How many times have you sat at the computer to write, stared at that blinking cursor and felt like it's mocking you? Do you have great ideas strike you at inconvenient times — like the car or the shower — only to get home, try to write about them and go totally blank?
You've got writer's block, friend. But luckily, you're not alone.
Some of the most famous writers in the world — from Kurt Vonnegut to Maya Angelou — have expressed their frustrations with writer's block. It's a natural speed bump in the process. But, for people like me who write for a living or others that are on a strict deadline (hello, college term papers!), we literally can't afford to have it. If a paper or project is due, the professor or client doesn't care if you had writer's block. They care that you can complete the work.
For me, knowledge is power. Oftentimes, the more I can learn about something, the less intimidating or paralyzing it can feel. I'm the girl who will stay up all night googling how criminals are caught so I can feel safer in my house. I've WebMD-ed the -ish out of every ailment you can imagine, thinking if I understand it, it can't impact me.
While a lot of that behavior is next-level, Looney-Tune crazy, there is merit to some of it. The more you learn about something like writer's block — why it happens, how to beat it and how to prevent it — the more you can feel in control of your creative process and work towards eliminating it for good. Well, at least significantly.
In this guide to beat writer's block, you'll learn:
What writer's block is
Why you may be getting writer's block
- How to overcome and prevent writer's block in the future
SO LET'S DO THIS!
What is writer's block?
Quite literally, writer's block is defined as "the condition of being unable to think of what to write or how to proceed with writing." It's when your fingers sit on the keyboard, but your brain can't give them instruction on how to continue. It leaves you feeling unmotivated, creatively drained and undeniably frustrated.
There's one hard truth about writer's block, and it's both the good and bad news about it — it's all in your head. It's not a condition that infects your body like a virus. It's not a mental illness that requires professional treatment. Like any fleeting emotion — happiness, sadness, anger — writer's block is influenced by your environment, but 100% controlled by your brain.
Basically, we're not dealing with a broken arm here, people. You can pull yourself out of this one.
But to fix an issue that your brain is constructing, you first have to figure out why it's happening in the first place.
Why do we get writer's block?
There are a lot of reasons that people feel stuck in their creative endeavors. It's easy to blame it on a lack of inspiration, but no one made a successful career by sitting around and waiting for inspiration to strike. You've got to learn how to spark inspiration within yourself whenever you need it.
So, the root of the problem is established — you get writer's block because you're feeling uninspired.
Now you have to figure out WHY.
Here are common reasons I've experienced or heard others discuss AND how to beat them:
How do I beat writer's block?
You're Uninspired Because You're Distracted
It's very difficult to be jazzed about whatever you're writing while you're also doing something else. As much as you think you may be an all-star multi-tasker, you aren't if whatever else you're doing is keeping you from working. So, turn off the TV, put your phone in another room and leave yourself no other option but to work.
Distractions aren't just things like TV and snacks, though. I'm what I like to call an "A-1 Procrastinator." Meaning, if I have something I need to be doing that I don't want to do, I'll do ANYTHING else on my to-do list to take its place— clean the house, call a friend I've fallen out of touch with, reorganize the kitchen... ANYTHING but the most important task at hand. If you're like me, it's important not to rationalize this behavior because you're completing something else. Drop the dish towel and get back to that laptop, friend. It's not going to write itself.
You're Uninspired Because You're Overwhelmed
Too many things popping in that noggin of yours? I get it — sometimes we've got so many items on our mental to-do list that we feel paralyzed by the thought of tackling it one by one.
You know what to do here. Write it out. This is what I call mental dumping. Get out a piece of paper or word document on your computer (I highly suggest good ole pen and paper for this one) and list out every single thing you have going on in our head right now — your to-do list, what groceries you need this week, your aunt Mary's birthday that you're trying not to forget... all of it. Then, take that piece of paper, fold it up, and get back to your work.
You're Uninspired Because You're Directionless
This is super common in longer pieces of writing. Instead of being overwhelmed by other tasks, you're overwhelmed by this project and the fact that you have no idea where take it. It's called analysis paralysis, friend. But it's beatable too.
