I was working one day for a poetry competition and had written one line—‘Beauty makes crime noble’—when I was interrupted by a criticism flung at me from behind by T.S. Eliot. ‘What does that mean? How can crime be noble?’ He had, I noticed, grown a moustache.
What inspired you to start writing in the first place? Perhaps you’ve got a favorite book you could turn to — or an author you admire. When you find yourself feeling stuck, it can really help to return to these sources to reignite that initial spark.
Make a list of favorite books and authors, then consider what you love about each of them. What do they have in common vs. how are they unique? Think about specific writing techniques or literary devices you could implement in your own work, or themes that you find especially compelling.
Take The Great Gatsby, for example — are you drawn to the parties and glamor of 1920s New York? Perhaps you’re captivated by the extravagant, larger-than-life characters or the drama and intrigue throughout the story. Or maybe you love the literary embellishments of Nabokov — it might be tough at first, but you could try writing in a similarly elaborate style.
Work out what you look for in the books you read, whatever it might be, and incorporate that into your own work. (And the next time you find yourself wanting inspiration, well, that’s a perfect excuse to read even more!)
Problem: You have ‘too few’ ideas.
You don’t know what your next project is, or your next chapter, or your character’s next move. You are stewing in a pot of “I don’t know,” going in circles trying to figure out what to do and how to do it. You feel like you’ll never have another good idea as long as you live.
What to do: Indecision is fear in disguise. This is true not just in writing. Sometimes what feels like poverty of thought is actually FOMO (fear of missing out). You don’t want to work on just anything, after all – you want to work on something deeply meaningful and profoundly resonant. If you can’t figure out what that is, you think: Why begin at all? And so, you remain shut down, seemingly at a loss for ideas.
Accept that you can’t force profundity. In its (temporary) absence, reclaim your sense of play. At the top of a piece of paper, write “10 Terrible Ideas” (for my story, for my character, for my essay, etc.), and see what comes up. Then write “10 Even Worse Ideas” and see where that goes. Write fast without editing. Marvel at how you just came up with 20 ideas. Do any of them hold a kernel of promise? Do this several times and see where it takes you.
How to Beat Writer’s Block
In 1920, a sixteen-year-old Graham Greene decided that, after “104 weeks of monotony, humiliation, and mental pain,” he could no longer remain at Berkhamsted, the prep school where he was enrolled. He fled, leaving behind a note of resignation for his parents—his father was the school’s headmaster—, and was discovered on the heath soon after. The escape proved so troubling to his family that it led to a six-month stint in psychotherapy. It was a fortuitous turn in Greene’s life. He got a break from the school he dreaded and acquired a habit that would prove crucial to his life as a writer: Greene began keeping a dream journal, to help him channel his mental distress in a more productive direction.
For anyone familiar with Greene’s prolific output, it’s hard to believe that he could ever suffer from writer’s block. But, in his fifties, that’s precisely what happened—he faced a creative “blockage,” as he called it, that prevented him from seeing the development of a story or even, at times, its start. The dream journal proved to be his savior. Dream journaling was a very special type of writing, Greene believed. No one but you sees your dreams. No one can sue you for libel for writing them down. No one can fact-check you or object to a fanciful turn of events. In the foreword to “A World of My Own,” a selection of dream-journal entries that Greene selected, Yvonne Cloetta, Greene’s mistress of many years, quotes Greene telling a friend, “If one can remember an entire dream, the result is a sense of entertainment sufficiently marked to give one the illusion of being catapulted into a different world . . . . One finds oneself remote from one’s conscious preoccupations.” In that freedom from conscious anxiety, Greene found the freedom to do what he otherwise couldn’t: write.
Writer’s block has probably existed since the invention of writing, but the term itself was first introduced into the academic literature in the nineteen-forties, by a psychiatrist named Edmund Bergler. For two decades, Bergler studied writers who suffered from “neurotic inhibitions of productivity,” in an attempt to determine why they were unable to create—and what, if anything, could be done about it. After conducting multiple interviews and spending years with writers suffering from creative problems, he discarded some of the theories that were popular at the time. Blocked writers didn’t “drain themselves dry” by exhausting their supply of inspiration. Nor did they suffer from a lack of external motivation (the “landlord” theory, according to which writing stops the moment the rent is paid). They didn’t lack talent, they weren’t “plain lazy,” and they weren’t simply bored. So what were they?
