How to Fight Writer's Block with Science
There are 3 detrimental thoughts and activities that slow down the writing process.
“Don’t waste time waiting for inspiration. Begin, and inspiration will find you.”
― H. Jackson Brown Jr.
For us writers, there’s often an expectation that since we always have something to do. I can’t call it a stereotype because it’s largely true. If your other priorities in life are temporarily settled like a rare particularly low tide, there’s always some kind of writing that you could be doing.
You might have a dozen works in progress, you might have one or two. If you just finished something, it’s time to start your next piece. You could have everything done, but then a new idea comes swooping in. It’s the reality of being a writer. It’s hard to truly rest when there’s always something waiting to be done.
There’s always something to write, but that doesn’t mean that right now is the time to write it.
Here’s a truth. As writers, we always have something to do. But there are going to be days and times where you just can’t write.
Talk of writer’s block aside, there are days you don’t have time, you’re physically or mentally drained, or both. There are other days when you do have time to write, but you can’t manage to type more than an open quote or can’t manage to lift the pen. I always try to still extract a few sentences or paragraphs on days like that.
Regardless, no matter how much you fight them, they happen. For the sake of moving through your writing projects, you’ve got to accept those days for what they are and allow them to pass without beating yourself up over them.
Your habits and routines have a huge impact on your motivation as a writer.
Mike Rose wrote an entire book called Writer’s Block: The Cognitive Dimension published by Southern Illinois University Press. It raises some interesting points about what's really causing your writer's block.
"But delimiting and defining a notion as complex and tinged with myth and popular speculation as writer’s block is more easily said than done. How can writer’s block become the focus of careful study?"
— Mike Rose
It's a fair question. We often think about writing purely as an art and don't look at the patterns we have surrounding the practice. Rose answers his own question by explaining his research procedures.
"Patterns must be sought out in whatever data are available; then suitable models can be proposed-the legitimacy of a particular model being determined by its capacity to explain the data."
— Mike Rose
Rose actually conducted studies using college students to try and put some science behind what goes into writer’s block. He observed students while doing a writing activity and gathered feedback on them to determine the types of thoughts and actions they experienced that impaired their writing.
Specific cognitive functions are responsible for you feeling like you have writer's block.
The following diagram will be a bit confusing without having you read Rose’s entire book, but he took averages on behaviors that he defined as “blockers” impeding the writing process.
There's a lot of information there. A wide variety of different thoughts and habits impact writer's block. The percentages get a little confusing, but here are the three big takeaways that slowed writers down.
- Struggling to follow rules
- Premature editing
- Negative self-evaluation
Negative self-evaluation made it to the top three.
How often does negative self-talk dampen your writing?
“All writing problems are psychological problems. Blocks usually stem from the fear of being judged. If you imagine the world listening, you'll never write a line.”
― Erica Jong, The New Writer's Handbook
When you have those days where the words won’t come, forgive yourself and let it happen. Just like there are a thousand things you could be writing, there are a thousand reasons why you’ll have a day where you simply cannot write.
Don’t beat yourself up over it. Don’t talk yourself down or call yourself lazy.
You’ve got to find ways to make peace with that little voice demanding more.
When we talk about burnout, it’s usually in the context of offices and industries like medicine, law, or finance. While the existence of a creative seems ideally in comparison, creative people actually struggle with burnout in the form of creative block very, very regularly. I don’t have a statistic to pull out of my back pocket on this one, but just think of how many times you just haven’t had an ounce of desire to exercise the skill you usually love.
We want to push ourselves to achieve our goals and do as much as we can. However, keeping this within healthy parameters is important.
For the sake of your mental health, you’ve got to find a way to tame the beast that’s always asking for more. For writers, there’s always the next book, short story, article, poem — but you can’t let that desire to create more destroy you. You’ve got to be able to rest, even if you’re the type of workaholic who doesn’t like to take care of themselves.
Don't start editing prematurely.
"Editing fiction is like using your fingers to untangle the hair of someone you love."
― Stephanie Roberts
A few years ago, my lifelong friend and editor graduated and started working as a developmental editor. We’ve been writing since we were kids. She’s read thousands of books, she understands what makes for good fiction, she knows more about grammar than a lot of professors do, and she was an astute editor long before it became part of her job title.
Her advice to everyone is that editing while you write is the number one way to never finish. You shouldn’t try editing things yourself or look at notes for editing until you’re done. Finish first, then go back and edit.
Give yourself freedom to write what you want to.
Let’s go back to Rose’s top three reasons for writer’s block; rules, premature editing, and negative self-evaluation. That idea of adhering to rules can complicate your writing process. It's important to learn the rules of your craft and have them in the back of your head. But when it's time to write, dive in .
If you’re stuck in a dreadful funk, try freewriting. The idea of “rules” guiding your writing sounds vague, but those rules holding you back might be SEO. They might be the type of mental rules you follow when writing a blog post. It might be the rules of fiction writing. Try to break those rules, put them aside, and write as freely as you possibly can.
There’s always something you can write.
“Allowing yourself to make mistakes can ultimately go beyond a writer’s block.”
― Neeraj Agnihotri, Procrasdemon - The Artist's Guide to Liberation From Procrastination
You can pick up a pen or open up your laptop at any time and start working. Walk forward bravely, but don’t walk yourself straight off of a creative cliff either.
Work hard, but don’t make yourself a prisoner to your passion. You want to get closer to being the version of yourself you visualize, but don’t push yourself to the point of breaking. If you let yourself be consumed with the pressure to be a one-person content mill, you’re going to end up hating the craft that you once loved. You don’t want the pressure to produce to make you feel like a writing factory operated by a single person.