Many of us write every day to communicate with coworkers, friends, and family. But if you’re a student or work in a field that involves writing, writing is one of your regular tasks.
So what happens when you need to write but just . . . can’t? There’s a good chance you’ve got writer’s block.
What is writer’s block?
Writer’s block is the condition of being unable to write productively. The obstacle isn’t physical; it’s mental. When you have writer’s block, it can feel like the creative part of your brain lost its Wi-Fi signal. When you want to do some creative writing, writer’s block is frustrating. When you have a deadline coming up, writer’s block is anxiety provoking.
Writer’s block isn’t the same as procrastination. The key difference is that with procrastination, you avoid writing (or other obligations) because of some kind of stressor, which might or might not be connected to the task at hand. With writer’s block, you want to write, but your brain just can’t seem to produce anything worth writing. Writer’s block can take the form of a lack of ideas or difficulty finding the right words to communicate your ideas. Writer’s block can last days, weeks, or longer.
There are a lot of possible causes of writer’s block. You might be preoccupied with other things, or perhaps you’ve written yourself into a corner—or you’re creatively tapped out and feel uninspired. When writer’s block keeps you from working on an assignment, it might be that you don’t understand the subject matter thoroughly enough to write with confidence. Or you might simply not be interested in the topic. It happens, more often than you might think—but you still need to turn in your assignment.
Signs you have writer’s block
When you find yourself staring at the blank page or screen, unable to progress with your writing, you may be experiencing writer’s block. That’s really it; if your ability to write feels “blocked,” you’ve got writer’s block.
But if you find yourself struggling with writer’s block, don’t beat yourself up over it—it won’t help. As we said earlier, it happens to just about every writer. It’s not a personal failure or a sign you aren’t a good writer—it’s a common, fixable obstacle.
How to unblock writer’s block
Identify the cause, and address it
To combat writer’s block, the first thing you need to do is determine what’s causing it. Reflect on why you can’t seem to come up with ideas or start getting words on the page.
Do you know what you want to say, though you can’t find the right words to say it? Say it in the vocabulary you can muster right now. Even if it’s clunky or vague, you’ll end up with writing you can revise later.
Are you having a hard time grasping your subject? If that’s the case, do more research. If you simply can’t “get into” your subject, speak with your instructor to see if you can adjust your topic’s scope a bit or write about a different topic. If you can’t, try to learn more—if you better understand the topic, you’ll have an easier time getting through the assignment.
If your writer’s block stems from a lack of inspiration, zero in on why you’re feeling uninspired. You might need to address challenges in other areas of your life before you’re able to sit down and write. Or your writing routine might need a shake-up. The answer might even be that you have to wait out a stressful time in your life, so you have the mental space to write.
Change up your approach
Once you’ve identified what’s causing your writer’s block, the next step is to try out strategies for overcoming it. If something you’ve been trying isn’t working, try something else: Don’t stick with the same approach just because you’ve already committed to it. (Remember the sunk cost fallacy?)
If you’re struggling with a creative piece, for example, writing exercises might be the way to go. Or, if you’re unable to get started on an assignment, making yourself a mini-assignment could be the way to get the words flowing. Here are a few ideas to break out of your routine:
- Answer a list of questions that pertain to your work. For an analytical essay, your prewriting list might contain questions about the themes in the work and the passages that support these themes. For a blog post, you might instead answer questions about your goals for the post, references you want to make, and topics you’ll cover. By answering objective questions about your work, you’re engaging with the subject and also writing content you can use in the work itself, giving yourself an easy on-ramp.
- Write “out of order.” If you aren’t sure how to start your essay, but you know what you want to say about one of the sources you cite, write the body paragraph about that source. From there, you might see the connection to your next paragraph and, eventually, how to introduce and conclude your piece.
- Writing exercises are an excellent choice when you’re stuck on a short story or another type of creative writing. Try freewriting (writing whatever comes into your mind, no matter how silly or tedious, until you find your flow) or writing your work in a different style or genre. For example, if you have a hard time finding the right words for your noir love story, try writing the scene as a wacky comedy.
- Take a (short) break from writing. Focus on something else: another assignment, a conversation with a friend, or household chores. The goal is to temporarily take your mind off writing so that when you return to your desk, you’ll look at the page with fresh eyes and, ideally, be ready to get to work.
- Try writing with some support! If you find yourself feeling blocked when you’re writing alone, meet up with a friend to write together. You can bounce ideas off each other or not—sometimes, just having another person physically present can help you focus on your writing and bang out the assignment.
- If you’re feeling uninspired, you might need a change of scenery. Try finding inspiration outside your usual writing environment. This could mean taking a walk around your neighborhood or bringing your laptop to a café or library.
- Talk it out rather than write it out. Pushing yourself to verbally articulate what you’re working on to a friend, fellow student, or coworker might help clarify what you want to write or what the impediments are to getting it down in print.
Recall why you’re writing in the first place and why it’s important to you
Why are you writing? Answer this question literally: What are you trying to achieve? Sometimes, reminding yourself why you’re writing is the key to busting past writer’s block. It gives you a goal to work toward, which could be:
- Passing a course
- Fulfilling a job requirement
- Expressing yourself
- Releasing ideas or tension
- Getting good grades to get into college or grad school
- Exploring your feelings
- Meeting a client’s deadline
Your goal can become “the light at the end of the tunnel” that you get a little bit closer to with every word on the page.