Clear the Clog: How to Overcome Writer’s Block
Let this be the last article on how to overcome writer’s block you read today.
That’s my first piece of advice for anyone who feels powerless to move forward with their work-in-progress.
You will find helpful tips in this article. You’ll learn how to diagnose the cause of your particular brand of writer’s block and get useful suggestions for how to overcome the problem.
But—and you’re about to hear this from me several times—the best cure for writer’s block is to start writing.
Now, that’s admittedly obnoxious advice. It’s like saying, “A great way to get over a cold is to be healthy.” Thanks. That helps a lot.
But writer’s block is different, because the problem is not that you can’t write at all. It’s that you can’t write the way you want to write. You can’t write a sentence that doesn’t suck. All your ideas are flat, stupid, or overdone.
It’s like there’s a giant clog blocking your creative flow.Your goal right now is to be okay with that. When you’re willing to turn on the faucet and let sad little drips of creativity seep past the clog, eventually that forced flow will loosen the giant hairball in your brain.
And yes, I know this isn’t how plumbing works. But you get what I’m saying, right?
Let’s get into it.
What is Writer’s Block?
If you want to know how to overcome writer’s block, you have to start by understanding what writer’s block actually is.
When we talk about writer’s block, we’re talking about a psychological obstacle where writing seems impossible. It’s that feeling like your mind is an endless void, like no decent idea will ever come to you again, like you were a fool to believe you could compose one worthwhile sentence.
When you’re just “stuck,” you at least have a specific problem to solve. You’re struggling to come up with convincing character motivation or to design a compelling conflict. From this starting point, you can find the help you need from books, your peers, and Dabble.
But when you’re blocked, the problem seems to be “I can’t write.” Which, if it were true, would be an unsolvable dilemma for which the only hope is to be an entirely different person.
Before you embark on a body-swapping scheme, let me assure you that you can write. You can write brilliant, captivating works of literature, just as you’ve always dreamed.
You just have to conquer the clog.
How to Overcome Writer’s Block: Causes and Cures
Knowing how to overcome writer’s block begins with knowing that the problem is all in your head. Don’t get me wrong: the feeling and the struggle are real. But you’re not blocked because you’re truly incapable of writing a novel. You’re blocked because your big, beautiful, imaginative brain is standing in your way.
Here are a few reasons that can happen and how to set your mind back on the task at hand.
Cause: You’re Afraid You’ll Find Out Your Dream is Stupid
This cause is also referred to as “perfectionism” or “fear of failure.” When I’m blocked, this is usually why.
My dream of authorship is one of the most precious things I have. Even now that I am an author, the ever-expanding dream continues to be a source of joy, hope, and faith in a future that’s even lovelier than my quite-nice present.
It’s a dream I instinctively protect from the skepticism of outsiders, and I strongly encourage you to do the same.
But sometimes, I protect it even from myself, and I know I’m not the only one. The blank page is terrifying because there’s a decent chance the first thing we write will be bad. And then what happens if we can’t make it un-bad? What if all our attempts at editing only prove that we’re not cut out to be writers?
Then we have to feel nasty things like shame and disappointment. Worse, we have to give up the dream.
That’s the fear, anyway. To avoid this disaster, our minds resist getting started. Of course, this fear isn’t grounded in reality. If you love writing, then you write. You keep writing. You keep learning and improving and sharing and rewriting. The process itself becomes a source of fulfillment, and you become the artist you suspected you could be.
So how do you shut off the fear and overcome your writer’s block? Try one of these:
Clear the Clog
- Turn to other writers. Read authors’ memoirs or share your struggles with peers in your writing community. You learn very quickly that everyone writes a ton of crap to create an ounce of genius. The more you see ugly prose as part of the process, the easier it becomes to do this:
- Change your goal and embrace the bad… for now. When you’re blocked, it helps to worry less about genius and more about word count. I’ve even sat down with the specific goal of writing 1,000 words of sheer garbage. Because I know if I’m doing that, I’ll at least have something to edit. I’ll strive for brilliance later.
- Build a writing habit, whatever that may realistically mean within your life. Maybe it’s a consistent writing schedule or maybe it’s just a rule like, “I write when the toddler naps.” Keep showing up and typing words, even if they’re awful.
- Call yourself out. I know I’m afraid to get started when I keep opening social media or scrolling through Etsy. When I notice it, I literally say, “Stop running, Wurdeman.” Then I get back to the scary blank page.
- Try the Pomodoro Technique: write for twenty-five minutes, break for five minutes, then repeat. This challenges you to at least keep at it, chunk by chunk.
Cause: You’re in Your Head
At first, you might simply be stuck. But then it takes too long to get unstuck. You lose faith. You start approaching writing sessions with dread. Suddenly, you’re wandering aimlessly through your own story.
Two weeks ago, the problem was that you couldn’t get a handle on your villain. Now, the problem is that you’ll never be a real writer and you should have gone to law school.
Or maybe that’s not how you feel. I don’t want to put words in your mouth. But I can say with confidence, a lot of writers are painfully familiar with this progression. I am one of them.
Let me assure you, a breakthrough is possible. You just have to make a little space between yourself and these spiraling thoughts.
Clear the Clog
- Don’t call it “writer’s block.” “Block” sounds so heavy… so permanent and immovable. But you, my friend, are the immovable one. You are the one with the butt in the chair, even when it means facing fear or disappointment. Call it a challenge.
