Let’s do something fun and pick apart a common experience: writer’s block. Whether you’re a writer or not, you probably know the struggle of trying to think of what comes next.
It could be as grand as an artist stopping halfway through a masterpiece.
Or as simple as having ten chores to get through and not knowing where to start.
What happens when you’re disconnected from your thoughts like this? What causes it?
And what can you do to overcome it?
(Note: This article focuses on literal writer’s block – the inability to write. But you can adapt the principles to whenever you’re feeling stuck.)
What is writer’s block, really?
I used the word “disconnected” above. That’s what writer’s block feels like – being disconnected from a place, state or emotion where writing flows easily. As I write this, I have relevant thoughts about writing that smoothly translate into words on my screen.
It’s nice, easy and effortless.
In this way, writing well is a form of flow state. As Csikszentmihalyi describes it, you enter the flow state when the task you’re doing is just difficult enough to stretch your skills. This absolutely applies to writing – at least, for writing worth reading.
Anything too easy or too hard to write is going to turn to garbage on the page.
In Stealing Fire, Kotler and Wheal describe altered states of consciousness as states where you lose awareness of yourself, you lose all sense of time, it feels effortless to continue in the task and there’s an intensity (or “richness”) to the experience. Again, this applies perfectly to writing.
So your best writing happens in the flow state or during an altered state of consciousness.
Which means writer’s block is when you can’t get into the flow.
And you’re too conscious to write.
Would anyone challenge that definition? That’s exactly what it feels like to me. It’s like you can’t fully switch off and just write.
Disconnected from writing by your own thinking.
Emotions don’t (always) cause writer’s block – here’s what does
There’s a theory that writer’s block comes from negative emotions. If you’re upset from a fight with your best friend, anxious about writing well or insecure about your skills, it can keep you from writing.
That all makes sense and resolving emotions can help.
However, this is far from the only cause. Even with a clear head and calm emotions, you can struggle to string a sentence together, let alone an essay.
You can be an amazing writer and still run into this obstacle. After all, it’s called “writer’s block” – it assumes you’re a writer in the name.
If a lack of skills or confidence isn’t causing it, then what could be?
Chances are that you’re stifling yourself with your own rules and strategies.
Think about what I said about the flow state and altered states of consciousness. If anything is going to disconnect you from these, it’s the wrong sort of conscious thinking.
Writing is an unconscious activity. When you move your arm, you set an intention – you don’t consciously fire each muscle in precise sequence. Likewise, when you write, you don’t consciously choose each word – you set an intention and the words pour out.
If you try to consciously interfere – whether with your arm or your words – it all goes haywire.
If you have writer’s block, then your writing rules and strategies are making you far too conscious.
Common thought errors that create writer’s block
If you want to write, then you need to follow rules and strategies. If nothing else, you need enough grammar and spelling to get your point across. Without any strategy, your paragraphs will tumble at random from one to the next.
Writing is like problem-solving – you can dive in and start flailing about, or you can approach it with the right thoughts.
But if you’re stuck, you’re probably doing one of the following:
• Following rigid rules instead of guidelines,
• Using the wrong guidelines,
• Adopting way, way, way too many guidelines,
• Bringing broken perspectives to your writing,
• Chiselling your strategies in stone,
• Making your strategies complex,
• Ignoring feedback and information.
Following rigid rules instead of guidelines
How long does it take you to write your opening paragraph?
Do you spend ten minutes on it?
That’s strange, given it’s only a few sentences. The only way it would take more than 30 seconds is if you are overthinking it.
I can hear some of you objecting already. The first paragraph is the most important! It has to capture attention! It has to say something new! It has to…
Has to, has to, has to.
It doesn’t have to do anything. Generally speaking, the first paragraph should capture attention. It should say something new. But there’s no law that says so.
If a rule is holding you back, abandon it. After all, there are only guidelines. You can even broke grammar and speeling if it makes a point.
Using the wrong guidelines
Some people say an email has to be between 300 and 800 words long. It doesn’t.
Some people say you need to make three arguments in an essay. You don’t.
Some people say a sales letter must include a money-back guarantee. They’re wrong.
These can be useful guidelines… or they can cripple you. Let’s say you’re writing emails for children with ADHD – 300 words is too long. What about to Oxonian professors – 800 words is too short.
