We Need to Talk About How We Talk About Writer's Block
So, today’s episode is going to be a little different. I know I said in the last post I’d be starting a new series on worldbuilding, and I will—in another episode. Today I have a special announcement to make, but first, I wanted to discuss a piece of old writing advice that just won’t go away.
Have you ever sat down to outline your novel and gotten stuck? Or maybe you’re working on your first draft but draw a blank whenever you open up your word processor. If you’ve tried to write a novel before, chances are you’ve experienced what is referred to as “writer’s block.” And chances are, if you researched how to overcome it, you found advice like the following:
“You’re just letting fear get in your way.”
“Act professional! A mechanic doesn’t take a day off because they aren’t feeling inspired!”
“Writer’s block isn’t real.”
Now, the first two pieces of advice can be true for some writers, but I often find those who spread this kind of dialogue present fear or a lack of professionalism as the be all end all to writer’s block, which simply isn’t the case. And, time and time again, these same people will follow that advice with the good old “writer’s block isn’t real.”
I hate this advice, and, frankly, I think it’s past time for it to give up the ghost and die.
Now, I’m not here to call anyone out. Most authors who dole out this advice do so with the best of intentions. What they don’t realize is that framing writer’s block as just fear, or just a lack of professionalism, or as something that just isn’t real can be problematic. It’s oversimplistic. It can be gaslighting. It trivializes what can occasionally be a pervasive, complex problem.
So, I’m here to tell you first and foremost that blocks are real, but “writer’s block” is not a diagnosis, it’s a symptom. It can be a symptom of a whole host of different problems, and how you treat it depends on what it stems from.
I’m going to break this post into two parts. First, I’m going to share some of my early experiences with writer’s block, because I think it illustrates why I think telling new writer’s that their block isn’t real can be unintentionally damaging.
Second, I’m going to give a non-comprehensive list of some of the issues that can cause writer’s block as well as some tips that may help you work through it. I wish I could give you a complete list, but because, at least in my experience, much of the writing community has been unfortunately very dismissive of writer’s block, it’s been hard for me to research tips to overcome it. But I’ll do my best, so let’s dive in.
MY JOURNEY WITH WRITER’S BLOCK
I wanted to write stories from an early age. Before I knew my alphabet, I used to draw pictures, staple them together, and sit my dad down at the table with a pen as I dictated what he was to write on each page of my book.
When I got older, I devoured writing advice blogs, honing my skill. I would plan full fantasy novels, outlining them in excruciating detail. My characters were in my thoughts while I ate breakfast, whenever my mind drifted off in school, and while I laid in bed waiting to fall asleep every night. The one thing I didn’t do?
Write a novel.
It wasn’t that I hadn’t tried. As I said, I’d outlined a novel in detail—several novels, in fact. I knew everything that was supposed to happen, but I never, in years of trying to write, got past two chapters in my manuscript.
So, of course, I did what many beginner writers do: looked up advice from other authors. Blog after blog, interview after interview, told me I wasn’t putting in the work. I wasn’t acting professional. My writer’s block wasn’t even real.
At first, this fueled me to work harder. For weeks, even months at a time, I made sure to sit in front of my word processor for a minimum of a few hours each day. It didn’t help. So I made sure to rid myself of any distraction. I turned down invitations to hang out with my friends. I turned off the television. I banned myself from getting up for a snack or a glass of water.
But no matter how hard I pushed, no matter how much I planned, no matter how much time I stared at my computer screen, I couldn’t write.
Eventually, I started to believe what the writing blogs told me.
That I wasn’t being professional. That I wasn’t working hard enough. That my writer’s block wasn’t even real, and if it wasn’t real, then experiencing a block meant I obviously wasn’t a real writer. So why bother?
I gave up writing because everyone told me my writer’s block wasn’t real.
But, as I found out years later, my block was real.
If you read my earlier posts, you probably saw me talk about how I found out as an adult that eating gluten really screws up my body. It gave me almost constant migraines, which caused me to deal with a lot of brain fog. If you’ve never had brain fog, it can, just as the description implies, make it really hard for you to think clearly. It’s not that you’re stupid, in fact I did very well academically, but my creative side was severely impacted.
A few weeks after going gluten free, my health started to improve. My migraines all but disappeared, I suddenly had a lot more energy, and my brain fog went away. Even though I’d given up on writing, the characters from my stories had stuck with me all those years, so a few months after going gluten-free, I decided to give my novel another try.
