Why You Don’t Have Writer’s Block
And how to overcome the three biggest impostors posing as it
No, you do not have writer’s block. Writer’s block does not exist. It’s a myth. An umbrella term we use for a variety of situations where we don’t know what to write, don’t want to write, or can’t express what we want to say. We say we have writer’s block because it’s easier than sitting down and unpacking the problem and thereby finding a solution.
Because unpacking any problem invariably starts the process of finding a solution. Even if we don’t like the solution any more than we like the problem.
Don’t believe me?
That’s okay. Let’s look at a few situations and see how this assertion bears out. It’s not entirely my own, after all, it’s a popular mantra doing the rounds.
1. You don’t know what to write about
Often when you’re in the mood to write but don’t know what to write about, you’re in a battle with endless opportunity versus the blank page. It may be there are so many things you want to write about that you just can’t decide which to focus on. Or it might be that you think you don’t know anything about anything. We all get those days.
So, what do you do?
If you have so many ideas you can’t choose, open a spreadsheet, and write down all the ideas in column A. See you’re writing already. Then, when you run out of things you might want to write about one day, go to the top row, and write out a few criteria that you might use to chose what to write. That might be personal knowledge, interest, popularity on x, y, or z search engine, social media platform etc, and competition on Google.
If you’re at the other end of the scale and think you don’t know anything about anything, open a spreadsheet and write a list of everything you don’t know in column A. When you’re done, go to the top row, and write your criteria for choosing, such as desire to learn, popularity, and competition. See a similarity there? When you’re feeling better, you can go back, insert column B, current knowledge, and put realistic numbers in.
In either case, you can now work down your list filling in numbers in your spreadsheet in a way that makes sense for you. You might number everything on a scale of 1–10. You might put the exact number of search results, the search volume from some keyword research tool, or something less scientific. How you score the ideas doesn’t really matter. It’s all subjective anyway.
Then, when you get to the end, if an idea still hasn’t jumped out and grabbed you, you can search by each of your criteria and see which are consistently near the top. Or you can put fancy formulas in the end column that weigh each column and give you a score to help you decide what to write next.
If you’ve done all that, and you still haven’t found something to write about, then not knowing what to write isn’t the real problem, and it’s time to look at something else as the culprit.
You don’t want to write
This one’s really easy. If you don’t want to write, then you’re not a writer. In which case, you don’t have writer’s block, you’re just a non-writer trying to write something. Which usually means you don’t know how to go about building your piece. That’s not block, that’s a lack of knowledge.
Unless you mean you don’t want to write right now. In which case, it might be because you don’t know what to write about (see above), you don’t know enough about what you want to write about (coming up) or you’ve been writing too much and your brain just needs a break. If that feeling of being creatively exhausted persists, you’re into the realm of what most people mean when they say they have writer’s block, but what is really just recovery time.
Here’s the dilemma. You can’t be a professional writer, or a professional creative of any kind for that matter, without adopting the bum in seat principle. If you’re going to do this as your career, you have to put in the hours, do the work, and stay in the room no matter how hard it gets. If you run away to do something else every time the going gets tough, you’re never going to create anything worthwhile.
Even if you manage to put out a brilliant piece with little effort, at some point it’s going to start to feel like work. And that’s when the professional part of professional writer kicks in. You write dross. You play writing games, use prompts, and do whatever you have to do, even if it’s building a piece instead of writing it (again, coming up) to get the thing out the door.
On the other hand, creativity needs breathing room. It needs a day at the beach (or up a mountain, or in a museum, or wherever else you feel like taking it) now and then to relax and reset. If you’ve been working too hard, and you’re feeling burned out, give yourself a break. That’s not writer’s bock, so don’t give it a label that’s going to make going back to work when the time comes harder.
If you’re no longer feeling exhausted, and you know you’re rested enough to get back to work but resisting it for fear of burning out again, put some barriers between you and working too hard. Put limits on your work. Use a timer, and force yourself to stop when it goes off until you’ve found some healthy balance. But don’t call it writer’s block, call it resistance, that’s what it is.
Commit to getting your butt in the seat for a set amount of time, and creating a habit of it. If you’re prone to overworking, commit to getting your butt out the seat at the end of the session. Whether you’re burned out or resisting getting started, just sit in the chair and open the blank page. Never be afraid of the blank page, I have a trick for overcoming it every time.
You can’t express what you want to say
So. You’re in chair. You’ve opened the file, and you’re staring at the blank page.
I promised you a trick to overcome that getting started problem every time. Here’s what I use. I start typing,
I’m supposed to be writing about … but I’m not because …
and just let the words come out. Often, before you know it you’ll have a page full of excuses, or genuine concerns, or things you need to look up. It’s surprisingly easy to then turn those things into a list of things to do, look up, or fix.
Even if you don’t get past the first sentence, and write something like “it doesn’t interest me,” or “I don’t want to,” those answers will take you back to the two other sections in this article above. Anything else is an action point.
If you’re not writing because you don’t know enough about the subject, or because it’s overwhelming, difficult, or just won’t take shape, then you can always resort to building the piece instead of writing it.
What do I mean by that?
Break the thing down into subjects at it’s broadest level. Then break each one down into topics and subtopics. For each topic, write a bullet list of the points to make, facts to look up or share, and people to quote. Then just turn your outline into sentences, add introductory and summary ligatures, and you have a rough draft. You can go from there to editing, and finish a piece without ever doing a “sit down and write” session as most people know it.
In fiction, you can take a similar approach. Write your overall story line. Turn that into a beginning, middle, and end. Then break it down into chapters, and break the chapters into scenes. Then block out what happens in each scene in bullet points. Add sensory and emotional trigger words to include. Then write the dialogue for each character in each scene (you can do each character’s dialogue for the whole story in one pass, one character at a time if it helps you develop individual voices). Once you have dialogue, insert actions, and then add in the narrative summary that ties it all together. Before you know it, you have a rough draft you can start editing without ever have done the “writer” thing of forcing words onto the page in perfect sequence.
See, writing doesn’t have to mean battling the blank page. It’s not about knowing exactly what to say all the time. It’s about keeping moving forward. And if, when you are writing things up, you come across something you still haven’t figured out, you can write around that, too.
My writer friend Kate Williams shared this trick with me back during NaNoWriMo 2010, and I’ve been using it and sharing it ever since. If you get to a point where you don’t know what to say, but don’t want to interrupt the flow, just use hast tags (or some other symbol that you prefer) to leave yourself a note, ###like this### and continue writing as though you had solved the problem. Then, during editing, you can do a search for ### and fix all those niggling issues, knowing how the whole piece turned out.
Will these few tricks mean you never suffer writer’s block again?
Yes and no. Yes, because if you agree that writer’s block isn’t a real thing, but a conglomerate of issues that might be holding you back, you’ll know it’s not writer’s block, and will look for the real problem instead. Which should mean you come unstuck sooner. But no, these few tricks won’t mean you never get stuck again. They’re just my personal Pareto Powerplays, meaning they get me unstuck at least 80% of the time.
I hope they help you. If you have other tricks that get you unstuck, I’d love to hear them.