- Give your brain something else to do. Much like me, the mind prefers to work without people staring at it. So take pressure off your writer brain and let it work quietly in the background while you take a shower or mindfully cook a meal. Sometimes this is all it takes to knock a new idea loose.
- Write something of no consequence. Step away from your WIP and write something that doesn’t need to be good. I like to write poetry when I’m blocked because I know so little about writing poetry well. This allows me to just create without worrying about technique, and that gets me out of my head and back into the flow. On that note:
- Cater to your creative brain. Paint. Draw. Dance. Take a long walk and notice everything you see, hear, and smell. Read. Ask questions. Release your mind from problem-solving mode and let it play.
Cause: You’ve Lost Your Enthusiasm for What You’re Writing
Sometimes the mind refuses to stay with the story not because it’s afraid or overwhelmed, but because it’s just so friggin’ bored. What was exciting and enchanting a few months ago suddenly feels common and maybe a little meandering. Listen, it happens. In fact, if you’re writing an entire book, it’s almost guaranteed to happen. Novel writing is a long process that gifts you with moments of inspiration and ambushes you with burnout and self-doubt.
Odds are, you’re just beyond the honeymoon phase of your project and on to the part where writing becomes work. Here are a few things you can do to get fired up again.
Clear the Clog
- Decide if you should bail (for now). In most cases, the best call is to push through your inspiration slump. But sometimes you get stuck for so long you’re not even sure you can call yourself a writer anymore. It might be worth it to pause, work on something else like a short story or an outline for your next novel, then come back to your WIP.
- Capture new inspiration. When we get bored with what we’re writing, our minds wander to more exciting tales. Don’t write those stories (yet), but do jot down your new ideas. Then note why you’re so excited about them. Is there some element in those new ideas that could help your current project?
- Write the scene you’ve been excited about. If you’re like most writers, you’ve been anticipating the climactic battle or the long-awaited kiss as eagerly as your readers will. Skip ahead and write it! The scene might reignite your enthusiasm for the story and spark ideas for adding excitement to whatever is dragging.
- Try writing exercises. Step away from the actual draft and conduct character interviews. Workshop a scene you’ve written, searching for ways to raise the stakes or increase tension. Write an existing scene from the villain’s point of view. Check out Writing 21st Century Fiction for loads of exercises that are sure to liven up your story.
Cause: You’ve Got a Lot Going On
As much as we might try to pretend otherwise, writers are people, first and foremost. We have bills, taxes, relationships, day jobs, inconvenient feelings… a million things that threaten to hijack our brains.
And sometimes, our “real life” stuff gets so big that our mind is almost afraid to set it down. Maybe it’s a wedding, a divorce, a life-changing job decision, an unexpected loss, or a financial crisis. Even when you’re not actively thinking about it, it’s taking up space in your mind. You try to force a little creative thought and the old brain says, “Nope, sorry. We’re at capacity.
”It’s the worst. I promise you’ll get through it. Here’s how.
Clear the Clog
- Be okay with being human. There will be times when it’s hard to write. That’s true for everyone. What makes you a writer is the part where you keep showing up.
- Remember that it’s all material. If you’re like me and you stress about time lost to real-life distractions, keep in mind that real life makes you a better writer.
- Set yourself up for success. Design a work environment that encourages creativity and focus. Close the door. Put on music that matches the mood of your story. Make the room smell pretty. Notice which time of day you are at your most alert and focused and write at that time. I can’t promise you’ll find your flow immediately, but you’ll make the search a little easier.
- Dabble: full screen, dark mode. This is a big go-to for me. Dabble’s dark mode feature quiets my brain. When I go full screen, the automatic focus mode makes everything else fade into the background, literally and figuratively.
- Keep a notebook nearby for dumping your distractions. When you’re hit by the worries or excitements of that one big thing in your life, jot down the thought so it’s out of your brain and available to return to later.
- Keep showing up. Think of yourself as an injured athlete. Even if you’re not practicing at your highest level, those gentle physical therapy exercises will keep you in shape for your big recovery. Stick to your writing schedule and gently work the muscle, no matter what your output is.
- Write about the big thing. If you’re not on a deadline and you truly cannot focus on your WIP, meet your mind where it is. Journal, write an essay, or fictionalize your current issue.
Oh, Look! Another Plumbing Metaphor.
The number one secret for how to overcome writer’s block—whatever the cause—is to just write. Let it be awful nonsense. Let it be wildly off-topic. Brilliance is not the point right now.
Have you ever turned on your water faucet after the water was shut off for a while? Did you get a bunch of gross, rusty water spurting out at you? Overcoming writer’s block is kind of like that. When your brain has shut down on you, any attempt to turn it back on is going to result in spasms of mildly horrifying sludge. But keep it running. Give it a minute. (By which I mean a week or a month or a season.) Inspiration will flow clear and easy eventually.
And remember that Dabble is always here for you. That means:
- Loads of articles to help you with everything from character ideas to plotting your novel.
- The Story Craft Café, where you can learn, commiserate, and swap inspiration with other writers.
- The Dabble writing tool that comes with tons of features to keep you focused and on track. Speaking of the writing tool, you can try Dabble’s Premium Features for free for fourteen days, no credit card required. Just click here.
And get that faucet running.
Do you have a story in you? Of course you do! Come write with us for the Dabble Writing Challenge.
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