The Truth About Writer’s Block

I’m writing this because I moderate, or belong to, a goodly number of online writing groups and the question of writer’s block comes up a lot. I usually end up writing a long response so I thought I’d just do it once here, and then link to it in future.

Do I have any credentials for writing on this subject? Well, I was a magazine editor and journalist for 20 years, plus I’ve written and published a whole bunch of books. And, from time to time, I have stopped writing. So, yes, I believe I do.

First bits

People who write professionally, and to deadline, tend to scoff at the concept of writer’s block. After all, if you have to deliver your copy tomorrow or you don’t get paid, well, you deliver your copy tomorrow. Nothing’s going to stop you short of the house burning down, and maybe not even that.

On the other hand, there are writing dilettantes who will never actually write a book and claim they have “writer’s block” as if that somehow legitimises them as writers. Writing is a tough business, and some people just don’t have what it takes to get those words down on paper and, as Neil Gaiman said, finish it.

Here we go…

Sometimes a writer cannot write. They tend to call this “writer’s block” but the cause could be one of many things. Writer’s block is a symptom, not a cause.

Therein lies the problem.

A writer says “I cannot write, therefore I have writer’s block. What is the solution to writer’s block?” As if there is some generic cure-all. In fact there are snake-oil salesman who will play on that and promise to deliver a cure-all. Or just well-meaning people on the inter-tubes who think they know the answer because they did something that worked for them one time.

Let’s look at a reductio ad absurdum:

“My arm is broken, I cannot write. I have writer’s block! What’s the solution to my writer’s block?”

Or:

“My computer is broken, I cannot write. I have writer’s block! What’s the solution to my writer’s block?”

This is obviously stupid.

But it’s what writers do: they describe any inability to write as “writer’s block” and then look for the solution to writer’s block.

What they don’t do is find the exact reason they can’t write and fix that.

In those extreme examples: the solution to the broken computer is either fixing the computer or getting another one; while the solution to the broken arm might be dictation, writing with the other hand, waiting till it’s fixed, or something. Just not asking for the cure to writer’s block.

Popular solutions to writer’s block

I stole these off the internet from here:

Go for a walk.
Eliminate distractions.
Do something to get your blood flowing.
Play.
Change your environment.
Read a book.
Freewrite.
Listen to music.

Are those going to fix a broken arm or a computer? No.

But come on, Steve, you’re just being flippant and your examples are extreme. That’s obvious.

True, but I wanted to make sure my point was clear before moving on to the good stuff.

The good stuff

Every single one of those solutions listed is targeted at two (and only two) common reasons for so-called writer’s block:

“Fixated attention” and “must write”.

When your attention becomes too fixated on the work you cease to be able to think creatively, so doing something else helps to unfix your attention. Ta-da! Yes it works, for that situation.

“Must write” is a more subtle variant of fixated attention. A writer can become so focused on the need to write (I MUST write every day, I MUST finish this work, I MUST write good words) that they cease to focus on the actual business of getting the words on the page. And the more they fail to get the words on the page the more intense the MUST becomes. It’s a vicious spiral — and doing something else is really hard because they MUST WRITE!

But these ways to cure writer’s block are effective only for these types of issue. (And maybe getting new ideas.)

Other causes

Here’s a non-exhaustive list of other reasons for writer’s block (I’ve run into most of these at one time or another):

Writing-based problems:

No story (or insufficient story): Maybe you have what seems like a great idea for a story but it isn’t. Maybe there’s nowhere to go with it. You can’t write the story because there isn’t one. Solutions: Get another idea. Brainstorm this one and see if it can be expanded out, and so on. (The fixes listed above could help with this because you might get an idea. So could having a shower, see below.)

No idea where the story goes: You’re stuck and can’t write because you don’t know what happens next. Solutions: Figure it out. What’s the end? What’s going to happen to the protagonist? What about sub-plots? Work it backwards from the end to the beginning.

Wrote yourself into a corner: Ooops. You can’t write because there’s nowhere to go. The road you took with the character does not lead in the direction the story is supposed to go. Solutions: Is this actually a better road? Do you need to change the end? Delete back to where it was working and go left instead of right? Make sure the problem isn’t that there’s no story here.

Missing research: To me it’s not a question of “write what you know”, because the very obvious fact is that you can’t write what you don’t know. (If you don’t know something how can you write it? You can’t. Obvious.) I stopped writing a fantasy novel once because the protagonist had reached a town belonging to a completely different race. It took me a long time to realise I couldn’t write about it because I hadn’t figured out anything about the social structure of this race. Solutions: Research! And if it’s completely fictional, make it up!

Other causes:

Clash of priorities: Sometimes there are things to be done that are more important than the writing. You can even use writing as an excuse for not doing them. But your attention is constantly being pulled away by the other things. Solution: You just have to do those other things first and then, when they are cleared away, you can focus on writing properly.

This can be confused with procrastination but they are not the same thing because procrastination is avoiding writing by doing other things that are less important.

Personal concerns like: Not eating properly; Not exercising enough; Physically ill; Financial problems; Addiction.

Doing writing exercises is not going to fix any of this. Maybe they need to be sorted out before you get back to writing, maybe you can deal with both simultaneously.

Bad people: This one is really important. Nothing can kill your ability to create more effectively than having a sociopath among your family or friends. Unfortunately they are not uncommon (say about 1 in 10), though their effectiveness varies.

They will set out to destroy you through mental abuse disguised as constructive criticism (or maybe just a straight attack, though that’s easier to recognise and deal with). And they’ll make you think it’s all you. If they can’t be made to shut up (sometimes it’s possible), the only solution is to cut them out of your life. (You’ll probably feel more alive too.) Don’t think you can fix them permanently, they can’t be fixed easily, and you don’t need to waste your time on them, you owe them nothing.

The daily news: This is filled with hate and unpleasantness, especially at the present time, and is quite capable of blocking your creativity because, as a creative, you are full of empathy so it hurts you. How you deal with this is up to you, but I can certainly recommend reducing your consumption, maybe limit it to a specific time of the day. You might even try cutting it out completely.

This also can apply to social media. Block the bad guys. Always. (If they’re family, unfollowing might do the trick but it usually isn’t enough. Block works every time.)

And that’s it

I’ve said my piece: Writer’s block is not a thing, it’s a symptom and you don’t fix the cause by treating the symptom. The tricky bit can be figuring out what the cause actually is. (I didn’t say it was easy.)

Maybe that’s why people prefer just to say “I have writer’s block”.

Anyway, I hope this helped.


A Plea

I don’t suppose I’m going to change the world but it would be really great if you could stop using the term “writer’s block” because it’s inaccurate and potentially damaging.

Damaging? Sure. If the reason for not writing is that the idea has no legs, then constantly doing writing exercises isn’t going to fix it and you’ll be stuck forever. Writers need to write. And if the reason for not writing is smoke inhalation in a burning building, I wouldn’t recommend free-writing just at that point...

There you go again, Steve, exaggerating.

I know, but that’s how you get the message across.


Bonus: Why is a shower better than a bath for writers?

When it comes to figuring out plot solutions and having ideas, showers win hands-down over baths. And there’s a reason.

It has to do with the fixated attention thing. In a bath you can still have your attention fixated because all you have to do is lie there. In a shower you have to be active, and that unfixes your attention, allowing you to come up with ideas.

You’re welcome.