Hey, fellow writers, ever been stumped? Ever weeped and wailed and pounded on your desk and words just won’t come out? We all hate it!
But what if I told you there was a solution? Something that works every single time, 100% guaranteed, and you’ll be back at writing in no time! Sounds awesome, right?
Here it is! And it’s only 3 easy steps!
- Figure out what’s blocking you
- Fix it
Was that not what you were expecting? Well, I regret to inform you there is no panacea to writer’s block. If there was, everyone would know what it is and we’d all be doing it. There’s no panacea to anything because, like most things, “writer’s block” encompasses many different issues, which all have different solutions.
So, before we can take a step forward, we need to take a step back.
Why “Writer’s Block” is a Bad Term
Depression! You know what that is. Do you know the cause of it? “Low serotonin!” you say. “That’s why Prozac works, it makes more serotonin!”
But here’s the thing: “depression” is a name for a bunch of symptoms, which can look very different for different people. Some overeat, some can’t eat at all, some sleep too much, and some can’t sleep at all. And part of this is because the causes of depression are different. There are a lot of chemicals that make your brain function, serotonin being one of them. You can have plenty of serotonin but a deficit of something else. Or your neurochemistry is fine, you’re just in a horrible, stressful situation. Prozac isn’t going to put you back to normal if you’re still stuck in your awful job.
Part of treating depression is trying out different things and seeing what works. It also helps to figure out what, exactly, is the source of your depression, and if that’s something you can change. Part of my depression stemmed from being gender dysphoria, so coming out at work, legally transitioning, and starting testosterone helped me way more than any psych meds ever could. But, for a lot of people, these things won’t help them, because that’s not the help they need.
Writer’s block is much the same way. It has the same general symptoms (you can’t write), but there are a ton of different causes. And to find the right solution, you need to find the cause.
Mindfulness and Introspection
So words aren’t coming out, but why is that? Sit down and reflect. If you’ve never done this before, it can be really challenging to do.
Mindfulness is being aware of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. If you feel mad, it’s identifying that your current feeling is anger, and that’s okay, and you’re mad because a guy cut you off at a red light. Or your partner said they’d do something and they didn’t. But maybe you’re not just mad, you’re disappointed, you’re worried they might not care about the relationship anymore. Sometimes what’s going on is more than what makes it to the surface.
It takes some practice to get the hang of it. When you’re done writing for the day, ask yourself, how did it go? Was it easy? Hard? Why was that? Were you especially inspired or did you struggle to find a certain word? Were you distracted by your other obligations or because you’re sick? The more you do this, the better you’ll get at identifying your own feelings and what helps and hurts your workflow.
So now that we know the cause of your block, let’s talk about solutions! And if you don’t yet, that’s okay! Perhaps going through the list can help you figure it out!
Issue #1 – I Don’t Know What Happens Next 😕
If you’re a discovery writer/pantser, or don’t write very specific outlines, it’s very easy to be paralyzed by choice. Or, to be more specific, paralyzed by having no clue where to go. If this is a common issue for you, it might be helpful to do more outlining for your story in general. Different projects require different levels of planning, and your project might change as you write it. It’s okay to change things up.
But that doesn’t help us if we’re stuck now. One of the best things you can do is just kinda…skip ahead. This can either be to a future scene you do know will happen (like a big action scene, or a love confession) or a short time skip. It’s okay to write “And then Frodo and all the others went to the spider cave.” You can always go back later and fill that in. Or maybe you’ll discover that stuff you skipped over wasn’t actually as important as you thought it was.
You never have to write a story in chronological order. It’s okay to jump around!
Issue #2 – I Don’t Know How to Get Dany Out of Essos 😭
George R. R. Martin, famously, is a discovery writer. This works great for A Song of Ice and Fire, as characters do things based on what they want to do, not what the plot needs them to. But when you have a very long story and many pieces pieces to move around the board, this can cause issues. In the books, Dany is over in Essos, but her ultimate goal is to take the Iron Throne…which is in Westeros. So she needs to pack up and get there at some point…but how? She’s got too much stuff going on in Essos, it would be weird for her to drop all of that to deal with Westerosi conflicts that have otherwise had nothing to do with her at this point.
(I swear this is an issue he specifically said he has, but I can’t find a source for it. So let’s just have this as a hypothetical!)
But luckily for you, you’re not Mr. R. R. Martin. You probably don’t have several books already published and millions of fans expecting you to come up with some brilliant solution. Most likely, you’re having this issue with an unfinished, unpublished story, so you have a lot more room to change things. But what this requires, really, is to hit reverse and back out of that corner you got into.
