The Illusion of Writer’s Block

I’ve been trying to write this story for a long time. Things kept getting in the way. None of those things was writer’s block. I don’t believe in the condition of writer’s block. It’s not a thing. Let me explain.

We writers all have dry spells, periods of low output, low energy, low motivation. Some days we simply can’t summon words. Other days we’re raring to go but a certain story vexes us. That’s all normal. But writer’s block is not the cause, and it’s never the condition you find yourself in, no more than musicians get musician’s block or plumbers get plumber’s block.

We do get tired. Or bored. Or distracted. Or many other things that can get in the way of writing—or thwart any creative effort or even fundamental productivity related to the most basic tasks.

Maybe you have a draft sitting in your story folder right now, waiting to be finished and published, nagging at you for attention. Could be a long jumble of sentences, quotes and rough notes that you struggle to make sense of. Or maybe it’s a short outline that hasn’t gained traction. Or it might be frozen in any number of frustrating stages in between.

Maybe you have several drafts in progress. Join the club. I have dozens of unfinished drafts. This used to be one of them.

Symptoms vs. causes

When you can’t seem to move a story forward, or you can’t move any story forward, it’s easy to blame writer’s block. But that’s an incredibly unproductive tactic that won’t help you change the narrative. Because writer’s block is not a cause or a condition. Rather, it’s a symptom. Just like sore throat is a symptom.

The cause of a sore throat might be a common cold or any number of other conditions, from frightening to benign. Common medicines for sore throats don’t work — they’re bogus (that’s science, look it up). But if you can figure out what the underlying condition is and treat that, or let it run its natural course, the sore throat goes away.

It was only when I realized that writer’s block is a symptom, not a condition, that this article finally came into focus and pretty much wrote itself. There was never any writer’s block (I don’t believe in writer’s block, remember?). There was an idea that had bones but no connective tissue. It was missing that thang that made it worth writing.

Writer’s block is not just any symptom, either. When I recently wrote about the nocebo effect — the rough opposite of the placebo effect — it occurred to me that it describes writer’s block pretty well: an unwanted symptom fabricated from fear or negative assumptions. We think our inability to finish a story is because of some vague, intractable problem with our writing abilities, and so we claim the sensation of writer’s block. It allows us to wallow in self-pity, metaphorically cough and sniffle our way out of putting our butts in the chair and finishing something.

do believe there are plenty of walls we can run into that thwart us from starting, finishing and publishing stories. But these walls are only indirectly related to the creative process of writing. They are barriers erected by outside circumstances or, often, constructed in our own minds, however unwittingly.

Whenever you struggle with a story or any creative endeavor, or during a longer dry spell, do not fret. Do not stress. That’ll only make matters worse. What you need is an attitude adjustment, a new way of looking at this symptom that you’ve been thinking all along was a cause or condition. Here’s how I want you to think different: Where there’s a wall, there’s a door. You just need to find it or build it in order to get through. I’m going to explain how.

The wonderful bounty of unfinished drafts

Let’s clear the air on a common writer’s misconception. Unfinished drafts are not a sign of failure, no more than a great melody awaiting some lyrics is the end of the line for a musician. They are a mark of initiative, representing simultaneously an admirable sign of restraint and a trove of possibility. We didn’t embarrass ourselves by publishing a bit of garbage, but we might still be able to recycle the thing.

I count all my unwritten stories as successful brainstorms that remain viable. Sure, I kid myself sometimes. But how we frame our fits and starts and flame-outs is a key to the creative process and to productive, successful writing. Heck, it’s a key to getting anything done.

If you need to start three stories in order to finish one, great! That is a process, and it’s no less useful than the process of some schmuck who somehow finishes every story he starts in less time than you and I can say “what should I write about today?”

Unfinished drafts represent unleashed creativity and quality. The very opposite of rushed-to-market schlock.

Look upon your unfinished drafts fondly, for you never know what they might become.

I’ve resurrected many drafts from the ashes, often when some news event or new scientific study brings the topic to the fore. Unfinished drafts are raw material, like the flour and salt that’s always in the cupboard, doing absolutely nothing but waiting to be turned into bread or cookies. For me, it’s comforting to know I have a large store of ingredients to draw from when the right hook or other inspiration comes along.

Diagnosing your condition

So let’s get specific. If you think you have writer’s block, think again. Literally. Don’t let that negative thought prevail. It’s like saying “I can’t even walk a mile” and then doing everything possible to stay off your feet. Instead, say “I can walk a mile, just not yet,” and then take a short jaunt around the block as a first step.

Once you reframe the challenge positively, you can get to work, like a good doctor, peeling back the onion of your life to see what’s really going on.

