Ever sat down to write something, and nothing came up?
If you haven’t, it means that you don’t write much (or you have some magical power that no one else has).
Every writer I’ve ever talked to or worked with (including myself) has dealt with writer’s block. In fact, some of the greatest writers of all time—Ralph Ellison, Harper Lee—battled with it for decades, and had it crush their careers (neither wrote a book other than their first).
After decades of writing books professionally, and working with thousands of authors to help them through these issues, I have developed an approach to writer’s block that is different than most, and—if applied correctly—almost always works.
What Is Writer’s Block?
The term “writer’s block” was created in the ’50s by a psychiatrist named Edmund Bergler, in a paper called “Does Writer’s Block Exist?” Bergler was from the Freudian school of psychoanalysis and argued that a writer is like a psychoanalyst, saying that a writer “unconsciously tries to solve his inner problems via the sublimatory medium of writing.”
A blocked writer is actually blocked psychologically—and the way to “unblock” that writer is through therapy. Solve the personal psychological problem and you remove the blockage.
Why does this matter?
Because there has been a ton of stuff written since then about writer’s block, and most of it is wrong.
The original guy got it (basically) right.
What Causes Writer’s Block?
Even though writer’s block always boils down to a “personal psychological problem” causing it, that psychological problems fall into three main buckets.
The first one is the biggest and totally obvious one:
Writers are human, and thus afraid. They’re afraid of taking risks, they’re afraid of being judged, they’re afraid of writing a bad book, but mostly—they are afraid of looking foolish. This is the human condition, and the best thing to do is, if it’s true—admit you are afraid. Then you can deal with it (I discuss solutions next section)
The second fear is not so much a direct fear, but an indirect fear. You know the “fight or flight” response? Well, in the literature it’s actually called the “fight, flight, or freeze” response, and “freeze” is a big one in writer’s block. I usually refer to this as:
A poor plan.
The simplest way to describe it is that humans crave certainty, and if there is too much uncertainty about the writing task, then it freezes people. Some subconscious hesitation about the plan or topic or anything will make most people just not do it.
I see this all the time with Scribe clients; they know they have a book in them and they don’t have any problem writing once they know what they’re supposed to write about. But without the proper organization and structure ahead of time, they freeze.
The third problem is something that happens more than you might think:
You genuinely don’t want to do it.
This is mostly common in work or school related writing, or any place where the writing is compelled by an outside force and not coming from a desire or place within the writer.
[If you want to dive deep into the writer’s block, the best single book on the topic is Conceptual Blockbusting. It’s been out for 30 years and is in its fifth edition (it’s that good).]
The Best Strategy to Beat Writer’s Block
I have two different strategies that have proven very effective over time: the best, and the rest.
The best is a very simple one. When I am stuck, I ask myself the question:
What am I afraid of?
Hint: it’s pretty much always some fear you don’t want to face (this is a list of common author fears).
Here’s the thing though—this won’t work if you aren’t honest with yourself. And of course, you have to be self-aware enough to know when you’re not being honest.
This works for me (most of the time), because I’ve spent many years in different forms of therapy, and I have gotten pretty decent at seeing my own bullshit (again, most of the time, not always).
If you’re not like that—and most people are not—this strategy won’t work. You’ll just spin up elaborate rationalizations to convince yourself that there is a REAL reason, and it’s not some fear you aren’t facing.
But if you do this, if you can actually understand the fear that is driving your block, then you can solve it. I walk you through exactly how to beat your book writing fears in this piece.
The Rest of the Strategies to Beat Writer’s Block
I know I said it’s almost always fear before, but I did use the modifier “almost.”
There are absolutely times when writer’s block is not fear. Sometimes you’re just having a hard time, for other reasons, and for those times, these are the strategies I’ve found that work (both with me, and the thousands of authors we’ve helped write their books).
1. Talk it out: Writer’s block exists. There is no such thing as speaker’s block. You can always talk. If you really feel stuck, get someone to interview you on the thing you’re stuck about. Once you have to talk about it, the ideas and words flow.
2. Do something else: You know the saying about how “the phone only rings when you’re in the shower”? Well…go get in the shower. Metaphorically. Going for a walk works really well. As does playing with my kids. Basically taking your mind off of it allows your subconscious to work on the issue, and you can come back to it fresh later on.
3. Focus on the reader: John Steinbeck said it best: “Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person — a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.”
4. Context switching: This has helped me before—I will change where I am writing. I’ll go to a coffee shop or a restaurant or anywhere else. It doesn’t matter, I just change the context I am in.
5. Keep writing: I hate this, but sometimes it works. Many times I’ve been stuck, and I would keep writing, even if it was useless, and that got me going. Lack of momentum almost always has fear underneath it, but sometimes just getting moving is enough to get to something good.
These are the strategies I’ve seen work for myself and others.
But again, do what works for you. That’s the only rule for writing.