Two months later, I finished the first draft of a 180,000 word novel. As many first novels are, it was terrible, but it was an accomplishment I’d thought was impossible. All this because I’d gone gluten free.
All along I’d been being professional. Until I quit writing, I had been putting in enough effort. But my writer’s block was real, and hearing others gaslight my struggles very nearly ended my life as a writer.
WHAT CAUSES WRITER’S BLOCK
Like I said before, writer’s block is a symptom, not the diagnosis, so some authors are correct when they say writer’s block stems from fear or from not putting in the proper effort. But, writer’s block can also stem from many other problems, so here is my incomplete list of issues that might cause a block.
This fear can be because you’re a perfectionist and you’re afraid of writing something that sucks, but fear can also come from impostor syndrome—feeling like you’re a fraud and every other author is better than you.
I won’t lie. It can take a lot of work to train yourself to deal with these issues. I think one of the best ways to work through this is to get involved in writing communities and to develop an understanding of how writing and publishing works.
First, no one expects your first draft to be perfect, so you don’t need to expect it to be perfect either. Don’t feel anxious about mistakes. Even seasoned authors write novels that need serious fixes or sometimes end up being scrapped altogether. It’s part of the process of growing as a writer, and the great thing is you are allowed do-overs when you edit! Learn to allow yourself to make mistakes; take a burden off your shoulders.
Second, even though we tend to think of writing as a solitary activity, storytelling is a bit of a collaborative experience and always has been. At the end of the day, you get to call the shots when it comes to your novel, but you’re allowed and encouraged to work with critique partners, beta readers, and eventually agents and editors who will help you improve your novels and craft. Having someone else read your manuscript can be a scary thought too, but these people are there to help. So, again, take a little of the burden off your shoulders, because you’re not in this by yourself.
Another reason getting involved in writing communities will help you is because you get to help others. This is going to sound horrible, but one of biggest confidence-builders for me was seeing writers who were newer to the craft than I was and were making mistakes I’d learned not to. This wasn’t because, “Ha ha! Look how terrible they are and how awesome I am!” It was taking myself out of my box and allowing myself to see how much I’d learned and improved. It helped me realize, “Oh, I do know one or two things about writing.” The more I helped others, the more comfortable and confident I became in my own skills.
2. Lack of knowledge and craft.
Inexperience can be both a blessing and a curse when it comes to writing. Sometimes, being ignorant to what qualifies as “good” writing craft can be freeing, but other times, a lack of writing skill can make you stumble.
The good news is you can learn writing craft. Explore AuthorTube and look for authors who talk about writing craft. Study different kinds of plot structures. If you’ve got the money, you can buy books on writing craft. Perhaps most importantly: read! Read the kind of books you want to write, then pick them apart to figure out how the author did what they did. This will help you learn to think about novels in a critical way, which will help you understand how to write your own novel.
3. A lousy work ethic.
Maybe you aren’t setting time aside to write, or maybe you’ve set the time aside, but you just have trouble sitting down and getting started.
A lot of this does come down getting your priorities straight. Do you really want to be a published, professional author? It’s okay if the answer is “no,” but if the answer is a resounding “yes,” you need to spend time actually writing.
Some authors will try to say you must write every single day, or you must write for this many hours a day, or you must write a minimum of 1000 words per day. I’m not going to do that. Life is a thing, and until writing becomes your day job, there will be other things you’ll need to prioritize over your writing. But if you are serious about becoming a published author, you absolutely must find time somewhere in your life to fit in some writing.
Try to form a writing habit. You don’t necessarily have to write every single day, but try to schedule regular writing time and stick to that schedule—whether that’s a specific time like Tuesdays at 5:00 P.M. or less specific. I have a friend who does most of her writing during bath time. Start small if you really have to. A two-hour block of writing time can seem daunting to a new writer, but fifteen minutes is probably manageable. So start small and push yourself to do more when you’re able.
Completing a ritual before you write can also be a simple but effective psychological tool to put your head in the writing game. Some people have a coffee and play a book-themed playlist for ten minutes before writing. Maybe you always have a writing session after you’ve gone for a walk. Find something that signals “writing time” to you and see if having a ritual helps you get those words down.
4. Improper writing environment.
Some people can write anywhere. Sometimes those people think anyone should also be able to write anywhere. But some people do need the “right” environment to be able to focus. Telling them they should be able to write anywhere is kind of like telling an insomniac they should be able to sleep whenever they want.
