What is writer’s block and how to overcome it?

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As a writer, you must have shuddered at the thought of one day sitting in front of your computer to have a productive writing session, only to end up staring at your screen for the entire day without producing a single word.

Writer’s block is the arch-nemesis that does not spare any writer, no matter which corner of the world you live in. However, you must not lose hope. I know what it takes to defeat this stubborn enemy and soon enough, you will as well.

To put it formally, writer’s block is a state in which you find yourself unable to start writing something new, come up with ideas to carry a story forward, or continue a piece of writing coherently. Although there is a dispute about whether this is an actual disorder or just a passing issue, there is no doubt that it can seriously slow your work down and cause you a lot of pain.

What causes writer’s block?

I know what you’re thinking, how does this happen? Do we know what causes it? The answer is that we do! Let me give you the four reasons that contribute to writer’s block so that you can better understand the roots of this problem.

An inner critic that keeps you in chains

Do you ever get the feeling that maybe you’re just not good enough? You read through a novel by Stephen King and wonder why someone would anybody choose to read your work when they could read that instead.

This is one of the biggest reasons why writers fall into a mental block. They do not think themselves worthy or capable of producing something that others would want to read, and this keeps them from writing anything – because, in their minds, it’s not going to be of value anyway.


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A tendency to procrastinate

If you ask the right person, they’d say that procrastination is a modern-day pandemic no one takes seriously. Many writers are unable to write simply because they put the work off for another time.

They have convinced some part of their mind that they have other things to do that demand their immediate attention, even though that might not be the case. As more and more time aggregates, the feeling only gets worse, and the procrastination only becomes more concrete.

Getting distracted all the time

Anyone who has watched ‘The Social Dilemma’ knows what this is about. The world we live in is full of distractions and technology (read: social media) that is meticulously crunching numbers behind the scenes just to catch our attention and retain it for as long as it can.

Even if you’re not addicted to social media, you could easily be distracted by a TV blaring in the background, a spouse or child continually interrupting you, or friends taking you away to a party. All of this combines together to make you feel like you just can’t get on with your writing.

Trying to be perfect

I understand the impulse – you want your writing to be perfect. Free of any possible flaws and errors. I agree, ultimately you do want your writing to be as clear of problems as possible if you want people to read it.

But this hyper-perfectionism, if not checked in the early writing phase, can make you incapable of writing anything at all. The first draft never comes out perfect for anyone, so stressing over it will only leave you with blank pages and undeveloped ideas.

How long can writer’s block last?

If only it were possible to have a clear answer to this question. The truth is that how long a writer’s block will last varies from person to person.

You will find some writers saying that they could not write anything for an hour, while some will tell you they could not do so for an entire year. A better way to think about it is that it will last for as long as it takes you to figure out how to get out of it.

The science behind writer’s block

Broca’s Area

Although the phrase is connected with creative writing (and could be referred to as “creativity block”)writer’s block wasn’t meant that way when it was first coined.

Writer’s block, or aphasia, originally referred to a person’s inability to write words on paper. Of course, writing is a language skill, and it had long been thought that language was quite site-specific in terms of brain location. Although tests were necessarily limited, indications were that language was located in Broca’s Area—the left frontal lobe. The area is named after the scientist, Paul Broca, who reported the connection between the left frontal lobe and speech.

But now, when we think of writer’s block, we typically associate it with more than the ability to inscribe words.

It has become a way of saying we can’t find the next word pathway in our novel, or play.

Studies of “story creation” and how the brain acts and reacts

Studies have been done to find how the brain acts and reacts during “story creation”, as well as which locations in the brain were involved in the process. In 2005, for instance, participants were each given three words. It would seem that they would be required to show creativity, and some were. But not all. The participants were requested to build a story centered around their three words, and in some trials the restriction was to “be creative”. In other trials, they were to “be uncreative”.

In another study done in 2013, participants had 30 words of a text they would recognize given to them. They got two minutes to consider how they would write the rest of the text, then another two minutes to actually do the writing.

Stories were scored according to creativity.

In both studies, an fMRI was used on each participant as they did what was requested—built a story around three words or finished a text.  The fMRI had the capability of measuring blood flow—the big questions being: Which area(s) would receive more blood flow? Which would receive less?

So, what was the result?

  • The traditionally-accepted area (Broca’s Area, left frontal lobe) did show activity
  • Activity was in the right pre-frontal cortex, as well as the left pre-frontal cortex. Areas included are known for the ability to make associations, especially between unrelated concepts.
  • In the 2013 study, during “brain-storming”, planning and control sub-regions became involved
  • Curing the physical part of “creative writing”, motor and memory areas became involved

Sounds like the brain of a writer, all right.

So what is the bottom line?

Since areas involved in creative writing have to do with:

  • control
  • planning
  • memory
  • ability to link unrelated concepts

Maybe our “writer’s block” is really just a creative block.  Perhaps concentrating on these areas would help cure writer’s block?


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15 tips to overcome writer’s block

This brings me to the solution: you don’t have to spend an entire year grappling with writer’s block if you know how to wriggle out of its grip.

