that the inspiration is a unicorn that needs to bless you with its presence. Naturally, this never happens, and so you never begin. This is a very common issue, especially for novice writers.
In these situations, it’s vital to remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day, just like good books aren’t written in one. The good books (the really good ones) are products of copious and thorough rewriting. Just get that first draft done as fast as you can. Once it’s finished, you have a solid base upon which to unleash your ruthless perfectionism and sculpt your story.
Another perk of this is that you’ll already be familiar with many of the problems in your book; plot holes, insufficient character development – the usual. With your first draft out of the way, you’ll already be processing these issues subconsciously, making them far easier to deal with once you start your second draft. Think of it as painting a house – you need to apply primer before adding the first layer of paint, and then you need to wait for that layer to dry before applying the next one. It may take several coats of paint before you get that perfect shade you had in mind, so some patience and elbow grease is required.
If you won’t take our word for it, maybe you’ll believe Robert Graves, who famously stated that “there is no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting.”
You’ve been obsessing over that comma for hours. You see it whenever you close your eyes, and you find yourself drifting off in the middle of conversations, trying to decide whether that key sentence is really better off without it. Chances are, you’re simply worn out. Your body has its limits – mental, physical, emotional – and sometimes you just need a break. Take a few days off. Relax and don’t think about writing. Get yourself a change of scenery, meet some people, and let your ideas marinate in your subconscious while you recharge. Once you’re ready, you will likely find your urge to write returning.
Sometimes writing can feel like the most frustrating thing you’ve ever attempted. We live in an age of constant distractions and steadily decreasing attention spans. This makes it even more difficult to be a writer than it already was.
Sometimes these distractions simply pile up and drown out your focus and creativity; there’s only so much space in your head. Being free from distractions is a luxury just a few have. Most writers also have families, jobs or studies, and other responsibilities to attend to, which can occupy a huge amount of brain space. Try losing the smartphone for a while, and take some time off. Or take care of the things that are on your mind, sapping your concentration.
If this sounds familiar, it’s probably not writer’s block after all. There might just be too many things on your mind – and on your desk.
Creating something can be a scary thing – especially when it involves putting your thoughts on paper and inviting strangers to read and judge it. Many writers struggle with putting themselves and their work out there like that. After all, criticism is never pleasant, and who’s to say anyone is even interested in your book? This fear of rejection (which is probably an ancient survival mechanism lodged deeply in our brains) is a major reason why some great writers never become authors. This means you need to overcome these fears to get past your writer’s block – as cliché and unhelpful as it sounds.
You don’t really have much to lose when you think about it. A little critique won’t kill you; even successful authors endure crippling critique on a daily basis. So don’t let fear of potential criticism bring you down. Some people won’t like your work, sure – but you can’t please everyone. You’ll be surprised what could happen if you show a little bit of courage.
A really neat trick you can use to avoid the fear of rejection is to adopt a pen name. That way, you can create a persona for yourself (make them a completely different person if you like) which becomes the recipient of all the criticism in your place. This is a neat little psychological trick that helps a lot of people insulate themselves from negative feedback.
Overcoming writer’s block
So, we’ve talked about some potential causes of writer’s block, and touched upon certain ways to start dealing with them. Now, we’ll start going over some time-tested methods of actively overcoming writer’s block and filling those pages up with words. These tips have been collected from our users themselves, our own experience, and some internet detective work; they’re by writers for writers. Let’s review several strategies others have used.
1 – Keep Calm and Carry On (Writing)
Writing requires practice. A lot of practice – much like any art, skill, instrument, or sport. Many authors argue that inspiration will only come if you push yourself to keep writing every day; after all, an athlete doesn’t stop running once he or she gets sweaty, for example. Persevere and push through temporary obstacles and discomfort in order to achieve your goals.
For Maya Angelou, one of the most lauded authors of our time, the trick was not to overthink things. Write nonsense if you have to, but just keep on writing, no matter what. Even if you don’t like or understand the result, you can almost certainly salvage some work and build on it. Sift through your mind like a prospector panning for gold.
