How to overcome writer's block: 5 tips to get unstuck
Writer's block: a universal struggle for creators. We've been there. Here are five tips to beat writer's block that’ll get you unstuck and back to writing.
You finally did it.
You set aside time to work on that blog post you’ve been meaning to write.
You pour a fresh cup of coffee, sit down at your keyboard, roll up your sleeves, and . . .
It’s writer’s block. The bane of every writer’s existence -- especially when there are a thousand things to do, and you really don’t have time to stare at a blinking cursor all day.
A blank Word doc is a discouraging sight. And even though we’ve all heard stories of great writers struggling through weeks or even months of writer’s block (looking at you, Stephen King), you don’t have that kind of time.
The good news is that writer’s block isn’t incurable. In this post, we’ll talk about what causes writer’s block -- and five tips on how to conquer it.
What is writer’s block?
Writer’s block is when a writer can’t keep writing or creating something new.
You feel stuck.
The words aren’t coming to you.
Your mind is blank. Or it’s racing -- but you can’t turn thoughts into words.
Writer’s block has probably been around since early humans got a creative block working on cave drawings, but psychoanalyst Edmund Bergler coined the term in 1947.
But make no mistake: writer’s block has been around a long time, people just weren't writing about it until the late 1940s. According to Google’s Ngram Viewer, anyway.
As for how to define writer’s block, that’s hard because people experience it differently.
For me, writer’s block feels like the words are trapped behind a locked door in my brain. I know they’re there, but I can’t seem to get them out and onto the page.
For others, writer’s block, like dealing with imposter syndrome, is rooted in insecurity about their work.
Understanding how something works can make it less intimidating. So, what causes writer’s block?
In the 1970s, clinical psychologists Jerome Singer and Michael Barrios studied a group of writers suffering from writer’s block over several months. They found four main causes of writer’s block:
- Self-criticism: You’re your own harshest critic! Perfectionism can be the enemy of creativity.
- Fear: You worry about being compared to other writers or putting your ideas out there. What if they’re not good enough?
- Lack of intrinsic motivation: You don’t have the desire to write. Maybe you’re doing it because you feel like you have to, not because you want to.
- Lack of extrinsic motivation: There aren’t any external factors (like praise, attention, or money) encouraging you to write.
More bluntly: Writer’s block comes from feeling bad about yourself, writing, or both.
And now that you understand writer’s block, it’s time to kick it to the curb.
How to overcome writer’s block: 5 tips that actually work
Writer’s block tip #1: Don’t procrastinate
“The scariest moment is always just before you start.” – Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
It’s so easy to put off writing when it doesn’t come easily to you. “I’ll just try again another time,” you think to yourself. “I’ll come back to this once inspiration hits.”
Don’t let yourself procrastinate.
The hardest part of any task is getting started.
Social scientist and A.I. researcher Eliezer Yudkowsky wrote, “On a moment-to-moment basis, being in the middle of doing the work is usually less painful than being in the middle of procrastinating.”
The more you procrastinate, the more anxious you’ll feel. Procrastination is a slippery slope.
But as soon as you begin, the hard work gets easier.
“Stop procrastinating” is easier said than done, though. To look at procrastination more scientifically, productivity expert James Clear riffs on Newton’s Laws of Physics:
“Objects at rest tend to stay at rest. The good news? It works the other way too.
Objects in motion tend to stay in motion. When it comes to being productive, this means one thing: the most important thing is to find a way to get started. Once you get started, it is much easier to stay in motion.”
To stop procrastinating, write something -- anything! -- for two minutes. Jot down your schedule for the day, your grocery list, a review of the last movie you saw, or what you can remember from last night’s dream.
As soon as you get those creative juices flowing, the hardest part is over. You’re in motion.
Our next tip deals with how to stay in motion.
Writer’s block tip #2: Practice freewriting
“Pretend to be making something until you actually make something.” – Austin Kleon
Freewriting is a writing technique where you write whatever comes to mind for a set amount of time -- without judging yourself, your words, or your ideas. That includes grammar and spelling, too.
“It's easier to edit than create," says James C. Kaufman, a professor of educational psychology at the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut. "To generate from scratch seems harder than building on what's out there."
Here’s how to freewrite:
- Set a timer. You can start with two minutes and work your way up, or challenge yourself to write for 10 minutes.
- Don’t stop writing until your timer goes off.
- Write as quickly as you think. Get your thoughts down on paper (or a Word doc) as soon as they come to mind. Don’t stop to judge or censor them.
- Use the first word that comes to mind. Now isn’t the time to whip out the thesaurus.
- No, really. Don’t stop writing until your timer goes off.
- Repeat as regularly as you can. Set aside weekly or monthly freewriting time as part of your writing schedule.
And keep this quote from best-selling author Jodi Picoult in mind: “You can’t edit a blank page.”
A lot of what you write may not be usable, but it also might be a great first draft for your next blog post or online course.
Based on psychologist JP Guilford's theory of creative problem solving, writing and editing use two separate processes: writing involves generating ideas, while editing involves evaluating ideas.
That means writing is easier when you don’t stop to reread and edit each sentence. Don’t give in to the pressure to find exactly the right words as you write. Perfect is the enemy of good.
Instead, go back and edit your writing later. Make editing a separate part of the creative process. Imperfection drives innovation.
Freewriting trains your brain to turn your thoughts into writing. It might feel weird or pointless at first, but it’s like training any muscle: You practice until you get stronger, and the work feels easier.
Next up, it’s time to make your writing practice official with a writing routine.
Writer’s block tip #3: Create a writing routine
You probably don’t have time to write 500 words every morning like Graham Greene, but you can still create a writing routine.
