You stare at the computer screen with your hands motionless on the keyboard. Nothing comes to mind. Nothing. How can this happen? You have a deadline, a schedule, a goal—even time to write. All you lack is the ability to focus. What are you going to do? There’s no time in your schedule for this crisis. No one cares about your writer’s angst. They just want a book.
First of all, take a deep breath. You aren’t alone. Many other writers have had difficulty writing. That’s not surprising for an activity that hinges on something so ephemeral as creativity.
My clearest encounter with writer’s block followed an illness that laid me out for a month. Until then, I didn’t believe it existed. I’d thought of it as procrastination accompanied by grandstanding to gain sympathy. Maybe someone somewhere does that, but my experience taught me that writer’s block is not so simple. I’ve written this article from the perspective that writer’s block is not conscious procrastination.
This brings us to an important question.
What is Writer’s Block?
The simplest definition of writer’s block comes courtesy of esteemed an author.
“Writer’s block is when you want to write but can’t.” Kate Wilhelm
I admire Wilhelm’s gift for capturing a riddle of human complexity into such a succinct statement. It is the final word in her quote— ’can’t’ —that branches a hundred or more issues.
Overcoming Writer’s Block the Smart Way
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” Sun Tsu (The Art of War; Amazon affiliate link)
I’m still working on taking in the deeper nuances of Tsu’s quote. For our purposes, it’s enough to understand what causes writer’s block and take stock of the weaknesses that make us vulnerable to it.
I’ve come up with what a SMART system to help with this. I’m not overly fond of anachronism, but this one followed me home, so I kept it.
S = Study the problem.
Some of the reasons given by other writers for experiencing writer’s block include:
Overtaxed creativity. Taking on a lot of projects at once or in quick succession can lead to burnout and the inability to function. I’ve learned in my own writing life that creativity is a fragile flower, easily crushed. Nurturing yours goes a long ways toward overcoming writer’s block.
- For more information, read the “Creativity Killers” series.
Inadequate preparation. Either you need more research or haven’t thought your story through enough to start. Solve this problem the obvious way, by gaining the knowledge you need.
- You’ll find a simple but detailed research system you can adapt to your own needs, go to “Researching a Novel the Simple Way.”
- For help with theme development, read “Develop a Story Line with a Theme.”
- If plotting challenges you, there’s help in the “Plotting a Novel in Three Acts” series.
- To better understand how your characters’ motivations intertwine with the plot, go to “Defining Your Characters (Or Who Are These People Anyway?)
Physical problems. Lack of sleep, exhaustion, illness, stress, and depression have a way of commanding our attention. Improve your physical health, and you’ll free your focus. Sometimes that takes a while, so be patient.
Meanwhile, you can deal with email, website maintenance, promotion, and all the other things likely to get in the way when your writing flow returns. After it does, you may discover your normal writing process is out of kilter due to the disruption caused by your illness. This is a good time to go on a writing retreat to connect all the dots again.
- Learn about “Making the Most of Your Writing Retreat.”
Emotional troubles. Fear, impostor syndrome, or disappointment can interfere with the ability to write.
- If you’re facing fear as a writer, you’ll find help in “Five Writing Fears and How to Overcome Them.”
- Are you sabotaging your own success? Read “Do You Suffer from Impostor Syndrome?”
- If you’re struggling with disappointment, you’ll find advice in “When Discouragement Calls Your Name.”
Disruptions that break your concentration. Repeated interruptions require a cold start each time you return to your story. Similarly, too long an interruption can make you feel confused in your own story. The result of either situation is a scattered feeling and the inability to focus. This is why adopting the discipline of regular writing sessions makes sense.
- For a tongue-in-cheek look at possible solutions to this problem, read “Ten Sneaky Strategies to Eliminate Writing Distractions.”
M = Make a plan.
Once you’ve figured out what holds you back, the next step is to make a plan to overcome writer’s block. What are the specific ways you will nurture your creativity? When will you work on your plot? How can you improve your health? How will you challenge your fears? Who do you need to ask to respect your writing time?
Brainstorm the steps you will take and write them down. Studies show that writing down your goals makes you 42 percent more likely to attain them.
- Learn more about “Setting SMART Goals You Can Live With.”
A = Apply your solutions.
What gets scheduled gets done is a common saying for a reason. Making written goals is only the first step. The next is to break them into manageable chunks and put them in your schedule. If you don’t keep a schedule, tape your goals to the wall near your computer, write them on sticky notes, send them to your email inbox, or otherwise remind yourself to work on them.
- For more advice, read: “Schedule Your Time in 4 Simple Steps.”
R = Review the results.
Analyze your efforts after a month. Did you stay on track? What worked and what didn’t? Were the results what you’d hoped? If not, what could you do differently to attain your goals? Make the necessary adjustments, and set a new date to review your results. Repeat as needed.
- You’ll find more information in “How to Manage Your Writing (Get Your Ducks in a Row).”
T =Think ahead.
Armed with the knowledge of what makes writing difficult for you, plan to head off or minimize them the hurdles you face.
Knowing that a visit from relatives will interrupt you in the middle of writing a story, for example, you can write lots of notes to orient yourself when you return to it. Giving yourself the margin to pick up the story thread prevents frustration and the stress that would inhibit you further.
If you haven’t allotted enough time for research, you’ll need to plan more, even if that means renegotiating a deadline. It’s far better to be up-front about such things well in advance than to beg for another week when your book is due.
If your energy levels run on empty after the holidays, think twice about agreeing to write a guest blog post in January, even for a friend.
The best way to overcome writer’s block is to stop it before it starts.
Final Thoughts from Janalyn
Overcoming writer’s block may seem impossible when you are in its throes. That’s only a perception, not reality. You can do this. All it takes is a determined mind and the willingness to try.