This isn’t always easy, especially if you live with your family or roommates or have noisy neighbours, but try to experiment with your writing environment to find out what works best for you. Maybe keep a writing journal and track your word counts and habits. Do you need music to write, or absolute silence? Do you write better in the morning, afternoon, or evening? Do you get better word counts sitting on the couch at home or at a table in a café? Did that coffee you drank beforehand help you focus, or did it make you scatterbrained?
Once you think you’ve collected enough information, pull from that data and try to make sure you’re in your ideal environment whenever you sit down to write. If you live with other people, try and get them to understand and respect your writing time, but also be reasonable with your demands of them.
5. You think you’re a discovery writer, but you’re actually an outliner.
Maybe you’ve heard other writers talk about how they discover the story while they write it and you think that’s how it’s supposed to work, but whenever you try your hand at it, you never get anywhere. A writing block of this kind might mean you’re not a discovery writer. You could be an outliner.
Try a little brainstorming or work on an outline for your novel. Start smaller and try to outline a single scene before you write it. Does having a formulated plan help you get you out of your funk?
6. You think you’re an outliner, but you’re actually a discovery writer.
If you’ve been outlining your novels because you think you’re supposed to, but you lose all interest in actually writing your story once you know everything that happens, you just might be a discovery writer. And that’s okay. I might not understand you, but I’m here for you anyway.
If outlining your novels kills all the joy you have for writing, try experimenting with writing without a fully-fledged plan. Find an idea that excites you, then try to write a scene to see where that idea takes you. If this reignites your passion, you might want to experiment with different degrees of planning your novel to figure out exactly where you fall on the outliner/discovery writer spectrum.
7. You know something is wrong.
Sometimes there is something wrong with your novel that needs to be fixed. Sometimes you’re experienced enough to know what’s wrong but haven’t determined how to fix it yet. Other times you can’t put your finger on the issue, but you know something feels off.
It might help you to follow my advice for perfectionists and allow yourself to make that mistake. Maybe put a placeholder in your manuscript to remind yourself to come back later so you can move on now, but sometimes the issue is too big to ignore. This is another time being involved in local or online writing communities can be a big help. If you’ve got trusted writer friends, try talking to them about your problem and see if they notice anything you don’t.
For me, I sometimes don’t even need a writer friend to give me advice, simply talking through my problem to something with a face helps me discover a solution on my own. I have a friend who isn’t a writer who I’ll sometimes talk to. She doesn’t point out how to fix my novel, but she does ask questions to help her understand the story, and often that’s enough for me to realize myself why something isn’t working. Heck, I’ve even figured out what’s been holding me back by voicing my problems to my cat.
If you simply can’t brainstorm a solution, you might need to take a break for a day or two and let your brain sit with the problem subconsciously for a while. Just be careful about waiting too long.
8. Depression and other health issues.
Unless you experience clinical depression, you probably didn’t expect to see this on this list. Depression can make it so hard to motivate yourself to do even the things you love, and medication for various health issues can contribute to writer’s block. This is another reason why it’s so important not to trivialize writer’s block, because it can and does stem from serious problems, and the last thing people living with those issues need is for someone to suggest their block isn’t real.
This is a hard one for me to give out advice for several reasons, not the least being I’m not a doctor or therapist. The best advice I can give is to prioritize your health. Talk with your doctor and qualified mental health professionals to find treatment plans and coping methods that help you. If you can find other writers who are open about sharing your health issue, see if they have any tips to help you.
This entry is sort of a catch-all. Writer’s block can stem from so many different kinds of disabilities like ADHD or dyslexia. If you’re dealing with any kind of disability that makes it hard to focus, to read, or write, it’s probably going to be easier to develop blocks too.
I fall into this category myself, and while I can’t give targeted advice to every disability out there, I find what has helped me is to take frequent breaks during my scheduled writing time and to be gentle with myself. It’s hard for me to see people on Twitter complaining about how they only managed to write 4000 words today, when 4000 words is above and beyond what is fair for me to expect of myself. If you’re doing what you can to write regularly, whether that’s every day of the week or just one, don’t sweat the word counts too much. The more you make your writing a habit and the more you learn writing craft, the more those word counts are likely to go up little by little.
Most people aren’t going to have results as drastic as I had going gluten-free simply because they try to eat more vegetables, but a proper diet can and does affect the health of your mind and thus your writing ability.
Another thing to keep in mind is that your diet today is going to have an impact on the health of your brain as you get older. Again, I’m not a doctor or nutritionist, so I’m not going to give you a specific diet plan (please don’t make drastic changes to your diet without consulting licensed health professionals), but if you want to be writing long into old age, try to have a balanced diet including all the good things that are going to help you keep your cognitive abilities well-sharpened from now until you’re grey-haired.