When you sit down to write at the same time, in the same place, with the same cup of tea or movie soundtrack to accompany you, you’re telling your body and mind it’s time to write.
In Professors as Writers: A Self-Help Guide to Productive Writing, Robert Boice, Ph.D., compared regular and spontaneous writing. He found that people who regularly schedule time to write are more productive.
Pick a time of day when you’re most likely to be focused and alert. If you’re a night owl, it probably doesn’t make sense to make 8 A.M. your writing time. For morning people, don’t wait until midnight to start a new draft.
If you’re not sure which you are, there is something to be said for early birds, much to our night owl editor’s chagrin. Early birds make 2.5 fewer mistakes per 100 words than night owls.
Once you have your writing routine planned, make sure to schedule breaks in your writing schedule. A 2014 review in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience by Simone Ritter, Ph.D., found that our brains keep working on a project while we’re taking a break from it.
A lot of break-takers swear by the Pomodoro technique, so named after a tomato-shaped kitchen timer:
- Set a timer for 25 minutes
- Work until the timer goes off
- Take a five-minute break
- Repeat four times, then take a longer break
If you still have trouble focusing, there are a ton of productivity tools out there to help you block out distractions and figure out what exactly you spent the last hour doing instead of writing.
(If you need more of a nudge, check out this article for even more productivity tips.)
Something else to add to your routine? Regularly reading other people’s writing.
Writer’s block tip #4: Read someone else’s writing
“Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” – Stephen King
Neuroscience posits that people are more creative when they’re exposed to other people’s ideas.
Reading can help get you out of a creative rut. You can read articles from thought leaders in your niche, content by creators that inspire you, or even that book on your nightstand you’ve been meaning to get to for months.
Creativity researchers agree that looking outside of your industry can help you find inspiration and form new solutions. Make reading a part of your creative process!
Plus, reading is good for you: Reading for as little as 6 minutes a day can reduce stress by 68%.
(Just make sure you’re only inspired by others’ writing, not copying from it.)
And if you don’t have time to read a novel or even a full article, read social media posts. No, I don’t mean your Facebook feed. Look up the trending topics in your industry or niche, and see how people talk about them online.
Is there a common question that you know the answer to? Do people keep sharing the same struggle -- one that you know how to overcome?
Google “[industry] + forum” to find out where people are talking about your industry online, or use a tool like BuzzSumo to identify the current trends in your niche. Reading about trending topics can help you find inspiration for your next blog post, online course, or webinar.
So, thus far, we’ve covered that you need to write, and you need to read. But our next writer’s block tip might be the most important one yet: You need to treat yourself well.
Writer’s block tip #5: Be kind to yourself
“Show up and try. Devote as much attention as you can to the work, and try to ignore the noise in your head about whether you’re good enough.” – Steve Almond
Now for some bad news -- you might freewrite weekly, have your writing routine down to a science, and read every article or book you can get your hands on, and still run into writer’s block.
Because you’re human.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anna Quindlen wrote, “People have writer’s block not because they can’t write, but because they despair of writing eloquently.”
Don’t hold yourself to impossibly high expectations. So many creators deal with perfectionism and self-doubt, but those things make us less productive, not more.
Dr. Valerie Young explains: “The nature of creative work makes everyone more vulnerable to feeling inadequate and even more so if you are not classically trained.”
You probably already know you need to be nicer to yourself, but how do you quiet that constant inner critic?
Psychologist Kristin Neff identified three main components of self-compassion:
1. Self-kindness: Be understanding toward yourself when you mess up or feel inadequate, rather than criticizing yourself. Self-kindness means that you realize being imperfect, failing, and struggling are inevitable parts of life -- don’t make it harder by getting angry with yourself.
2. Common humanity: Realize every creator suffers through creative block once in a while. It’s part of the human experience. When you realize feeling uninspired and doubting yourself is something everyone goes through, it can help you be kinder to yourself and feel less alone.
3. Mindfulness: Being kind to yourself doesn’t mean pushing fear or self-doubt down so that you never have to think about it. You can’t be compassionate if you ignore every negative feeling. Plus, mindfulness can make you more creative and productive at work.
When you practice self-compassion, you’re more likely to feel good about and even enjoy your work and thus avoid burnout.
And enjoying your work makes it easier to get done: Happiness makes you 12% more productive than your less happy peers.
It might also help to know that not being perfect is good for your brand. 86% of consumers have said authenticity is important when deciding which brands to support.
You don’t have to share every moment of self-doubt with your audience, but know that they don't expect perfection. They just want you to be real.
And if none of that inspires you to practice self-compassion, know this: Improving your happiness can lead to higher earnings and better job performance.
When you’re kind to yourself, it makes everything easier -- including your writing process.
Get more creator tips delivered right to your inbox
Join thousands of creators receiving weekly articles about launching, growing, and thriving as a creative entrepreneur.
Cure writer’s block in 5 steps
Writer’s block gets the best of us all -- even professional writers.
With these writing tips in your toolbox, you’ll be ready to get writing again:
- Don’t procrastinate. Once you get started, the hardest part is halfway done. Trust us. It’s science.
- Practice freewriting. Don’t pressure yourself to find exactly the right words -- just start writing. You can always go back and edit your writing later.
- Create a writing routine. Schedule writing time into your week like you would any other meeting. (And don’t cancel on yourself.)
- Read someone else’s writing. Good writers are good readers. Reading what others have to say about your niche or industry can help you figure out what to write. Just make sure that you’re finding inspiration, not copying anyone else’s ideas.
- Be kind to yourself. You’re human -- and your audience likes that about you. Do your best to practice self-compassion. It’s good for your brain and your business.
If you’re ready to start creating, we’re ready to help. Hi, we’re Podia. Let’s make something together.