overcoming writers block

Overcoming Writer’s Block with Psychology and Creative Training

Identify the root causes of your word count slump and overcome writer's block with these 10 exercises.

Writer’s block is the ambiguous scourge of wordsmiths. You don’t know why it’s happening to you, or how long it will last, but you know you hate it. The blank page is haunting you and the words you did manage to put down feel like thorns in your brain.

Conquer Books is here to provide you with the most helpful tips for writer’s block. The info below will help you meet your problem head-on and push past it with creative writing methods designed to reset your resistance. 

The first step in conquering this wicked foe, is defining it.

What is writer's block?

Writer’s block is only described as a blockage—an inability to adequately produce. That’s it. On paper, it looks rather simple, but it feels so much more complex than that. What that should tell you though, is that writer’s block is not the source of your issue, it is a symptom. You are not suffering directly from writer’s block, rather, you’re dealing with something under the surface that has yet to be identified that is causing writer’s block.

That’s why it’s so daunting. By its very definition, writer’s block is a ghost. Which means, in order to defeat it, we need to break out our proton packs.

how to handle writers block
Ghostbusters Proton Pack

The Psychology of Writer's Block

In the late 1970s, Yale University psychologists Jerome L. Singer and Michael V. Barrios conducted one of the most conclusive studies on writer’s block ever done. The brain scientists selected a diverse group of writers, some blocked, some not, from a diverse set of industries—poetry, screenwriting, non-fiction, and fiction—and set them up to be observed.

As to be expected, they found that blocked writers were exceptionally unhappy. Blocked writers dealt with feelings of depression, anxiety, self-criticism, self-doubt, loss of interest in their work, and helplessness. Further research showed that the hurdles these writers dealt with manifested in different sets of emotions that could be divided up into these four categories:

  • Anxiety – These writers were stressed and worried their work would never be good enough. They suffered from excessive self-criticism and had lost the joy they used to feel while writing.
  • Apathy – With feelings of disengagement, these writers lost interest in writing and with it, their creative spark. These writers were the most creatively blocked, as they suffered from actual decline in their mental imagery. Their visuals were less striking and their imagination faltered, costing them originality and motivation.
  • Anger – Dealing with distinct feelings of disappointment, writers in this category expressed anger and strong levels of negativity more often than plain sadness. They were firmly against sharing their work with others.
  • Social hostility – Blocked writers in this category felt anger and irritation toward others. They were unmotivated to write as they didn’t want their work to be compared with other works.

 After Singer and Barrios discovered these separate groups of writers, they deduced that each type of block would need its own type of therapy to undo it. Fortunately, however, their experiments proved differently.

As a blocked writer, you don’t need to undergo psychiatric therapy to heal your creative abilities. Instead, Singer and Barrios found that pursuing remedies for writing were just as effective as pursuing remedies for mentality. The very act of tending to one’s creativity is its own form of emotional therapy.

what to do about writers block
Cambridge University reprinted the study in 2009

What Does This Mean for You?

Can you identify which of the four feelings above has been the most pervasive throughout your bought of writer’s block? Ask yourself why you’ve been feeling that way. When you come up with an answer, ask why again. Asking “why” over and over will lead you to the deeper problem and, sometimes, being able to name and understand that problem is half the battle.

At the same time, if you decide you’re just under a lot of stress or are going through a difficult, yet unrelated, time in your life, that’s okay too. Writer’s block is different for everyone.

Either way, self-care should always be first and foremost. That’s why number one is number one on the list below.

10 Ways to Overcome Writer's Block

As we learned from Singer and Barrios, creative training is the key to breaking through your block. We’re going to go through some options for you to kick-start your writing routine and get a handle on your forward momentum once again.

1. Take a Break

Your first instinct to this option might be to scoff: what do you think I’ve been doing this whole time?! Well, you may not have been writing, but you’ve been stressing about writing. It’s important to go easy on yourself. Understand you’re a flawed human being who needs a little breather once in a while. Go do something low-stress like yoga or an art project you’ve been putting off. Let go of your writing worries and trust in your commitment to pick them back up in a few days.

2. Free Writing

For us writers, this is one of the best exercises to get our creativity to loosen up. Free writing is most effective if you’re not trying to write lyrical, world-changing prose, but are just writing whatever comes to mind. Don’t put any expectations on yourself. Let your mind purge whatever it wants to purge. It’ll help unspool some of that pent up tension. Some tips:

Let it be bad. The blank page is both our worst enemy and our best friend. It is the canvas we create upon, but we put so much pressure on ourselves to write amazing things that we begin to dread it. Don’t put that on yourself. Let your writing be awful. Often, what we call awful, is not nearly as bad as we think.

Prompts. Look some up or build off someone else’s idea. Some creative writing instructors take snippets from other writers’ stories and direct students to spin their own story off it. That’s okay to do. We often expect to recreate the world when we write but the notion that there’s no such thing as an original idea has credence. Your originality doesn’t come out of a black hole, but from inspriation.