Bergler was trained in the Freudian school of psychoanalysis, and that background informed his approach to the problem. In a 1950 paper called “Does Writer’s Block Exist?,” published in American Imago, a journal founded by Freud in 1939, Bergler argued that a writer is like a psychoanalyst. He “unconsciously tries to solve his inner problems via the sublimatory medium of writing.” A blocked writer is actually blocked psychologically—and the way to “unblock” that writer is through therapy. Solve the personal psychological problem and you remove the blockage. This line of thinking is fine, as far as it goes, but it’s frustratingly vague and full of assumptions. How do you know that writers are using their writing as a means of sublimation? How do you know that all problems stem from a blocked psyche? And what is a blocked psyche, anyway?
As it turns out, though, Bergler’s thinking wasn’t far off the mark. In the nineteen-seventies and eighties, the Yale University psychologists Jerome Singer and Michael Barrios tried to gain a more empirically grounded understanding of what it meant to be creatively blocked. They recruited a diverse group of writers—fiction and non-fiction, poetry and prose, print, stage, and screen—some of whom were blocked and some of whom were fine. The blocked writers had to fit a set of pre-determined criteria: they had to present objective proof of their lack of writing progress (affirming, for example, that they had made no progress on their main project) and attest to a subjective feeling of being unable to write. The symptoms had to have lasted for at least three months.
Barrios and Singer followed the writers’ progress for a month, interviewing them and asking them to complete close to sixty different psychological tests. They found, unsurprisingly, that blocked writers were unhappy. Symptoms of depression and anxiety, including increased self-criticism and reduced excitement and pride at work, were elevated in the blocked group; symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder, such as repetition, self-doubt, procrastination, and perfectionism, also appeared, as did feelings of helplessness and “aversion to solitude”—a major problem, since writing usually requires time alone.
“Open up the document, turn off the internet, and start writing. If you’re not sure what happens next in the story, skip to the part of the story where you know what is going to happen. Start writing there. Just start writing.”
How to Cure Writer’s Block: 23 Proven Ideas that Actually Work
T he fact is that almost every writer faces writer’s block at some point in their career. Deadlines, storylines or even airlines can be the cause of this intellectual affliction. Writer’s block is real and can greatly affect your output.
What is writer’s block?
Writer’s block is when a writer experiences creative slowdown or can’t create new work; essentially an artistic full-stop. It’s the inability of an author to compose new, original material that moves a narrative forward. The term writer’s block is used in reference to any writing or composition process where creativity is stunted. The production of new work grinds to a halt. It’s often referred to as creative constipation. Frustration, fear, anger, dread, and other strong emotions sometimes accompany it.
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Reader Comments (20)
Great suggestions! I’ve used quite a few of these techniques in the past and they work. For example, letting your brain work on an issue subconsciously. Sometimes when you’re trying to force your brain to think about a certain thing, it’s counterproductive. But if you switch to a different task, especially something completely different, often I’ve come up with the idea I needed.
I also liked the points about just getting started, writing regularly (ideally every day) and writing from a different location (like a coffee shop). On the point about writing from a different location, I’ve found I tend to be most productive when my environment changes often. When I worked primarily from home, I would go to a coffee shop once or twice a week, and sometimes a different coffee shop on different days. Now I alternate between my home office and an office I rent. I find it’s helpful to switch things up. On occasion, when the weather permits, I like writing outdoors too, whether in my yard or a park. It can really help to get the ideas going and think about things from a different perspective.
Thanks Todd, I definitely belong to the school of productive procrastination myself. I also find coffee shops ideal for research and first drafts, and quieter locales better for editing and polishing. Working outdoors tends to be too distracting for me, or I should say, too relaxing, lol. But if I’m in daydream mode, I can definitely sit and stare at the trees. Cheers –
One technique that I have been using to help with this, is the 5-second rule by Mel Robbins. This is where you count backward from 5 right before you have to tackle a project. Since your brain is not really used to counting backward it triggers all these new neurons and you are able to focus a lot better.
