Depending on the writer you talk to, writer’s block seems to be either:
(A) Something writers’ dread
(B) Something they run into without warning
(C) Something they don’t believe in–an easy excuse people use to avoid doing the hard work. A way of letting fear get to you.
It can be easy to discount something you’ve never experienced. However, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. A number of years ago, there was a well known child behavior expert who confessed to not understanding why so many people had so such difficulty in applying proven child rearing philosophies to their kids. He had a system that worked and genuinely thought people were making it far more complicated than it needed to be. Until the day he was blessed with A Difficult Child. Then all of his proven systems went flying out the window and he had to scramble to come up with new ones. He was forced to admit that those parents hadn’t been wrong after all. There really was such a thing as a difficult child. It’s not a bad idea to keep that story in mind when declaring there’s no such thing as writer’s block. It is quite possible that you simply haven’t run into it YET. Life’s journey is long and you may still find yourself on a road you blissfully thought didn’t exist.
It doesn’t help that the term writer’s block acts as a general catch all, covering a huge variety of very real, frustrating, energy-depleting and wildly different set of problems. So today, I thought we could unpack writer’s block and examine eleven reasons people find themselves stuck, then talk about ways to get unstuck.
1. Nothing you write works and you’re getting nowhere.
This isn’t being blocked, it’s being stymied. You’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere in the story and need to find your way back. In this case, step back and take a look at the big picture. Pull out your trusty plotting tools if you use them. Return to the last place where words were flowing. Look at the actions the characters take, the decisions they make. Were they forced? Cliche? What if they made a different decision? Experiment with a few different choices they could make and see if that opens up new possibilities.
2. Your characters aren’t cooperating and won’t DO anything.
In this situation, you’re often lacking the emotional fuel for the story. Go deeper into your character and do some journaling or writing prompts to discover their deepest feelings, motivations, and concerns. If you already know those, look for tangential ones—feelings and motivations that might even be hidden from the character. Another approach is to do a stream of consciousness journaling as to what they’re thinking/feeling immediately after the last scene you wrote. Or before the one you’re planning to write. You should find some breadcrumbs and ideas there.
3. You don’t know what happens next.
Usually the techniques in #1 or #2 will provide answers here, but if not, there are a couple of additional approaches. Do some worldbuilding to see if the environment will provide clues/plot ideas. Or research. Oftentimes plot solutions, surprising twists, unexpected angles can be found through research. Or consider doing some journaling from the antagonist’s POV. Map out the actions they’re taking to provoke/engage/block the hero. That, in turn, will give you some solid ideas of what the protagonist will need to do to block them, if not launch a counterattack.
4. Your creative well is empty.
This can be hard to identify but if your writing sessions keep feeling like you’re banging your head against a wall, there’s a good chance you need to take a break and fill that creative well before you dip into it again. Reading, walks, a vacation, or staycation, binging on Netflix, poetry, a different creative outlet, spending quality time with friends or family—any and all of those can be help you renew your creative spirit. Although finding some creativity to be inspired by is usually the best remedy.
5. You are overwhelmed by which direction to take the story.
Often, what feels like writer’s block is actually Decision Fatigue. When writing, there are so many choices to make–from the mundane to the critical. Few things can interrupt the flow easier than running smack into a series of choices and decisions we need to make before we can keep going. From setting details to core motivations, we have to stop writing and decide something.
And when that happens, it can feel a lot like writer’s block. But it isn’t. It’s dreading having to play 3D chess with ourselves while we try to figure out the implications of each decision. In this situation, there isn’t a dam across the river, but rather the river has broken up into a number of tributaries and we have to figure out which one to follow.
It can be helpful to radically simplify other aspects of your life and remove as many decisions as you can. Lists can also be a key tool against decision fatigue. They can help us ‘see’ the progression of everything from plot points to emotional arcs to timelines. From there, we can chart out decision points or work out how to tie seemingly disparate elements back into a unifying throughline. Sometimes, simply listing the options can make it obvious which ones to discard.
6. Words just won’t come.
You’re still excited about the story and you have your fabulous outline right HERE and are ready to go. You even know what comes next, but you just can’t get it on the page. In this case, you may be consistently writing faster than your natural pace. We can all do that for a short sprint, but not forever. Try to identify your writing style. Are you a Feast or Famine writer? Steady pacer? Maybe you’re trying to sprint faster than ideas and words are seeping into the holding tank. Sometimes, giving yourself permission to take a day or two (or five) off and letting your subconscious figure stuff out if the best answer.
7. Stumbling over missing details.
#7 looks very similar to #6 except in this case, you’re not out of words but stumbling over missing details, which in turn interrupts your flow. In this case, it can be helpful to take the time to gather the bricks you’ll need to lay down new road. Take a day or few to develop the town, streets, secondary and walk on characters, their names, brief sketches of their personalities, specific setting details, historical details—any pieces of information that you feel like you’re stumbling over—then have them at hand when you begin drafting again. This solution is almost a twofer: While accumulating what you need, you will also be replenishing the word well and have everything right at your fingertips when you need it.
8. You have a full emotional plate.
Look, we don’t write in a vacuum and sometimes life is just too overwhelming, sad, full, chaotic, or otherwise unsettled to be able to produce words. Writing requires mental space, not just allocated time. And sometimes the combined forces of our life suck all the creative oxygen out of the room. We need to accept this, as hard as it can be to do so. But we gain nothing by beating ourselves up for not being able to produce under whatever stress is burying us. We are all different and have different capacities for handling stress. So respect your process, even if that means not being able to write during times of extreme stress.
9. Sometimes, writer’s block is simply a focus problem.
Shut off the internet/social media now. No really. Let your mind find some quiet space. You will get twitchy. Probably even bored. But that’s good. Boredom is part of the gestation period for a creative burst. If you don’t believe me, read DEEP WORK by Cal Newport.
10. Too many professional commitments.
Sometimes we have too many professional author commitments on our plate and the pressure of those keep us from being able to get into the mindset necessary to create words. If this is the case, clear it. Closely analyze the ROI on what you’re doing. Pare down to what you love or what’s most successful or essential. No, not all of it is equally essential. No one can do everything AND find the creative space to actually write. If you’re not comfortable doing that, be honest with your readers and tell them you have to step back in order to write the next book. Readers are almost always supportive of that.
Caveat: If you’re one of those people whose creativity thrives on being busy, going, going, going, setting goals, hitting metrics, then this likely won’t apply to you. Look to some of the other ideas on getting unstuck instead. Or, conversely, add a couple of things into the mix.
11. You can’t find any enthusiasm for your writing.
When you do sit at your desk, you just stare at the wall or write the same sentence, paragraph over and over again. You feel listless and depressed, but can’t really identify why. You’ve tried all the other suggestions on this list and none of them work. This one is really important to pay attention to. You might be approaching burnout. Either from forcing yourself to write when life is too chaotic or simply writing more than your natural pace. We can all do extended sprints—for a time. But then the piper is due. The best resource I’ve found on identifying and fixing author burnout is Becca Syme’s YouTube series on Burnout, part of her Quitcast series. She also has a book that discusses it more in depth. I HIGHLY recommend both.
Have you ever experienced writer’s block? What tricks have worked for you to get yourself re-started?