I recently asked my students their views on writing. It seemed important when starting a fresh writing class to talk about how they think and feel about the craft. Imagine my surprise when one phrase that I don’t even believe in came up repeatedly.
The students talked about it. They think they’ve experienced it. It keeps them from being the writers they want to be.
Guess what? No, it doesn’t.
There’s no such thing as writer’s block.
I’ve been a professional writer for more than two decades and have taught thousands of writers how to improve their craft. And let me tell you something… I could have claimed writer’s block A LOT during that time.
Instead, I recognize what writer’s block really is, which allows you to move on from the feeling immediately. I’m here to share this wisdom with you.
What Writer’s Block Really Is
People think writer’s block is some kind of mental block where they aren’t experiencing creativity and, therefore, can’t write. It sounds fancy and a bit elitist, right? But “writer’s block” really is when you procrastinate instead of writing.
It’s nothing fancy at all.
It’s just you avoiding doing the thing you should be doing — writing.
Writers just call this procrastination “writer’s block” because it sounds better… like a real (possibly diagnosable) problem, instead of us just not doing the work. “Not getting my writing done” doesn’t sound nearly as nice.
As soon as you recognize that “writer’s block” is really just procrastination, you have taken the first huge step in solving your problem.
The Simple Way to Cure Writer’s Block
What’s perhaps worse than calling it writer’s block is the advice writers receive when they say they’re experiencing it. They’re told to take a break, step away, do something else for a while.
So, the solution for procrastinating when you should be writing is procrastinating more? I’m not buying that.
Here’s some real advice for curing writer’s block: put your rear in your chair and write. The only way to overcome this procrastination is to force yourself to do the writing. You can always fix it afterward, but you can’t edit nothing. Usually, you’re pleasantly surprised when you discover that what you wrote isn’t nearly as bad as you thought, and the process of having written it did not, in fact, kill you.
Even if what you wrote is crap, you can fix it. You’ve written. That’s what’s important.
Why We Procrastinate
Maybe it’s critical not just to force ourselves to write but to understand why we’re procrastinating. What is it that keeps us from writing? Why do we procrastinate?
After all, understanding the why could help us avoid the issue altogether. And, as they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Let’s start with the most difficult and common reason we procrastinate on our writing. We’re afraid it won’t be good enough. We can put that fear aside if we focus on something being better than nothing. It’s better to have written than done nothing at all, right? Also, there’s no such thing as perfect writing, but you can’t improve what doesn’t exist.
Don’t focus on writing something award-winning right off the bat. Instead, give yourself permission to write what Anne Lamott calls a “shitty first draft.” Anne claims that all writers write shitty first drafts, which is how they are able to improve in their future drafts. She said
Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something — anything — down on paper.”
Read more writing truths from Anne’s book Bird by Bird.
The enormity of a writing task can seem daunting. We don’t know where to start, so we don’t. That’s the formula for writing nothing. My advice? Start from the beginning. Write a super rough lead, then go from there.
Sometimes, we avoid writing because we don’t understand the topic we’re supposed to be writing about. The problem is that avoiding it doesn’t help us understand better. Instead, we need to seek out the answers we need, whether they’re from an online source or person, to get started.
Don’t mistake confusion for a common method of procrastination — over researching. Sometimes, we research a topic we understand well to avoid actually writing. That’s not a lack of understanding. It’s just a task to make you feel busy and important while you procrastinate.
Some days, we just don’t want to write. We understand the topic. We’re not opposed to the process of writing. We just don’t want to do it.
A lack of motivation is especially challenging when we’re not on deadline, but we still need to get writing done to work toward the final due date.
Unfortunately, if you only write when you’re motivated to do so, you’ll never do much writing at all.
Instead, make yourself write.
I’m not sure how I used to work in a newsroom. Granted, newsrooms getting pretty quiet when everyone is on deadline and writing, but they’re chaotic at other times. Now I can’t even write with music playing in the background.
There are so many things that can distract us from writing. Whether it’s our physical environment or the call of social media, no one respects the need for writing focus.
If you find yourself in this situation, change your environment as best you can. You can eliminate a lot of distractions yourself. For those you can’t get rid of, try ignoring them by using some earbuds and white noise.
Writing When You Don’t Want To
You probably noticed that a lot of my advice revolves around forcing yourself to write. Honestly, I don’t have to do that too much. Most days, I want to write. Even if I’m not feeling it on that particular day, it often feels good to start the process, and I find myself motivated to keep going.
But the motivation isn’t always there. So, how do you make yourself write when you don’t want to without starting to hate writing?
- Set a Goal. How much do you need to write today? It could be writing a certain number of words, completing a specific assignment, or just writing for a set amount of time. Whatever it is, when you aren’t having a great writing day, decide exactly how much you have to write, and then just do that.
- Dangle a Carrot. I didn’t want to write this blog post today, so I told myself I could end my day and leave my home office when it was done. Just knowing that writing this post was the last thing I needed to do today helped me get started. Once I got started, the flow happened.
- Have a Deadline. I don’t know about you, but my writing will never get done without a deadline. I will put it off forever. That’s why I always ask for a deadline, regardless of what I’m writing.
- Commit Publicly. Telling someone about your writing goal is about as motivating as a deadline. Knowing that someone else expects you to write (and is likely to ask you about it or expect to see something) can create a sense of accountability.
- Change Your Environment. Sometimes a change of scenery, like a coffee shop, library, or park, can inspire creativity. I can’t usually write with background noise, but I swear I wrote most of my dissertation in coffee shops. That barista-induced white noise really helped me focus. Also, coffee.
- Remember Your “Why.” Think about the last time you wrote something that made you remember why you write. Reconnect with that feeling or keep writing to have it again.
- Set a Routine. Make writing a daily habit. Just like setting out your clothes for exercise, the less you have to think about it, the more likely you are to write.
- Just Start. Often, the hardest part is simply beginning. Once you start, you may find it easier to continue.
- Or Don’t. Remember what I wrote earlier about showing yourself some grace? If you’re having a painful writing day, ask yourself if you have to write today. Are there other productive things you could do today to set yourself up for writing success tomorrow? Just don’t let yourself do this more than one consecutive day.
So, the next time you find yourself blaming writer’s block for not writing, pause and stop feeding yourself that crap. Instead, ask yourself why you’re procrastinating. Then, work through it and start writing.
Exercising your writing muscles is a lot like exercising body. You may not like it in the beginning, but you’ll always feel better when it’s done and be glad you did it.
Ready? Let’s write!