In my opinion the best, and possibly only way to effectively combat writer’s block is to put the proverbial pen down (after all, we all type now, right), put on your jacket, and head off for a half-hour walk. The therapeutic effects alone of this simple practice are enough to get the neurons firing on all cylinders again.
In my case, it’s a combination of things that have already been mentioned. But the main ingredient is to just start writing something. I’m definitely not in the Toni Morrison camp of “not trying to write through it”. I’d get nothing done if I didn’t force myself.
I’ve developed some mind-maps that are basically outlines of structure for various types of writing I do frequently. For the maps, I’ve used pen and paper, index cards, software – doesn’t really matter. Visually seeing the structure and essentially “filling in the blanks” to get an outline has worked great for me.
My biggest solution is having a shower or picking up my knitting. For some reason, the process of washing my hair or working on a craft project always kicks the creative part of my brain into gear and then I’ll get a new insight about whatever writing I’m working on. Which in all fairness is fine when I’m knitting – I can put it down and pick up a pen – but it gets a bit irritating when I have a burst of inspiration in the shower and I have nothing to write with!
This is really interesting, and it makes a lot of sense! As a freelance writer, I find myself dealing with writer’s block quite a bit, and sometimes the only way to get rid of it is to walk away from the computer and do something completely unrelated to my work, like folding laundry or reading a book. I appreciate that you acknowledge writer’s block exists, because some writers have this attitude that it’s just an excuse, and I knew that couldn’t be true!
Thank you for all the great information. I havn’t been writing too long and my mother died a couple of months ago which resulted in my brain closing down. I am ready to get going again physically but the brain is just not responding so will be attempting a few of your suggestions.
Thanks for the valuable piece of content! For me, the best way to sparkle your inspiration is to do something that you have never done before. Do you know your neighbours well enough? What if they have something to share with you that you’ve never known before?
I loved the insights you have on how to overcome writer’s block, sometimes the brain just needs some time to think and when it’s working for too long, it’s difficult to get something out of it. Taking breaks every now and then refreshes the mind and suddenly you are filled with ideas and the quote from Seth Godin, it was life-changing. I started using the speech-to-text option on my phone and my life has never been easier ever before.
How to Get Rid of Writer’s Block: Make Writing a Habit
Ultimately, working through writer’s block is about developing practices that make writing a habit—on good days, bad days, and everything in between. What this looks like is completely up to you and what will really work in your case. Start experimenting!
Overcoming Writer’s Block Starts with Experimentation
Especially for newer writers, the best thing you can do is understand what writing habits are best for you. Experiment with where, when, and how you write to find a place and style of writing that consistently lets you get words onto the page.
Your next story or poem might be best written on a typewriter. It might also be best written while staring at your phone, tucked in bed at 1 in the morning. That’s not to promote unhealthy sleeping habits, only to suggest that “real writing” can happen in any space.
Maybe you’re too tired to write when you finish work at night. Try writing in the morning! Maybe your laptop keeps dragging you onto Twitter. Buy a notebook! Maybe writing feels boring and isolating. Try it in a coffee shop!
Another great way to get the words flowing is to join a writers group. Depending on where you live, you might find writing groups on sites like Meetup or Eventbrite. If all else fails, check your local library.
Clear away any preconceived notions of what “writing” looks like, and find what will make your writing process work for you. If you try to force yourself to write in one specific way, you might be stifling your creativity and preventing ideas from coming naturally.
Consistent Creative Motivation Comes from Creative Habits
Overcoming writer’s block means setting the words down, no matter how great, terrible, logical, or nonsensical they are. The most successful writers have learned how to get rid of writer’s block by experimenting with when, where, and how they write, found the processes that best suit their writing needs, and developed a rock-solid writing habit.
Stephen King writes 10 pages each day, even on weekends and holidays. Haruki Murakami runs a 5K to clear his mind. Allegedly, Agatha Christie liked to sit in the bathtub, eating apples and looking at crime scene photographs, especially when she was out of ideas. The lengths writers go to to write!
Have you considered meditating your way through writer’s block? Meditation can improve your ability to focus and help sustain attention, thus guiding you to get the words on the page again. Suppose you are looking for more space for your writing (pun intended). In that case, Headspace is one of the best meditation apps that provides a low barrier to entry if you want to see whether mindfulness is for you. If it helps you form a new habit, the app will be there for your journey.
Someone struggles with putting pen to paper and can’t get their thoughts out. Regardless of whether it’s something as simple as a school report or as complex as a full-length novel, they just can’t bring themselves to write what they want.
This tends to involve one of two things: either someone tackling a temporary writing assignment, or someone who writes for a living. Often, to get past it, the person in question has to overcome some kind of mental block in order to continue writing. A "No More Holding Back" Speech may happen as the character breaks their restraints and moves forward.
In these cases, it rarely crops up more than once in a work. In the former, this is because the task of writing is never mentioned again — it’s a subplot or single episode plot only. In the latter, once overcome, said writer never runs into that obstacle again.
Set a writing schedule
Many experts say scheduling time to write is the best way to be prolific; Silvia says it’s the only way. Robert Boice, PhD, a psychologist who compared regular, spontaneous and emergency writing for his 1990 book "Professors as Writers: A Self-Help Guide to Productive Writing" found that regular writers produced more work.
How much time is up to you, but Silvia says four hours per week should allow for a good amount of output. Pick a time when you’re likely to be mentally acute and observe it with the same dedication you put toward attending class, he advises. "If someone tries to interrupt your writing time, come up with a beige lie, like a work meeting or visit to an allergist. Put it on your calendar so colleagues can see you’re busy."
Your writing may improve with practice, too. According to Ronald Kellogg, PhD, a psychology professor at Saint Louis University and author of "The Psychology of Writing" (1994), regular writing practice may help reduce writing’s demands on working memory, freeing experienced writers to create and revise more nuanced prose (Journal of Writing Research, 2008). Boice’s study found that regular writers also had more new ideas.
Many psychologists accept the theory that the creative process has four stages: preparation, incubation, illumination and verification. Note the first stage. If you can’t figure out what to say, it may be your brain telling you to do more research, Silvia says. A strong outline can help organize your thinking on how to tackle a piece, though many people don’t outline anymore, thinking "it’s like cursive writing, something your teacher forced you to do in grade school," he says.
What’s referred to as writer’s block is waiting for the third phase of creativity: inspiration, says Oshin Vartanian, PhD, editor of the 2013 book "Neuroscience of Creativity." If you’re stuck on something, give it a rest for a day or two. A 2014 review in Frontiers of Human Neuroscience by Simone Ritter, PhD, from Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands, found that even when we consciously take a break from a project, the brain is still tinkering with it. Sleeping may also help consolidate ideas and associations we’ve gathered during the day. "The problem is still percolating unconsciously in your mind. Incubation really helps creative insights," Vartanian says.
Flowrite is an AI writing tool that turns short bullet points into ready-to-send emails and messages in seconds. And it can also help you to solve writer’s block! When you are stuck, Flowrite will instantly give you an idea of what the final email or message should look like with the click of a button. This is possible thanks to our intelligent templates that guide the AI to generate the type of email or message you’re looking to write. If you already know what you would like to say but can’t get the words out of your head, here’s what to do. Just jot down a couple of bullets as instructions, select a template for the type of email or message you are about to send, and watch the AI writer do its magic.
When you are experiencing a writer’s rut, it’s increasingly important to write down even the fleeing thoughts and ideas whenever the inspiration strikes. It’s also equally important to keep things you write structured and organized to ensure that the clutter is not occupying your mind from writing. Evernote is a fully-fledged note-taking app that provides the backbone for all of this. Thanks to an easy-to-format word processor and sync, you can effortlessly make notes on things that pass your mind no matter where you are and dive into the storyline late on.
Mind mapping helps you to break writer’s block by breaking you out of your typical ways of thinking. Miro is one of the most exciting apps that help you capture, organize, and map out your ideas and thoughts. Despite being designed for distributed teams, Miro has proven to be the perfect balance of simplicity and function for bringing thoughts to life also when working individually – at least here at Flowrite. As an infinite virtual whiteboard, it provides you all the flexibility for mind mapping you won’t get with just pen and paper.