By Elizabeth Jacobson
If you go to a search engine and type in something along the lines of “tips for beating writer’s block,” you are going to find something you may not have expected.
Mainly, you will find a lot of people saying that writer’s block is a myth. Or, even more inflammatorily, that writer’s block is an excuse not to write.
Ooh! Them’s fighting words!
However, you will also see people calmly giving tips about what to do about writer’s block, as if having it is the most normal and acceptable thing in the world.
After having heard or read many pundits’ opinions on the subject and having lived in the writing trenches for a few years now, I am here to throw my hat in the ring and tell you all what I think.
I think it depends.
And yes, I am aware that this answer sounds wishy-washy to start, but hear me out. Writing is not a one-size-fits-all thing. Stories are not a one-size-fits-all thing. People are not a one-size-fits-all thing.
So why would writer’s block, which sits squarely at the confluence of all of the above, be a one-size-fits-all thing?
Now, if you came to this page looking for advice and now you’re feeling like you’re off the hook and can safely declare that you just can’t write right now, you have writer’s block, hold up.
I have some bad news.
No matter what your writer’s block ends up being – the “real” kind or the “fake” kind – getting out of it is going to stink. It is not going to be easy. But if you want to be a writer, if you want to have books finished, books published, books sold, you have to get through it.
So. Let’s discuss how to differentiate between the two types of writer’s block, and some strategies for dealing with each.
Scenario One: “Fake” Writer’s Block
Honestly, if I had to pick one, I would want to have “fake” writer’s block every time. I know that sounds weird, since fake writer’s block has been accused of being an excuse not to write, but hear me out.
You can do something about fake writer’s block immediately, and get back to writing relatively soon after.
Imagine you’re writing, and the words are flowing, the scene is coming along beautifully, and then it ends. And then bam. You have no clue what happens next.
“Ahh! Writer’s Block!” is the typical reaction.
And yes, I mean, you’re a writer, and the easy flow of your thoughts has been blocked. That’s true.
But here’s the key. I have heard it said many times, and I will say it here: If you only write when the words are flowing and pouring out of you, if you only write “when inspiration hits” then you will never, ever finish a book. There is absolutely no way. Every book has parts that the author had to slog through to get the scene done. Every book has parts that the author had to revise ten times because the scene would never play right. None of that was done under inspiration. It was done under grit. And that’s the thing. Writing takes grit. Sometimes, maybe a lot of the time, you have to buckle down and force the words to come, so that those moments where the scene is pouring out of you can have a chance to exist in the first place.
This is why fake writer’s block can become an excuse to not write. Because writing under these circumstances is admittedly not fun. But, you have to imagine, if you find yourself hit with fake writer’s block, that you’ve fallen into a hole with a few handholds just out of reach. The only way to go is up. And the first bits of climbing will be the hardest.
So, how do you climb? Here’s some options, and what works for you will not work for everyone else. Everyone is different.
Check your planning and outlining. Do you need to back up and rewrite?
Look at your notes. Why are you stuck? Is there an unexpected plothole? Do you need to back up and fix that? Are you realizing that the motivations of the characters are not driving them strongly enough? Do you need to back up and fix that? Are your story and world too blank? Do you need to back up and add a subplot that will converge on your main plot, driving it forward?
Look at your story as a whole. Where are the holes? What is causing the writer’s block? What would need to happen to get your characters from point A, where you’re stuck, to point B, where you know you need to end up?
The brain is weird. You may just need to “do something different.”
I’m a teacher by profession, and I know that the human brain is a very interesting place. If you find that you’re stuck, try doing something else for a while. Walk. Listen to music. Walk while listening to music, especially if the songs are inspirational for you! Put the story down for a day. Go visit nature. Paint. Hang out with friends. Read. Sometimes, the brain just needs a little bit of something else.
Make a wordcount goal and stick to it, every day.
This is the hardest one. This is that slog I was talking about. And unfortunately, I can almost guarantee that you will have to use this strategy at some point. Set a wordcount goal that is not overly crazy, and get it out. Just do it. Every day that is a planned writing day. No matter what (caveat in Scenario Two).
The writing you produce may not be great, but it is writing, and you have moved your story forward. No matter how much you have to edit later, you have moved your story forward. You have continued. Remember, if you only write when inspiration hits, you will never finish.
Scenario Two: “Real” Writer’s Block
When I said that I would rather have Scenario One every time, I meant it. Because here’s the deal with Scenario Two – it’s rough. It’s really rough. And it means you’ll have to have a real heart-to-heart with yourself.
Is the story just really … nothing … after all?
If you realize the story you’re working on is destined to go nowhere, that’s okay. Every writer encounters this. It’s a tough realization to come to the conclusion that what you’ve been working on may have been ultimately fruitless, but you have to be able to move on regardless. Put it aside. Move on to something else.
A word of warning – don’t make this decision lightly. Try everything in Scenario One first – multiple times!
Am I not skilled enough to write this story?
This is tough one and requires you to be honest with yourself. Is the story too “big” for you? Have you not researched enough? Are you not a skilled enough writer?
The good news is that, if you can have this honest conversation with yourself, and accept that this is the issue, there is hope. You can learn and grow as a writer. In time, you may be able to come back to the story.
Am I burned out?
You cannot be creative if you are exhausted. This includes mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion. If you need to give yourself a break, give yourself a break. Take that time that you need to reenergize so that you can get back to being your best creative self. Be gentle with yourself, and know that your story will be waiting for you when you return.
Writer’s block is difficult. There is a reason why it is so commonly talked about, why everyone, even non-writers, knows what it is. It is a hill to climb, but is not a hill to die on. There are solutions and ways to move on. Don’t lose hope, and don’t give up. Write, chase down those words – so that you can experience those moments of incredible inspiration.
This post is part of the Writers’ Room, a collaborative writing advice column by Christian writers.