You can’t think yourself out of a writing block;
you have to write yourself out of a thinking block.
In its most essential form, writing is transcribing thinking onto paper. (There’s is more to it after that, but often that’s not writing, that’s editing, which is a different discussion.)
Writer’s block is any freeze up of that process.
People think of it as a block, but I believe that’s a bit of a misnomer. It feels like a block, but it is more like a system shutdown because something needs to be rebooted; like a little red-alert indicator that lights up. It’s telling me something is wrong with the flow of ideas into words. Basically it’s saying, “Something is not right here. All engines stop. We’re headed in a wrong direction. We need a different approach before we can proceed.”
Writer’s block is often seen as a problem, but I believe it is something in our subconscious (or maybe our sub-conscience?) trying to save us pain and effort. Our minds are trying to tell us, “What you are intending to write isn’t up to standard yet. Don’t waste time writing before you rethink what you’re trying to say.”
For too many of us, this shut down feels like a full stop. We were already unsure of our idea and writer’s block feels like confirmation from the universe that we don’t really have what it takes to be a writer, or that our idea wasn’t really good enough—or we give into whatever other self-doubt de jour that’s being served up in our brains. We set down our pens or close the Word or Pages file, walk away, and get busy with whatever the world throws at us as an excuse not to write the book our soul is begging us—us, not someone else—to write.
That’s a tragedy on so many levels.
But what if we flipped the script? What if, rather than being a condemnation of our intent to write, writer’s block was really a blessing? What if it’s just a sign we’ve gotten off track and need to find the right trail again? That it’s time for a compass check to be sure we’re headed in the right direction?
Despite popular opinion, writing isn’t hard work—it’s not like refinishing a table or pulling a double shift in an ER—although it is hard thinking. It demands some soul searching, a lot of questioning, overcoming red herrings, and hours of wrestling for the right words to express thoughts that consider themselves somewhat beyond what language can express.
Often writing is a means of bringing something to light our subconscious mind knows that our conscious mind does not—a painful process, even when its source isn’t from a deeply imbedded trauma. Who wouldn’t, given even the slightest excuse, choose to avoid that kind of thinking work? Writing isn’t rocket science, as the saying goes, but it often feels like trying to express rocket science level ideas. That’s what makes writing frustrating and induces all kinds of self-doubt, but also a quest that, when we pursue it—is very, very, very fulfilling.
And it can be really useful for the mission we are trying to fulfill in the world, which is just one more reason why, when facing writer’s block, it’s worth finding a way through it.
As a ghostwriter and editor who has seen more than seventy-five projects brought to successful completion, I’ve been quite familiar with writer’s block and its benefits—yes, that’s right, benefits. It’s a blessing in disguise. Over years of writing, I’ve found it saved me a lot of wasted words and fruitless writing time.
So, when I hit a block, here are the top five things I hear it saying:
1. “You’re being too much of a perfectionist.”
This is what you hear when what you are about to write won’t take you in the right direction. You know deep inside you need a better thought to proceed, but it hasn’t surfaced yet because your desire to be eloquent is getting in the way. To find what you are after, you need to take it down a notch. You can polish for eloquence later.
Though we don’t realize it, typing into a document that we plan to—at some point—submit as a completed manuscript can feel too “formal” or have a degree of finality to it that stymies. It can feel like we need that “better thought” before we proceed, but more caught up with the expression of it than simply excavating it from the muddle of our minds. This especially happens when we face a blank page at the beginning of a chapter.
Because of this, I always keep a notepad next to me on my desk while I type. When I am stuck for the first sentence or the new thought I will transition to, it helps to “free write” on that pad until I feel like I have something worthy of putting into the document. This might also let me “prototype” a metaphor or story, to see if it might help me get unstuck. It gives me room to play and experiment a bit without the added pressure of typing it into a document. (This might seem a little silly, but it’s definitely something I’ve experienced. Five minutes of free writing and I’m back to flowing ideas into Word.)
OneNote, Evernote, and other similar programs allow for similar freedom, plus have the advantage of being on your phone so you can jot notes down on the fly when you are out and about. (I use OneNote because it comes free with MS Office. I have used Evernote in the past and love both, though I think Evernote is a bit better and has fewer useless features.)
2. “There’s a better idea out there that you need.”
Sometimes, especially when looking at a blank page at the beginning of a book, writer’s block is really saying, “You don’t know enough about what you are going to write yet.” Simple as that. It’s time to do more research.
As a general rule, if I have three months to write a book (ghostwriters sometimes have short deadlines), I will do six weeks of research before I am really comfortable with jumping into writing the first chapter. So, yes, I basically spend half of the time in research and half the time to write the book. (As a ghostwriter, I don’t know as much about the topic as the author I am writing for—so I have to get up to speed with the conversation going on in the world around their topic. If you are already a subject area expert about what you will be writing about, research will likely take you less time.)
The key is to get back to writing as soon as you have an inkling about what you want to start exploring. It’s easy to fall down a rabbit hole of web surfing and never get back to writing that day. (And if you do, no worries, just come back to your writing place the next day and pick things up from there.)
Usually when I pick up a book that is part of my research, flip through it until I find something of interest, and then read a few minutes, I will find something that will re-inspire me enough to get back to transcribing thoughts. Sometimes it takes longer, but usually not.
3. “You need to get out of your own head.”
There are numerous tools you should have at your disposal as a writer. Some things won’t make it look like you’ve made progress “on paper,” but will definitely move the needle toward completing your project. These include exercises such as mind-mapping, brainstorming with sticky notes on a wall (or closet door, in my case), talking things through with an editor, coach, or friend who writes, color coding patterns in a notebook, developing background or characters (for fiction, obviously), whiteboard scribbling and diagraming, and the like. These are all tools that will help you better understand what you are writing by either digging into the details or getting a big picture view of your thoughts and seeing new connections. I like tools that are easily movable and tactile (though I am enjoying using online whiteboard services that allow me to collaborate with others like Mural.co).
Getting a different perspective on what you are struggling with can lead to that “better idea” or “better expression of your idea” that will act as a catalyst to your writing rather than a roadblock. Sometimes getting a little “detachment gain” is exactly what you need to propel you forward with a better understanding of what thoughts you should be transcribing and in what order.
4. “You’re thinking too hard. Just let it surface on its own.”
I think we too often overlook the part the subconscious mind plays in writing. When I feel flow in writing, it is like the words are coming from deep within. When that’s not happening, sometimes it feels like the toothpaste tube is empty, and I need to refill it somehow. (I know, you usually buy another one, but that analogy doesn’t work for me here.)
When you are deep in the weeds in the midst of the quest that is writing a book, sometimes it’s good to take a break and let the thought you are struggling with blossom out of your subconscious. Go for a walk, take a twenty-minute nap, actually do those dishes that seem to be endlessly calling to you, read something, organize something. (Sidenote: oddly, I find sorting and consolidating things on my off days from writing feeds my inner organizer, so when I get back to writing Monday morning, I find my thoughts better arranged. I may be fooling myself, but at least the garage looks better.) This is probably not as good an idea as going back to research, but if you are writing something that is more creative or original, sometimes it’s not more research that you need.
We tend to use extraction-type analogies about writing (eg., “digging deep, mining for gold”), but I’ve found it’s better to think of writing as a garden where you plant ideas and they grow in marvelous ways. Digging up seeds to see how they are doing isn’t a great gardening tip. Plants just need time to sprout on their own. All you can really do is keep watering and watching for what you planted to break through the surface.
5. “It’s time to quit—for the day—and let things percolate in your subconscious overnight.”
Okay, this is not the first one you want to try, but when things aren’t flowing, sometimes time is what your brain needs more than anything else—and maybe a change of scenery as well. While writing a book can seem more technical, ideas develop more like flowers or a zucchini. They need time to germinate and grow. A key ingredient is patience. That could mean continuing to polish until you have all the words perfectly placed, or it could mean waiting for any words to properly form.
The other important part is knowing it is “for the day.” For your subconscious to be engaged, it needs to know there is an expectation that the next time you show up to do your writing, it will have done its work. This is a gift you give yourself when you have set writing blocks each week. When your mind knows you have a scheduled time of two or more hours coming up to write and you expected it to give you thoughts that will keep your writing process moving forward, you’ll be surprised how willing it is to collaborate with you.
Of course, doing this in isolation is a recipe for your doubts to get the upper hand. Oftentimes you need support from outside for bouncing around ideas or giving you strategies for staying out of the weeds. Having a writing partner or group of peers who are also writing can stave off the isolation that can give out doubts the upper hand and opens the door to freezing up. That’s why it can also be good to have a guide who has traveled the route before, or a small group of fellow explorers who have the same destination in mind.
Like so many villains, writer’s block is just misunderstood. It’s not really trying to stop you, it’s trying to help you—it’s just doing it in a clumsy way. Instead of seeing it as an opponent, see it as an indicator you need to reset something in your thinking. When you do, I believe you’ll find it is more helpful than you imagined possible, and instead of frustration, you’ll find the flow of ideas that will lead to finishing your book.