First off, take a deep breath. Take three of them. Close your eyes. Clear your head (try my 3-minute mini-meditation, if you’re game).

OK, with a fresh perspective, ask yourself:

What underlying condition or circumstance is creating the wall I’m banging my head against right now?

Writer’s block is not the underlying condition. It’s a symptom of something else that’s created a temporary impediment to your creativity and productivity. So what is it? A lack of viable story ideas? A crappy story idea? A story that’s just too complex? Is it lack of time, energy or motivation? Are you distracted by something really stressful but unrelated to writing (or an anxiety-producing “something” that you can’t put your finger on)? Are you physically sick? Are you not sleeping well? Do you drink too much?

If you can identify the underlying condition, then you can address it. If you can’t, then you’re not thinking hard enough about what’s really going on. Something is in your way, and it’s not writer’s block.

Say it with me: Writer’s block is not a condition, it’s a symptom.

We writers all get distracted by life. We get sick of routines. We get exhausted. The creative urge wanes. If it’s any of those things, walk away. Take a break. Don’t open your computer or your phone for however long it takes to recharge — an hour, a day, a week.

The art of writing is well served by the science of doing nothing.

If the problem has become chronic, split for the weekend or take a week off from writing to paint your house or park catatonically in front of the TV. Better yet, start exercising (here’s a guide), cut back on the booze (here’s the truth), aim to sleep better (here’s why and how). In a nutshell, figure out the real problem behind your so-called writer’s block and address it head-on.

Your diagnostic tools

I hope you enjoyed your break. And welcome back. I wish you ongoing success with your new approach to life. You needed it!

When you’re ready to come back to your desk, we can figure out why a particular story is giving you fits. Now’s the time to get serious. You have renewed energy and focus. Let’s do this. Pick a draft and finish it. That might be all the encouragement you need.

Still stuck? No problem. My bet is you have not fully figured out what this hypothetical story wants to be. That’s great, because like a scary diagnosis from a doctor, this one will help us figure out the remedy. I’ve got a whole bunch of potential solutions, any one of which might help you get that story moving…

  • What’s your hook? Why this story, now, by you? You should always have an answer for those questions with a clear, concise, concrete statement.
  • Figure out the headline. If you can’t summon an enticing headline, why? What’s missing from your research or your framing of the story?
  • Do a proper outline. What are the 3 or 4 main themes/problems/questions of the story? Write them down as possible subheads. Think of them as mini-headlines. Make them clear and enticing. Every story needs a good outline.
  • Do more research. Even if you think you’re done researching a story, surf the interwebs and see what else might be out there. You’re not looking to illuminate the entire story; you just need a little flicker of information to get a light bulb to go off in your head, maybe take things in a fresh direction.
  • Ask a friend. When I’m stuck on a story, I tell my wife about the story. Conversationally, without looking at my notes. I stumble through a verbal summary. Invariably, she stops me at some point and asks a question or makes an observation or points out some flaw in my reasoning or recalls a relevant anecdote that helps me pull the story into focus.
  • Write the nutgraph. After whatever lede you might craft, what’s the knockout sentence of this story? The thing that puts the premise in perspective and solidifies reader interest and propels them onward? Every story should have a great nutgraph, and if your draft does not yet have one, it could be the reason you are stuck.
  • Find a key quote. If your style is to be the voice of the story, to make all the bold claims yourself, you’ve essentially limited the number of experts in your story to one. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone else weighed in to support you, add to your credibility, make you look smart?
  • Look over your draft from 30,000 feet, without doing any line editing. Does each section logically relate back to and support the headline or story premise? Is there a glaring hole? Is there a buried nugget that should come to the top? Are all the elements above in place or envisioned? Can you see where the story is, and where it needs to be? If so, then you can plug the holes. If not, then consider whether this story wants to be written at all.

Finally, don’t let perfection get in the way of good enough. Writer’s block is often a euphemism for “My story is not great.” Most stories are not great. Most are merely good, and a few can be just OK — to serve their purpose, get the job done. So dig into that draft, acknowledge that perfect is the enemy of done, and finish it up as best you can. Or take a hike. Hikes are to writing what ibuprofen is to headaches.

If none of those tactics jumpstart your story, then put the story aside and pursue a different one. Stories can be fickle, and sometimes they just don’t want to be written… at least not now.

Whatever you do, don’t waste time staring off into space, hoping for inspiration to strike, blaming writer’s block. It’s not a thing.

Cheers,
Rob

I started this draft months ago and finally got around to finishing it thanks to Medium’s Draft Day prompt (more here: MediumDraftDay.com) and I first published it earlier this week in my Writer’s Guide newsletter.

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— I develop software that helps you shape the future —

Hello, I’m Diran. Software architect and author.