No guideline applies in every context or all the time. That’s why they’re called guidelines.
If following a guideline weakens your writing, your brain will rebel and shut down the process. Follow the wrong ones and it’s a recipe for writer’s block.
Adopting way, way, way too many guidelines
Let’s take a simple example:
Guideline 1: Brevity is the soul of wit.
Guideline 2: Add details, anecdotes and more information than the reader can use.
Both are good guidelines. I’ve used both – separately and together – to create pretty cool pieces of writing.
The problem is they contradict each other. And that’s just with two guidelines. If you have dozens, it’ll be even worse.
It’ll be so bad you can’t write and follow them all. You think of a sentence, it grinds up against a guideline, so you toss it. Different sentence, different guideline. On and on it goes…
By the end, you’ve done a lot of thinking but not much writing – which is a great definition of writer’s block.
Bringing broken perspectives to your writing
Here’s one I see often: technical people learn to think in technical ways, then stumble into the trap of not being able to write.
For lawyers, every word has a precise meaning. You can’t be loose with your words. So when you sit down to write, eg, a short story, you struggle.
For scientists, jargon is your lifeblood. Detailed, tightly structured, jargon-rich documents earn you kudos and your paycheck. When you sit down to write, you choke on your own story.
Not only technical people bring their perspectives to writing. Some poets are awful storytellers – they just can’t get to the point. Probably most professions have a paradigm that helps the day job but kills good writing.
Chiselling your plans in stone
It pays to plan your writing before you begin. Even with a simple email, you have an outcome in mind. Everything you add to it has to align with that purpose.
What doesn’t pay is following your plan like it’s divine wisdom.
When writing this, I had a plan – a vague outline of what I’d say. How close does the final article resemble the first one? Maybe 50%, maybe not at all. The plan was enough to get me started and keep me focused. Everything else were just suggestions.
Making your strategies complex
A piece of writing flows from one concept to the next. It should have a core idea that the writing reinforces. This is why having a strategy helps.
But there’s no justifying a pointlessly complicated contraption.
Complexity constrains you. A vague plan is much, much better than one that ties you down.
Writing is all about entering the flow. If you can’t, it might be because you’ve overprescribed what that “flow” should look like.
I’ve never written anything that didn’t surprise me. There’s only so much you can plan.
Ignoring feedback and information
I started writing this by jotting down some thoughts on writer’s block. I then decided to flesh this out with some research – surely someone has done the science behind it for me.
Many people have. And within minutes of reading the research, I completely scrapped my plan. I rewrote the bones of it then, as mentioned above, I threw away most of the bones.
People say, “keep your audience in mind when you write”. Excellent advice, but it only helps if you know your audience. Imagining what you think they might be like just keeps you in mind.
Research feeds your writing. It also prunes it.
Destroy writer’s block with these rules and strategies
Everything above is how you can go wrong. If you want to do this right, all you need is to do the opposite:
• Soften any rules you have into guidelines. “Write how people speak” is less useful than “aim to write how people speak”.
• Be highly selective of any rules you keep. Keep them small in number and never let them impede your writing. “While at your desk, write – write anything” is a respectable rule to have because it compels you to write.
• Give no loyalty to your guidelines. If a guideline usually serves you well but is impeding you now, abandon it now.
• Good strategies are closer to philosophies than tactics. You’re not invading a nation; you’re writing. Keep your strategy loose and broad.
• Your strategy should be flexible. If it serves your writing, it should twist itself into pretzels.
• If your strategy doesn’t serve your purpose, it cannot be a good strategy. Abandon it with haste.
• Seek information before you write. Seek feedback as or after you write.
(Yes, some of these rules contradict each other – especially the first two. They’re allowed to because they’re not rules, they’re guidelines.)
And if this doesn’t work, consider that writing has three phases:
1) Brainstorming ideas, researching facts and choosing topics,
2) Writing, and
Don’t edit while you’re writing. Don’t research while you’re writing. Write when you’re writing and let nothing stop you.
One final thought:
Sometimes writer’s block is what you need. Maybe your ideas aren’t ripe yet. Perhaps you’re not a machine that outputs words like a factory outputs widgets. Be kind to yourself and take the time. If you try all of the above and still struggle, consider rethinking everything you were planning to write.
Your unconscious might be telling you there’s a better way.