Remember those old-school, roman numeral-laden outlines that your professors used to require you to make when you were doing a research paper? They weren't just for fun/torture. Writing is easier if you make a roadmap first. You don't need to get fancy here, just outline where you need to take the piece, the points you need to hit, etc. and then work on filling in the gaps. By breaking it up into categorical chunks, you can take it one step at a time because you've already planned out how to connect the dots.
(pssst.. See the headers in this piece? That's the outline I've had sitting in my drafts for a week for this one.)
You're Uninspired Because You're Uninterested
Not every piece you ever write is going to shake you out of your chair with enthusiasm. Sometimes, it's just a snooze fest. But, you know what's less interesting? Sitting there and ruminating over it for longer than necessary.
If you can't think of ways to make the topic more appealing to you, revisit your WHY instead of the WHAT. Instead of thinking about the topic, find inspiration by remembering WHY you're writing it. If this piece itself is boring, what part of finishing this will be exciting? Say it out loud a couple of times. Maybe even write it at the top of the page. Consider...
- "It's important I finish this because..."
- ... it's a story that needs to be told
- ... the client is going to love it
- ... I need to pass this class to graduate
- OR "I'm excited to finish this because..."
- ... it won't be weighing on my mind anymore
- ... I get to go to a party after I finish
- ... I'll never have to look at it again
- ... I'm going to reward myself with _______
You're Uninspired Because You're Exhausted
Fact — when you're tired, so is your brain. Writing is very mental, and if you're eyes are closing, it's going to be hard to get words on the page. Now, in a perfect world, my advice would be to outline the piece, go to sleep and pick it back up in the morning. BUT, I'm assuming if you're reading this, you're probably on some sort of deadline and running out of time. So we've got to simulate alertness.
When I'm borderline asleep and need to get moving, here are a few things I've found get the job done:
- chug a glass of water
- have a light snack
- drink something caffeinated
- pump some seriously upbeat music (dancing optional but encouraged)
- go for a 10 minute walk
- do 30 jumping jacks
- laugh — call a friend for 10 minutes, watch some funny YouTube videos, whatever works for you
You're Uninspired Because You're a Perfectionist
This is perhaps the hardest one, because it's ingrained in us much more deeply than being sleepy or distracted. But perfectionism is important to recognize and refine in your life as a whole, not just when it comes to writing.
If none of the above is helping, you need to ask yourself — Am I unable to write this because I'm worried I'll fail?
BOOM. Many people struggle with any decisive action (not just writing) because they're obsessing over the repercussions — Will this not be good enough? What if I work really hard on this and it sucks? What if the client fires me? What if I'm not as talented as I thought?
The most important steps to solve this are: 1.) admitting your perfectionism is prohibiting you, not helping you. 2.) Realizing that not doing this at all because you're worried it won't be perfect is worse than finishing something that's incredibly average.
I have this written in a sticky note at my desk. I suggest you do the same — DONE IS BETTER THAN PERFECT.
Stop caring about word choice, grammar and winning a prize for how impressive this piece is and just GET. IT. DONE. Write the whole draft without carrying about any of that. Focus on FINISHING. Then, you can go back, clean it up and edit.
How do I prevent writer's block from happening again?
This is a toughie. Because writer's block is essentially a self-constructed state-of-mind, there's no preventative measures or pill to help cope. There is, however, one thing you can do consistently to make sure that it happens less and less.
WRITE MORE. (Sorry, don't hate me.)
Writing is like a muscle— it's got to be exercised often to be readily available to you. Just like you can't lay on the couch for six months and expect to pop up and run a half marathon, you can't avoid writing and expect it to come easy to you when you need it.
If you don't work in copywriting, freelance or a career that requires it all the time, there are still small exercises you can build into your routine. Here are a few I suggest:
- Journal / free write - I do this once a week. I write about whatever I feel like, and it can't be for public consumption. Try writing about an article you read, something that's been bothering you, your goals, anything.
- Try a writing prompt - There's a reason they made you do these in school. Try this list to get you started.
- Email or write a letter to a friend - We're so focused on texting and short communication these days. When was the last time you wrote a long letter or email to a friend? Deep-diving into communication with one is still a useful writing practice.
And, always remember: