Writer’s block looks different in everyone. Movies like to show writers tossing endless balls of crumpled up paper at an overflowing trash can when they can’t find the right words. Some people stare blankly at their computer screen. Personally, I clean and organize. Or I bake. Bad writer’s block = lots of cake.
We all know what writer’s block looks like, but what can you do about it? Well, first it helps to identify what’s causing the block to begin with. It’s not always the same thing. Here are five reasons the moment you sit down to write you suddenly have to Google your fifth-grade teacher (hello, Mr. Segerson!) or know exactly how many times your cursor blinks per minute (61 — wait, that can’t be right, can it?!).
Writer’s Block Cause #1: Lack of enjoyment.
It may show up as writer’s block, but what you might actually be experiencing is a lack of enjoyment for the topic. When we don’t look forward to a project — like that 12-page missive on <insert boring topic> — it can make it really hard to get the creative juices flowing. So we end up procrastinating. (Sound familiar, writers?)
If you can outsource a project you aren’t excited about to somebody who would genuinely love to work on it, do it. If not, you need to find a way to get yourself excited about … something to do with the project. While the topic doesn’t interest you, focus on something about the project that does. Try reminding yourself that writing about tough topics is challenging, and there could be a lot of praise in the end if you do it well. Perhaps it will give you the opportunity to find new sources or establish connections in an unfamiliar industry.
If praise and knowledge aren’t your drivers, try the promise of a reward when it’s done. If at the end of the week you’ve completed the project, take yourself out to dinner, book a head-and-neck massage or buy those sunglasses you’ve been eyeing.
Another idea is to try and make the process enjoyable even if the project isn’t. Rather than sitting in your cubicle in slacks that are too darn itchy and a shirt you have to keep adjusting, get comfortable. Cancel your afternoon meetings and head home to work from your couch in sweats. Or try a coffee shop, park or arboretum and enjoy the birds and the breeze.
Of course, you’ll want to be sure to choose a location that won’t be too distracting. And disconnect. Turn off your phone, log out of chat and close your email so you don’t get notifications. Inviting distractions when you’re already disinterested is a recipe for disaster.
Writer’s Block Cause #2: An overflowing inbox.
When you have too many items on your to-do list, it can be hard to focus. And bouncing around from priority project to priority project doesn’t give you the time or space to truly be creative with any of them. Start by setting a time limit to sift through your inbox and tackle those short tasks that are cluttering your brain. Then, write down everything else you can get back to later (so you don’t have to worry about forgetting), and see if that releases your creative spirit to write.
Writer’s Block Cause #3: A desire for perfection.
When we expect perfection from our writing, it can be hard to get started. As writers, we know not everything will be perfect, but there are times when we desire pure brilliance. And if you’re not feeling the muse to start, well, that can be tough.
Of course, I would love to be able to tell you to just get over yourself and start putting pen to paper. But that would put me in a serious pot-calling-the-kettle-black situation. Still, if you’re on a deadline, you really do need to move forward. What I like to do is set a timer and just write. I don’t edit myself as I go or even stop to reread what I’ve written. I don’t research facts or look up words. I don’t use a thesaurus. I just write and see what spills out. Feel free to include blanks or highlight words you know aren’t right. But at least you’ll have a really good start. And it’s typically easier to rewrite from something — anything — than getting started.
Writer’s Block Cause #4: Lack of spark.
Sometimes we get into ruts and don’t want to write. Sometimes we’re just not feeling it. If you can, take a day or two or three to do something other than writing. Focus on reading or listening to podcasts (like mine! which has nothing to do with writing!) or watching movies. Consume rather than produce for a bit. Better yet, go to yoga, take a hike or spend time in your garden. Do what you need to do to clear your head.
If that’s not realistic, try simply focusing on a different aspect of your job. Throw yourself into planning your next brainstorm, organizing your documents folder or cleaning out your desk (when did you buy Fig Newtons??). Taking a break from constantly churning out words can give your creative battery a chance to recharge.
Writer’s Block Cause #5: No start.
If you are a linear writer like I am, you know it can be very hard to start a blog post or article or white paper until you write that first line — that really great opening that sets the stage for the rest of the piece. I am guilty of spending more time on an intro than on the next 750 words. But if you don’t start, you can’t finish. And if you can’t finish, well, you might not have a job anymore.
To power past this block, find a way to start writing in the middle. Just type “intro” at the top of the screen, then dive into the meat of the piece and come back to your lede later.
Another option is to speak your words. This is especially useful if you’re quick on your feet and speak better than you write. Use a note app (I like Evernote), pace around the office or go for a walk, and use your phone’s talk-to-text feature to get a draft out. It will need some massaging later, but at least you’ll have a solid start — and a few thousand extra steps to your count for the day.
What about YOU?
Those are our most common causes of writer’s block. Tell us: What are yours, and what do you do to get past them?