Let me take you through the tips that have helped many writers successfully leave their writer’s block behind and write amazing books!

1. Build a routine

Having a routine takes away the cognitive load that comes with deciding what you should do next or how you should plan your day. When you have a routine, you’re functioning on autopilot – you have a set time for everything that does not change across months and years.

Only, make sure that you stick to the routine so that when it’s time to write, you’re writing (even if it’s just complete gibberish).

2. Accept less-than-perfect vocabulary

In the early stages, you don’t have to think of the perfect word to describe every situation. You can settle for less than perfect (whatever comes to your mind) and highlight that word so that you can come back and replace it with something better once you’re done with your first draft.

3. Do something other than writing

Take a break from writing. It may be that you’ve spent so much time doing one thing on repeat that your mind simply needs a break from it before it can let you carry on.

So go out and do some exercise, go to a party, meet some friends, cook some food. Do something that is not writing, and you will see the freshness and energy coming back to you.


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4. Let your mind wander through your words

The subheading sounds cryptic, but what I mean is that you should free-write. Take a pen and piece of paper (or your laptop if that is what you prefer) and just start writing whatever comes to your mind.

Set a timer (such as for 10 minutes) and don’t self-edit or think twice while you’re free-writing. This ought to get the clogged machinery inside your mind cleared up and ready to roll again.

5. Your first draft will not be perfect

This is something every first-time writer has to accept. None of the amazing books you read was like that in their earliest drafts. Perfection and magic only came after several rounds of editing.

So relax, and ask your inner-critic to do the same. The goal of your first draft is not to complete a perfect story – it is just to complete one.

6. Switch to a different part of the story

If you’re stuck in building up your character’s background story and can’t seem to move forward in that direction, stop. Switch to a different part. Start writing the climax of your story, or the ending.

Making this jump will help you tap into a vast pool of ideas that haven’t been written yet, and so will get you started with the writing. You’ll find it easier to go back to the original part once you’re done with this one.

7. Take a shower

This is a universal human experience: people get all sorts of weird and sometimes incredibly brilliant ideas while they’re in the shower. I don’t know why this happens, but this is something you could definitely try out.

This might just be exactly what you need to bring your writer’s block to an end quickly.

8. Pacify your inner critic

Your inner critic will tell you that you’re not good enough, that you can’t write anything of value, and that what you’ve written up till now is perfectly described as garbage.

Don’t listen to this voice coming from the inside. Tell that voice that indeed, you are not capable of something extraordinary, but you sure do believe in hard work. Tell that voice that you won’t get it right the first time, but maybe you will get it right on the 4th.

9. Change your medium

Sometimes, a change of environment or a change of medium can do wonders for writers. So if you’re used to typing away at super-fast speeds on your laptop, put it aside and try writing using a pen and paper. It will be slow, but you will find yourself able to write.

The same goes the other way round. If you’re a pen-and-paper person, try your hand at a typewriter or a laptop. It will undoubtedly come as a breath of fresh air.

10. Get out of the mind of your protagonist

If you’ve spent too long looking at your plot through the eyes of your protagonist, maybe it’s time that you step out of it and try to look at everything from the eyes of your antagonist or a secondary character, or maybe just a fly on the wall.

This change of perspective will unearth ideas and situations you may not have considered earlier and will give you a lot of material to get back to writing.

11. Practice creativity

Creativity is not a limited resource that you can run out of. It is more of a muscle that grows the more you exercise it. So take a break from writing and engage yourself in another kind of creative work.

Go do some painting, re-organize your room, and draw your favourite movie characters. Something that forces your creativity to work and grow.

12. Go back to the drawing board

Story not moving forward on the page? No problem. Go back to where you plotted everything out and made a map of all the ways your story was connected and built.

Start working on that mind map once again. You will notice arcs and connections you had forgotten earlier and will find some new direction for your story.

13. Add more depth to your characters

Have you thought about why your character is the way he or she is? Have you explained to the reader past events from the life of your character that have forced him/her to behave in a certain way?

If not, it will be worthwhile to spend some time exploring that. Not only will it add a greater level of depth to your story, but it will also pull you out of writer’s block.

14. Forget the reader for a while

As much as we wish, we do have to think about our audience while writing. No one will read our work if it is weird and unappealing.

However, this can often take you to an extreme where you’re stuck in a corner and the only thing that can get you out of there is to inject some of your individuality and idiosyncratic ideas into the story.

15. Create new problems in your story

Think about the worst thing that could happen to a certain character in your story, and then make it happen. This will add a completely new arc into your book and will be something you would not have to think too much about.

Let’s say that your character is about to get married. Make her fiancé cheat on her. Now you have a conflict going on, and there are so many things that can happen.

Writer’s block is something that can trap you for a very long time, but it does not have to. As long as you follow the tips I’ve outlined above, you’ll be well on your way to becoming a successful writer without having to wait an eternity for it to happen.

🌟 Top Tip: There are services like Master Writer designed to help you crack on with your writing. Where you need to find rhyming words for your children’s storybook or creative ideas to move your storyline along. I have only used this as a trial, but I found it fairly easy to use.

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