For me, this tends to happen about a page or two into a chapter. When I outline, I always have a “goal” for a chapter, whether that be a character moving to a new location, a piece of information being revealed, or a conflict arises. If character A has to get into a fight with character B, it wouldn’t make a lot of sense to start the chapter in the middle of the fight. They need to get into position, talk a little smack. But I’ll just be sitting there thinking, “This conversation isn’t going where I want!”
So I just throw out what I have and start that chapter over from scratch. I’ll approach what I need to from a slightly different angle. The character comes into the scene pissed off, or the weather is awful. What I like to do is re-read the last chapter the character was in and really ask myself, “What sort of headspace are they in? What is the best/worst thing that could happen to them next?”
If your issue is very big, though, like moving a character from one continent to another, well…you’re going to have to change a lot. It’s probably going to suck. Problems don’t always have easy solutions, and sometimes you have to rewrite a lot of stuff.
Issue #3 – I Think The Story is Bad ☹️
Well, that’s awfully vague! But sometimes we just get the feeling that what we’re writing is just not very good, which makes it hard to keep going. And there’s three things you can do to try and salvage it
- Restart the voice – Maybe the story needs to be first person instead of third. Or present tense instead of past tense. Maybe it needs a framing story. Maybe you just don’t like how the narrator sounds. Take a scene and totally rewrite it with this new voice and compare the two. Is it better? Or worse? Look at what works and what doesn’t and ask yourself why. One of the big reasons people (including agents and editors) don’t like a particular story is they don’t vibe with the voice. That can happen to you and your own story, too.
- Scrap it – Some plots, characters, or concepts just aren’t as good as you initially thought. And that’s fine! Not every idea is going to be a good one. Sometimes you just gotta toss a story into the trash. But first, consider…
- Trunk it – Take the story and shove it into a drawer (metaphorically, if it’s a digital file) and forget about it. Move onto something else. Come back to it in a few months…or a few years. You’ll be a better writer then, you’ll have more life experiences, and you’ll be able to do things than you never could now. And that could include salvaging the story.
There was a novel I tried writing in high school. It was about a girl who lived in an apartment above a convenience store and the relationship she formed with a man who was the living avatar of the city. Did I mention the only place I’d ever lived at the time was so rural, we didn’t even have stoplights? There was just no way I could write that story, there were too many things I didn’t know. And, at the time, I kinda knew that. Everything didn’t feel real, somehow. So, I stuck that story in the (proverbial) trunk and moved on.
Now, a decade later, could I write that story? Probably, but I’d want to do more research. Maybe visit a couple of cities and people watch and really get the vibes of that place. What sort of architecture, location names, foods, and fashions make a place unique? What is the biome, the industry, how does that shape things? I wouldn’t even think of any of this when I was a new writer.
Trunking/scrapping can feel like admitting defeat, but it isn’t! Everything you write, no matter what happens to it, is something you learn from. Even if all you learn is “ugh, I hate writing in that voice/point of view/a character like that.” But now you know! So when you start your next project, you’ll avoid those things. Not everything ends up seeing the light of day, and that’s okay. This happens to all artists.
Issue #4 – I’m Bored 🥱
We all love chasing the latest, shiny, new idea. And, sometimes, the shininess wears off and the words no longer come. So now what? Once more, I got 3 things you can do!
- Make it interesting – What, exactly, did you fall in love with? Is it the new setting, the new character, or the big twist? How can you bring that into what you’re writing right now? You might need to jump around and write another scene or tweak the voice, or one of the other things on this list. This might mean doing more outlining and planning than you were originally, or doing less to give yourself more freedom to experiment.
- Suck it up – Not everything we write is going to be super fun and interesting. Sometimes stuff has to be a little boring. Write the most bare-bones, mechanical paragraph or scene to get you to the next plot point. Make sure to leave a comment or otherwise mark this part to fix in editing. Because if a part is boring for you to read, it’s probably going to be boring for the reader, too. And everything can always be fixed in editing, but you can’t edit a blank page.
- Drop it – Scrap it, trunk it, whichever feels right. Some ideas aren’t big enough for a whole novel. Or more than a flash fic. Don’t force your story to be more than it should be.
