We all know the scenario: you have the urge to create, to compose a poem or to write a story, but a huge barrier slams down between your imagination and the page. The dreaded writer’s block.
You have three options to deal with this block:
- Come back another day in the hopes it will be gone.
- Sit and stare at the paper or white screen all day long.
- Work actively against the block.
Serious writers can’t afford to bow down to writer’s block. Time is too precious. Like Jack London said, “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”
Well, you’ve come to the right place. Here be clubs.
Reasons for Writer’s Block
Writer’s block may stem from some kind of inhibition that comes between you and expressing your thoughts. In order to overcome this inhibition, you need to pinpoint its source. Here are some common creative reasons for writer’s block. Which one is stopping you from writing?
Reason #1: The Quest for Perfection
A creative idea has unfurled in your mind in exquisite detail, and you sit before your notepad or computer, expecting it to transfer quickly and smoothly onto the page. Yet nothing you write seems to compare to the brilliant vision in your mind. And the longer you struggle, the more your masterpiece fades from your memory. You might even start to question whether the story is worth telling.
- Cause: You’re seeking perfection. It does not exist. As Voltaire said, “Perfect is the enemy of good.”
- Solution #1: Be lenient with yourself. A second-grade draft is better than a first-grade nothing. Don’t try to nail the exact vision in your mind. Try to bracket it. There will be time later for editing and polishing.
- Solution #2: Instead of writing the story itself, write about the story, as if you’re telling a friend what’s so great about it. Try to catch your enthusiasm and that sense of perfect vision. This will help guide you later as you transform the vision to actual words.
Reason #2: The Blank Page
You’re sitting in front of the blank screen or writing pad, and you can’t bring yourself to defile the virgin white expanse of emptiness. The story in your mind is either vague or complicated, and you don’t know how to approach it.
- Cause: Beginnings are scary.
- Solution #1: Don’t start with the first scene of your story. Imagine that’s already written, and start with the second scene or with any scene you feel more comfortable with. You can always come back to it later.
- Solution #2: Take a writing prompt that gives you a first line to continue, or snatch a random line from a song you like. That will move your starting point past the obstacle, so you can continue any way you wish. Having the first line already written gives your story or poem a certain voice and character that, if you manage to capture, may guide you as you continue.
Reason #3: What’s Next?
You’ve written an amazing scene, and now you don’t know quite how to follow it. Or perhaps you’ve just given your protagonist a painful choice to make, and you’re not sure what they’ll do. Or perhaps you’re in the middle of a dialog and you don’t know how your antagonist should reply. So what’s next?
- Cause: You’re not familiar enough with your plot structure or your characters.
- Solution #1: Stop writing and get to know your plot or characters better. If it’s plot, break it down to acts and scenes. Brainstorm the best settings for each scene, and how to open it. Imagine your novel or story as a film in your mind: how would you shoot the scene? On what would the camera pan and focus? If it’s your characters, try writing an interview with them where you question how they acted in that particular scene. Having them talk about it in your mind will help you hear them more authentically.
- Solution #2: Try the “many options” approach. Instead of trying to hit on just the right scene, write down ideas for as many scenes as you can. Instead of trying to nail that perfect dialog line, write down as many alternatives as you can. Then choose the best and develop it from there.
Reason #4: You’ve Gone Stale
You feel lethargic and you’ve lost your passion for the central message that is driving your story. You can’t engage with your imaginary world – instead you are staring at the keyboard, trying to summon up some enthusiasm for your work.
- Cause: You may have been driving yourself too hard toward that single goal of completing your story. Working to creative exhaustion is counterproductive.
- Solution #1: If you’ve filled your daily quota, and you feel satisfied with how much you’ve written today, then the simplest solution is to take a break and do something else. Try a brisk walk outside to air your brains and creativity. A nice warm shower (or bath) can do wonders. Cooking works great. Whatever you do, don’t brood about your story, but let your mind wander and be refreshed.
- Solution #2: Still not satisfied with the amount of writing you did today, and you’re loath to quit your desk just yet? No problem. Simply switch to some other writing activity, one with a fresh start and all the accompanying new enthusiasm. Take a random writing prompt (http://www.allwritingprompts.com). Brainstorm ideas for other stories. Work on a blog post or a poem. Surprise yourself.
Reason #5: Too Personal
You’re writing a heartbreaking scene or poem, and suddenly you worry your prose hits too close to home, revealing too much about yourself. Or you’re exploring some new, dark places and they scare you.
- Cause: Bravo! You’ve left your comfort zone.
- Solution #1: Breathe deeply. Your strongest writing comes from working outside your comfort zone. Give yourself time to come to terms with what you’ve created, and work through what it means to you. Come back to your writing another day and see if the added distance allows you to accept it.
- Solution #2: If you can’t come to terms with what you’ve written, revise it until you feel more comfortable with it. Take smaller steps outside your comfort zone—build up your confidence slowly and surely.
Reason #6: Lack of Confidence
Also known as: you suck. Everything you write sucks and doesn’t deserve to exist: the characters’ emotions fall flat, their observations are unoriginal, you are using clichéd phrases, and there’s no sparkle or excitement to make the reader turn the page. You can’t bear to put any more energy or passion into something that is so bad.
- Cause: You’re judging yourself too harshly, or you’re not in the right mood to appreciate your writing. That doesn’t mean you should stop writing.
- Solution #1: Forbid yourself to re-read what you’ve written. Lower your head and forge through despite the bad feeling. It’s just that: a bad feeling. Tomorrow you may feel better, and then you may discover that what you’ve written today is just fine. Most of the time, given the perspective of time, you won’t be able to tell apart the parts you thought were brilliant as you wrote them from the parts you couldn’t stand.
- Solution #2: Do a reality check with a beta reader. Let them read your work and comment truthfully about it. Go to someone you trust, and then do trust their review. If they say it’s good, then it’s good, no matter if you can’t see that at the moment.
Which One Is You?
Whatever reason you have for being stuck, look up the relevant solutions and wage war against your writer's block. Best of luck!