Indeed, in Naomi Epel’s book “Writers Dreaming: 26 writers talk about their dreams and the creative process” Maya Angelou explains:
I suppose I do get ‘blocked’ sometimes, but I don’t like to call it that. That seems to give it more power than I want it to have. What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat,’ you know. And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.’.
2 – Schedule your writing
This strategy is similar to the previous one, though perhaps slightly more structured in its implementation. It is based on the philosophy that as an author, you have to write every day; a standpoint espoused by Anthony Trollope, among others. Trollope scheduled his writing for a certain period of time per day. He set up a daily word count goal and made sure to reach it every day. Whilst writing he locked himself in his room to avoid any possible distraction and forced himself to concentrate on the task at hand.
3 – Set up writing rituals
Many writers emphasize the importance of writing rituals. We’re creatures of habit; rituals and routines are how we make sense of the world and get in the right state of mind to accomplish certain tasks. Writing is one such task.
We’ll let Toni Morrison explain this further, via an interview she had with Elissa Schappell in The Paris Review:
Recently I was talking to a writer, who described something she did whenever she moved to her writing table. I don’t remember exactly what the gesture was—there is something on her desk that she touches before she hits the computer keyboard—but we began to talk about little rituals that one goes through before beginning to write. I, at first, thought I didn’t have a ritual, but then I remembered that I always get up and make a cup of coffee while it is still dark—it must be dark—and then I drink the coffee and watch the light come. And she said, “Well, that’s a ritual”.
Sometimes, we perform these rituals without even realizing it. When you’re suffering from writer’s block, it might be worthwhile to reflect on your own rituals and see if anything has been disrupting them. Alternatively, you can see about introducing new ones. Try thinking back to one of your most productive writing sessions, and try to identify something which contributed to that session being so good.
Rituals can be as simple as making yourself a cup of tea, listening to a particular piece of music, or organizing your desk. It will help you shift your mindset just enough to see things from a fresh, new perspective and help you mentally prepare yourself to start writing.
4 – Get out
Sometimes an orderly retreat is the most prudent strategy. Instead of trying to hack your brain and override the writer’s block, do the opposite and stop writing completely. Simply put it aside for a few days and clear your mind. Try finding inspiration somewhere other than a blank page.
Hilary Mantel offers this advice:
If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.
Riffing on Mantel’s advice, you could do one of the following, for example:
- Listen to music (or play a musical instrument)
- Read a book, perhaps by a writer that inspires you
- Meditate, do yoga
- Take a walk, explore a route you’ve never taken before
- Ride your bike without a destination in mind
- Get a complete change of scenery (take a trip to the sea/forest/mountains)
- Try out a recipe you’ve wanted to cook for a long time
- Play (legos, a puzzle, a video game)
- Draw something (maybe a scene from your story?)
- Start working on your cover
5 – Get in the mood
Sometimes, your mind just needs a bit of warming up. Rather than grabbing the bull by the horns and chugging out sentences, you may sometimes be better off by approaching the task of writing from an angle. Much like an evening at the cinema can be made infinitely more enjoyable if you go out for a nice dinner beforehand, you can get a great creative flow going by easing yourself into the writing process through related activities. Some ideas that the Mybestseller team came up with were:
- Do some research about the setting of your book, if possible
- Read books similar to the one you want to write
- Try to make visual representations of your plot – it might spark some new ideas
- Write short biographies about your characters; get to know them better!
- If you’re the type who’s inspired by words, why not look up some motivational quotes to get started.
- Try writing while lying down! Many famous authors wrote in bed, including Mark Twain, George Orwell, and Truman Capote. Maybe they were on to something?
- Get yourself a standing desk to write at. Ernest Hemingway and Albert Camus both wrote standing up, after all.
- Get nice and comfortable. If you don’t have one already, invest in a good, ergonomic chair to take some of the stress out of writing.
This is just a small set of ideas of course; The possibilities are almost certainly endless. So, if you think of anything else that might help our fellow writers, share your ideas with us or talk about your own experiences in the comment section below.
Once you’ve overcome your writer’s block, why not check out our self-publishing platform? We’ve built a comprehensive publishing tool that grants you full control of the creation of your book – everything from the type of paper to the sales price.
“If you surrender to your imagination, the story will write itself.”