If you keep a writing journal like I mentioned earlier, it’s not a bad idea to make a note of what you’re eating either. You might not see much difference if you normally eat junk food but spend just one day eating balanced meals, but if you spend a few weeks or months trying to eat healthier, you might see improvements in your health, mood, and even your writing.
A poor diet isn’t the only thing that can impact the health of your brain. I know my mood and creativity suffers when I don’t get enough exercise.
There is such a thing as over-exercising yourself, so don’t feel like you have to spend six hours at the gym every day, but if you’re an able-bodied person, getting in your 10,000 steps a day and spending some time each week doing some cardio or weight training will help you keep both your body and mind ready to do some writing exercises later.
A lot of people won’t be able to do this, but until it broke down, I owned a treadmill I converted into a tread desk, and I discovered I actually got my highest word counts while I was using the tread desk.
We talk a lot about how important a good night’s rest is when it comes to health, but I rarely hear people talk about how important it can be for writing, too. It’s easy to get a block if you’re too exhausted to understand your outline or the last line of dialogue you wrote.
It can be hard to find time to write in this day and age of taking our jobs home with us, and some writers cut back on sleep to make time for their novels. I … wouldn’t recommend this unless you were oversleeping to begin with. It may seem alright in the short term, but sleep really is important. Even if it means less time for writing, you’ll likely have better writing sessions if you go into them well-rested and alert.
If you’re dealing with hard times or are juggling too much in your life, you’re bound to get stressed out, and stress is one of the most common reasons I get writer’s block. This is yet another reason it’s a bad idea to tell people their writer’s block stems from them not acting professionally. If someone has a stress-related block, sometimes the worst possible thing you could tell them is that they need to sit down and write through it instead of taking a much-needed break.
If you’ve got too much on your plate and are finding yourself too stressed to write, you may need to offload one or two of your responsibilities, if you can. Maybe you need to tell that person who asked you for a favour you just can’t do it. Maybe you need to ask for help from family members who aren’t pulling their weight. I’m looking at you, Pollux. Clean your own litter box, you lazy butt.
As much as the world likes to tell you it is, a little leisure time each day should not be considered a luxury. You need time to relax, and just because writing is fun doesn’t mean it isn’t also work. If you’re getting burned out or too stressed because every spare moment you have goes into your writing, it’s okay to allow yourself a break or a holiday now and then. Your novel will thank you later when you return to it refreshed.
Yet another thing you probably didn’t expect to see on this list. There’s a lot of writing advice out there that doesn’t seem to understand how privileged you have to be to follow it. If you live below the poverty line, you might be experiencing a multitude of problems that get in the way of you writing. Maybe you’re working two or more jobs to make ends meet. Maybe you can’t afford internet to do novel research and are reading this post by swiping a friend’s wifi. Poverty will stress you out. Poverty can cause health issues. Poverty can prevent you from eating healthily or from having the time to exercise or get enough sleep.
The nature of this problem makes it hard for me to recommend a “writer’s block treatment.” The best I can say is: take care of yourself. As long as it’s healthy to do so, find time to write wherever you can. Maybe write while on the bus ride to work. See if there’s any way for you to get your hands on dictation software and dictate your novel while you do laundry or the dishes. Again, ask for the support of friends and family in whatever form they can give it, and be easy on yourself if you don’t have the time to write 4000 words a day.
That’s my list of potential causes of writer’s block and some tips to work through it. As I said, it’s probably a very incomplete list, so if you get writer’s block for reasons not on this list or if you’ve discovered tricks that help you get through a block, please share them below. I think it’s important for the writing community to have a serious, inclusive, discussion on writer’s block.
This was an important but kind of depressing post to make, so I decided to end this post with some exciting news. I deal with some pretty bad impostor syndrome myself, but this year I finally decided to take a chance and query one of my novels. And it paid off. I’ve found a home for my novel, The Wolf’s Name.
The Wolf’s Name is my adult historical fantasy novel, and it’s set to come out in late 2022 or early 2023. I wrote the first draft of this novel several years ago but set it aside because of that nasty impostor syndrome sometimes, but I’m very excited to have found a home for it. I’m really enjoying working with my editor so far.
If you’re interested in learning a little more, there’s an acquisition announcement here.
That’s it for this post. If you think we need to adjust how we talk about writer’s block, go ahead and like this post, leave a comment, and tell us how you deal with blocks.