Poetry. This is such a good method for injecting emotions straight into words. Poetry has so few rules, you can do whatever you want, freeing your creativity up to be colorful and playful once again.

Journaling. Like poetry, journaling is a great way to get your feelings out of your head and into a more concrete space. Journaling is freeing because it’s unstructured, private, and real. This counts as writing; don’t let your inner critic tell you it doesn’t.

Alternatively, dream journaling is thought to be an effective remedy for writer’s block. Graham Greene (1904-1991; author of The Quiet American) believed dream journaling to be a perfect foundation for creative writing because dreams are already determined once you wake up. Nobody can tell you the story elements are skewed or the characters don’t pop. Nobody will even see it. Dreams are a clean conduit for creativity outside the bounds of judgement.

Switch genres. If you’re just not feeling the muse in your normal tune of things, try a something new. You don’t even have to finish it if you decide you don’t like it, but taking a different perspective during the actual act of writing can help generate a mind-shift.

how to get over writers block
Some writers will change the text color to white against the white page. You can't judge what you can't see.

3. Assess Your Discipline

How seriously are you taking your writing routine? It’s common to misinterpret a writing hindrance as an inability to write. When you sit in your chair, are you immediately distracted by other things? Do you get up a lot to clean something or get a snack? Set a timer if you have to and spill words relentlessly until it goes off. There is only one master of your discipline, and that’s you.

4. Read

Few things are more inspiring than traipsing through someone else’s intricate world and realizing that, yes, you can do that too. Plus, reading is like research for writers. It is not optional. If you don’t bury your nose in a book regularly, that well of ideas can dry up.

5. Go Nonlinear

If the place where your cursor is currently blinking just isn’t doing it for you, pass. Go find another spot. Start on that one scene you’ve been thinking about. Or skip the complete sentences altogether and work on some character development or world building. Find a way to have fun and spark that joy you’ve been missing out on.

6. Word Sprints

how to get past writers block

To do a word sprint, set a timer for 15 or 20 minutes, and don’t stop typing until the timer goes off. This is similar to free writing but this exercise isn’t meant so much for writing in order to clear your mind as meant for making headway on your work-in-progress. By speed-writing relentlessly, you’re almost guaranteed to blow right through whatever it is you’re second guessing. You don’t have time to worry about whether that plot point was interesting enough, or what other word you’re going to use to describe the color black. Your only objective is to add to the word count. Putting your fingers to work and your ego to sleep, your inner-writer will poke its head out and assume control of the narrative.  

7. Tend to Your Workspace

Cleaning up your writing area can be a big motivator. It sort of makes your brain say, “Wow, a space this great deserves to be used.” If you’re already the neat-and-tidy type, get yourself a new addition. Putting up a new calendar or vision board will help remind you why you’re sitting there in the first place. Likewise, a scented candle will set some ambience. A fidget piece can help you anticipate for moments when your enthusiasm wanes. Small changes go a long way.

8. Find New Music

If you listen to music while you write, switching it up to enliven your work time. As with step 7 (tending to your workspace), don’t underestimate the effects of boredom. Start with something without lyrics as they can be distracting. Especially because most lyric-based songs are structured with a climax (much like a story) and your writing winds up trying to follow the trend of the music, rather than the organic trajectory of the narrative. Isochoric tones or binaural beats work wonders for concentration and the sustained intensity of epic instrumental soundtracks can work as active inspiration.

9. Turn Off the Internet

Seriously. This gets overlooked a lot because the internet has become such an intrinsic part of our lives, but too much of it will absolutely shatter your focus. Turn your phone on Do Not Disturb and hide it from yourself. Keep your clicky fingers off social media. And don’t fall down any research rabbit holes.

10. Get Outside Help

If nothing else seems to be working, perhaps you need an outside catalyst. Having a coach or mentor there to encourage you and keep you accountable is a real motivation boost. Here at Conquer Books, that’s what we do. We coach writers who are stuck or overwhelmed and get them on track to a finished book. To learn more about how a book coach can help you finish your book, click here.

The Cure for Writer's Block

tips for writers block

Believe it or not, the “cure” that Singer and Barrios discovered was to simply write through it. The key to getting rid of writer’s block is to write until you break down the blockage. The steps above will help you do that but, ultimately, it’s about powering through the pain.

Managing one’s expectations is also crucial. As we learned from the scientific study, many blocked writers agonize over the quality and acceptability of their work. We really are our own worst critics. Nobody writes award-winning stories on their first draft. Not James Patterson, not JK Rowling, nobody. All that matters is that you get words down on the page. Everything can be tweaked and edited later. But one thing you can’t do, is edit a blank page.

If you think perhaps it would help to focus on some of the more technical aspects of writing, read our posts How to Launch a Writing Career or Create a Writer Business Plan for motivation.

Writer’s block is not a universal experience with a universal solution. It’s a problem that will take some experimentation to find what works for you. And it’s a persistent problem that requires perseverance. If you think you might benefit from a book coach who knows how it feels to come up against your own mind when it refuses to create inventive things, drop us a line. We are here to help you move forward.

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