If you want to write a whole novel to publish, there are going to be not-fun parts (like editing). And you have to push through it. You might love baking, but you hate separating eggs. But you do it anyways because the end result is going to be worth it. Writing is an art form, and there’s always going to be a step that feels tedious and boring. It might help to talk to other writers and see what they do; your workflow might be overly-tedious for no reason. Work smarter, not harder.
Which is a great lead to the next issue…
Issue #5 – I’m Paralyzed by my To-Do List 😞
This is more like an editing problem than a writing problem, as editing tends to create to-do lists. But a lot of editing is adding and re-writing content, as what you had before isn’t working or you’ve made major changes, like giving the main character better motivation.
This is where you want to work as intelligently as possible. You want to minimize the amount of work you have to do, otherwise you’ll be editing forever and it’ll suck so bad. The first thing you need to do is prioritize your to-do list. Stuff like making sure your commas are good or you’re consistent with your tenses? That needs to be the absolute last thing you do. There’s no sense in line-editing a scene you’ll rewrite later.
The first things you want to do are the really, really big things. Rewriting or re-ordering chapters, changing the point of view from first to third, these are all going to be tasks that fundamentally change how your story works.
Do all the find/replaces before you do the final pass of editing, so you can make sure the new sentences make sense while you’re already breaking down each sentence to be as best as possible. I like to put down the chapter a task is for in my list, so when I start a new chapter to edit, I can make a mini-list of the things that need to be done. You can also label them by point of view character, theme, type (narrative, grammar, world-building, etc.) and group them together like that.
Ultimately, this will take your giant list and break it up into multiple smaller lists. Dealing with 10 things is a lot easier than staring down 50.
Issue #6 – I Can’t Write When I do Have Time to Write 🥲
We’re leaving “here’s problems with your story” territory and entering “here are problems with your life” land, which is…less easy to fix. Part of dealing with these is being kind to yourself. You don’t have to write every single day to be a writer. You don’t have to write 100 words a day, or even 10. Personally, I don’t like these arbitrary time/word goals, because it puts undue pressure on you and makes you want to put out crappy words just to hit the target. Unless you’re writing for a living, you’re not working under any sort of deadline. You can take your time, and that’s okay.
So, you don’t have a lot of time to write, so, when you do, you have this pressure to do as much as you can, or that any word you put down has to be the best words possible, you don’t have time to waste! Take all of those expectations and throw them out. All it’s doing is making you miserable. If writing makes you miserable, you won’t want to do it, and things won’t get any better.
There are a lot of things out there when it comes to time management, which is very much out of the scope of this post. But one thing you can do is “multitask.” If you find a lot of your writing time is spent thinking of what’s going to happen next, then use your non-writing time to think about it instead. This can be during your commute, doing errands, working out, while you’re trying to fall asleep. If you get any ideas, scribble them down (your phone is great for this) and you’ll know what to do when next time you boot up Word.
Some people write on their phones, either in Google Docs or their notes app. Or tiny little notebooks they carry around in their pocket while they’re waiting for their coffee. I’ve written (very sloppy) scenes and even whole outlines in Google Keep. It’s okay if it looks bad! You’ll fix it once it goes into the word processor. But if you’re mindful of how you spend your time during your day, you’ll find a lot of opportunities to “write.”
Issue #7 – I Have No Energy 😫
Burnout is real. Life can happen. You can get sick, you’re taking care of a loved one, it’s the busy season at work. Stuff happens, and that’s okay. To write, you need energy, you need concentration, you need to be able to get into the right headspace. Things totally unrelated to writing can interrupt those things, and that’s okay.
In 2021, I had major surgery. I was going to be off work for 2 weeks. Awesome, lots of time to write! The first day, I was too discombobulated from anesthesia and pain meds. Well, that’s fine, no one is expecting me to work like this. Day two, way too tired, all I could do is nap. That’s understandable. Day three, okay, I can sit up for a bit, but I can’t really concentrate. Well, that must be the anesthesia wearing off, right?
I did not write at all those 2 weeks, because I just couldn’t. The pain meds made it very hard to concentrate. I had trouble watching tv, there was no way I could write. It took a lot of effort to eat like normal and get my strength up. I couldn’t do a lot around the house and needed help. I had an app on my phone to remind me to take all the different meds I needed, every waking hour I needed something. And, I had lots of follow-up doctor appointments. All my energy went into healing and taking care of myself, there was nothing to spare for writing.
So, be nice to yourself! Understand and accept that other things have to come before your writing. Do what you need to make it through today, you can always write tomorrow.
