By Kat Lewis
Editor’s note: This post was originally published in 2021 and has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.
We can all suffer from writer’s block, and it can be intensely frustrating when we do. If you’re writing your own book or even starting your own blog, the thought of staring at a blank screen might have you running for the hills before you’ve even typed a word.
As a senior editor, suffering from writer’s block is far from ideal, but I’ve come to learn that it’s a natural part of the creative process. That’s why I’ve collated some top tips on how to overcome writer’s block that I’ve learned in the decade or so I’ve been working as an editor.
But first, let’s start with the basics.
What is writer’s block?
Writer’s block occurs when you get stuck in the writing process without the ability to move forward and write anything new. Some people describe it as “the failure to put words on paper” or “a complete stoppage of your creative juices.”
While you’ve probably come across a few guides on how to cure writer’s block, it’s important to first understand the psychology behind it.
Writer’s block can be caused by a wide range of factors, such as fear, perfectionism, self-criticism, and external pressure. Maybe you’re scared of putting yourself out there. Or perhaps you’re criticising your ideas before they’re even fully formed.
Whatever the case may be, the following tips will provide you with some much-needed clarity on what to do when you have writer’s block.
In my experience, starting is actually the hardest part of any writing project, so my first piece of advice is to just start. Write anything. It really does help.
If I’m being completely honest, when I’m beginning any new project, I still suffer from what I would describe more as “blank page paralysis” than writer’s block. When I start writing a book, I will frequently write a few paragraphs, delete them, write them again, delete them, and, eventually, I’ll find a flow and words will come more easily.
There’s nothing wrong with these false starts. They are a bit like stretching before you go for a run – you’re getting ready for what you’re about to do. If you think that you’ve got something good in one of your “false starts”, but you don’t want to use it just yet, simply copy it into another document and save it for later. No content is ever a waste!
P.S.: For more tips on how to overcome “blank page paralysis”, check out our blog: 3 Refreshingly Simple Steps To Beat The Blank Page And De-stress Content Creation.
What do you want to write about?
Sometimes, we put unnecessary pressure on ourselves to begin where we think it’s logical, which is at the start. If you’re working on a large project, like a book, there’s no need to start with your introduction or Chapter 1.
In fact, we routinely advise our authors to come back to their introduction once they’ve got the rest of the content in place. Why? Because the introduction is hard to write without a solid overview of what will come next.
When you haven’t put a single word on the page yet, writing an introduction can seem like a gargantuan task. Instead, write a few chapters. Choose subjects you are excited to write about or that you feel very comfortable with. Your words will start to flow, and you’ll be surprised where they lead you.
Return to the introduction at the end of writing the main content for your book, and I guarantee it will flow much more freely and feel more natural than it did at the beginning of the project.
Go for a walk
Going for a walk is probably on every single list of ways to combat writer’s block. If everyone recommends it, then that’s probably because it works. Personally, I find walking gives my brain a bit of time to formulate thoughts away from the restriction of a page.
All the ideas I’ve been working through percolate as I walk, and what comes out at the end is often much more useful. Sometimes, I might be struggling to find the best way to connect two disparate topics; another day, I could be trying to think of a good book title, or I may be trying to find the best way to describe a complex concept in more simple language.
When I go for a walk, rather than thinking about the work I’ve left behind, I consciously focus on what’s going on around me – the wind in the trees, the birds flitting from branch to branch, the first signs of spring emerging after a long winter, the crash of the waves on the beach. I give myself permission to not think about writing and when I do that, my brain often seems to decide it’s much happier to write by the time I get home.
Have a change of scene
If you’re wondering how to get rid of writer’s block for good, a regular change of scene can be a real game-changer. Luckily, even if you’re a homebody, there are various ways to have a change of scenery without leaving the comfort of your home.
I routinely switch between sitting at my desk and sitting in my favourite chair with a laptop tray. I’m still in the same room, but just changing where and how I’m sitting often helps me find some kind of renewed enthusiasm for writing.
On some days, I go to my favourite coffee spot, set myself up in my favourite booth, order a steady stream of coffees and get stuck into work.
Write or plan with a pen and paper
I’m not suggesting that you write an entire book by hand, but there is a lot to be said for the physical act of writing rather than typing.
I always have a notepad and pen handy to scribble ideas, brainstorm or just doodle and write a bit of nonsense. If you’re struggling to get started with a particular chapter of your book or a blog post, take a piece of paper and a pen and plan it out. Do you remember writing essay plans when you were at school? I had no idea how useful that skill would be to me as an adult.
I routinely make “plans” for the content I’m writing. I’ll use a plan to make sure that all the ideas that need to go in are covered and that they feature in a logical order. This is exactly what we do with our book briefing process too – we create a framework to follow.
Personally, I like writing these plans by hand. They are mostly illegible scribbles and shorthand, but these plans help me order my thoughts and show me where I’m going. I also love a good list, so I tend to tick off the different sections as I’m working, which makes me feel like I’m making progress.
Know when to call it a day
Sometimes, there’s nothing you can do to get those words to flow. You can go for walk after walk, move around your home, write a plan and still nothing seems to come to you. You become a master of procrastination, doing anything but typing some words into that blank document.
Unless you have a pressing and looming deadline, I suggest that on days like this, you give yourself a break and set your writing aside for another day. Of course, you can’t do this every time you struggle to write. Otherwise, you will never complete your book.
However, we all know in our heart of hearts when we’re procrastinating but have it in us to do some work vs when we’re just done. On days when you truly can’t face writing, take some time out. More often than not, when you come back to your writing, you’ll feel ready to get started, and it won’t feel like an uphill battle.
How long does writer’s block last?
Writer’s block can last for as little as a few hours to even a year. That’s why it’s so important to build a writing system that works for you and gets your creative juices flowing.
If you’ve written a book, are writing a book or regularly write your own content, what techniques have you found to help you when you’re hitting that metaphorical brick wall? Do you use any of the ones I’ve suggested? Or, if you try them for the first time, let us know if you find them helpful!