Issue #8 – I Can’t Find my Muse 🤔
What is a muse, exactly? Everyone has a different definition, as it feels different for everyone. For me, this is either “inspiration,” which is an idea that makes me go “ooo, I gotta do that,” or “problem-solving,” which is figuring out how I’d get Dany out of Essos. I, once again, have three things you can do to “fix” this.
- Go do something else – Go for a walk, go drinking with friends, go do the dishes. I like to give my mind “room to wander” and go where it wants, where I usually find answers. Getting up and moving helps with your mood, and getting some chores/errands done gives you fewer things to worry about. Plus, you’ll see lots of random stuff. You never know what will trigger the idea you need. If you’re stuck in your room all day, looking at the same walls, it’s much more difficult to do that.
- Consume more – All art is derivative of other art. Go to the movies, the museum, play that game that’s been in your Steam library for years. I am a huge proponent of consuming media, both outside your genre and your medium, for inspiration, as they tend to execute ideas in different ways. I am also a big fan of bad media. The Troll 2s of the world, the really bad fanfiction, Yanderedev’s code. All of these things have a kernel of a good idea at their core, but something went horribly wrong along the way. And those ideas can be inspiring! You might even figure out how to pull it off well.
- And, to be honest, it’s inspiring to see someone like Neil Breen make several full-length feature films, essentially on his own, which is a massive undertaking. This guy is clearly passionate about his work, even if the results are awful. If Neil Breen can make a whole movie, I can make a whole book!
- Suck it up – I say that one a lot, huh? Not everything has to be super original. As everyone says, Avatar is just Dances with Wolves. Okay, so? It still made $2 billion. No one is going to see it for a revolutionary new story. No one is going to see a Marvel movie for complex characters. You don’t re-read your favorite book because you want to be surprised again, you want to spend more time with those great characters, with that awesome world, with that amazing narrative voice. It’s okay to write a scene that’s been done before. It’s okay to write a scene that you have done before. Tons of writers re-use characters, beats, themes, and plot threads. And tons of readers (and watchers, and players) love that, they want to see more of that.
Issue #9 – I Still Don’t Know What’s Wrong! 😵
So you made it through this whole list, you thought about things really, really hard, and you still can’t place why the words aren’t coming out. Maybe there’s a secret tenth thing?
Sometimes we just get a feeling we can’t put words to. Which, as a writer, feels bad, but some things are so complex, there aren’t really words for them. And that’s fine! Someone has to invent words for those things, it might even be you!
But you gotta get those words to flow again, but how? Ultimately, it comes down to two things:
- You work on something else, or
- You don’t work on anything
I like having multiple projects going, I like writing weird little fanfiction to experiment, and hopping around is good for me, as it keeps me engaged and I don’t burn out/get sick of any single story or character. If I’m stuck with one story, I’ll go spend time with this other one for a bit. Each word I do put down makes me a better writer, and I might get good enough to solve my problem.
But also I like to just…not do anything. I like to lift the pressure of having to work each day, to be making tangible progress each month. You can absolutely burn yourself out with your writing. And, just like burnout with your day job, you need time away to regroup, and maybe think about what’s really important. What makes you happy? What gives you energy, what drains it? How much time can you actually put into writing and how much needs to be put into taking care of yourself?
It’s okay to stop writing for a few days, or months, or even years. If you’re too sick, too stressed, or too overburdened to write, that’s okay. One of the most important things I learned in my adult life is “In order to be kind to others, you must first be kind to yourself.” You can spend your whole weekend doing a volunteer project, but you need to be in decent shape to do so. You need to eat, sleep, pay your bills, all that adult stuff. Because, otherwise, if you’re passing out from hunger, you’re not going to be able to help anyone out.
Art is the same way. You’re creating something to share with others, but you can’t make that gift if you’re in no shape to create. This might mean buckling down and making it through school, or landing a better job, or getting into a safer situation. It might mean clearing your calendar of all obligations for a weekend and doing nothing but watch the clouds roll by. Self-care looks different for everyone and can even change throughout your life, as you’ll need different things at different stages.
“Writer’s block” is actually a lot of different things, each with different causes and requiring different solutions. Sometimes it has nothing to do with your story at all or there might be no easy way to fix it. But what can always help is removing the strict and arbitrary expectations you put on yourself and allowing yourself the freedom to try something else, do it differently, or even do nothing at all. And, sometimes, the story is fated to never see the light of day, and that’s okay. You still grew as a writer in the process of making it, which leaves you better equipped for whatever idea strikes next.