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It happens to the best of us — you sit down to write and realize fifteen minutes later that all you’ve done is stare at a blank screen. In many ways, writer’s block is like hiccups. Everyone gets them from time to time, and despite there being as many purported cures as there are grandmothers, they can be hard to shake.
Actually, it may help to think of writer’s block as you would any other ailment. You need to understand the various symptoms and causes first, then determine the best treatment.
The symptoms of writer’s block seem obvious: hours of unproductive staring at a blank page, dozens of half-finished sentences, a missing title, the inability to write a decent conclusion, and so on. You may also be dealing with some negative self-talk, doubting whether you are capable of writing something worth reading.
Writers experience this phenomenon differently. Maybe your topic seems lackluster or you’ve been drawing a blank. You may feel frustrated, foggy, or unfocused. Unfortunately, these feelings often set a vicious cycle in motion. You feel stressed, which makes it difficult to write, and not being able to write makes you more stressed. It quickly turns into a downward spiral with no apparent way out.
Pinpointing the cause of your writer’s block can be as difficult as it is important, with a variety of potential causes ranging from the physical to the psychological. Seemingly unrelated lifestyle factors or even your writing process itself could be to blame. Poor stress management, for instance, certainly puts you at risk, as does insufficient preparation. Too much or too little sleep and frequent or excessive alcohol consumption can also be contributing factors.
Although writer’s block is not something you need a medical professional to diagnose, it could be linked to disorders such as ADHD, depression, anxiety, and OCD. Even medical conditions like diabetes and hyperthyroidism can impact your ability to focus. Furthermore, many common medications can make it difficult to write. Antidepressants, benzodiazepines, and antipsychotics all bring side effects that negatively impact your creative abilities.
In any of these cases, the ancient Greek maxim “know thyself” is good advice. How successfully you fight writer’s block depends on correctly identifying the cause, which in turn requires an acute understanding of your own mental and emotional state. You may lack motivation, be too emotionally drained to express yourself well, or have unrealistic standards. Disorganization leaves you in a poor position to fill a page, but perfectionist tendencies make writing a harder task than it needs to be.
Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all cure for writer’s block. You may have to try a few different approaches to find one that works for you, and even then, the same method may not be effective every time.
Keep in mind, too, that some common responses to writer’s block can make the problem worse. Waiting to write until you are “in the mood” or struck by inspiration could just be self-justified procrastination — and procrastination is not a cure. Instead, use one of these approaches to get over your creative slump.
One of the easiest things to change is your environment. If you’ve been writing in a crowded coffee shop, try moving to a library nook. If you keep getting sidetracked on the internet, exchange your laptop for a notebook or use an app like Self-Control to blacklist distracting websites for a set period of time. If you’re tired of sitting still and typing, use Dragon Dictation to speak your words onto the page while you move.
Now that you’re a professional writer, it’s tempting to think pre-writing steps like brainstorming and outlining are beneath you, but the need for them never really goes away. In fact, when writer’s block rears its ugly head, basic pre-writing strategies can help you push past that initial blank screen. Plus, the extra organization makes it easier for you to jump around within your writing. Instead of getting stuck on the opening paragraphs, you can choose whichever section seems easiest and start there.
There are several apps that can help. Try Inflow Visual Noteboook or Inspiration Maps for brainstorming. You can also use Brainsparker for inspiration, Evernote to organize your notes, and FreeMind for outlining.
Image via Flickr by Franck_Michel
Whether you have been assigned a 10-page research paper or a 2,000-word article, don’t let the scope of a project scare you. Breaking large tasks into smaller steps makes them more manageable, giving you the confidence you need to break through that initial paralysis. You scale a mountain one step at a time, and the same principle applies here.
If all else fails, set a timer for 15 minutes, then write until you hear the buzzer. Promise yourself that if you absolutely hate life afterward, you can take a break. Chances are you won’t need that out, though. You are more likely to catch yourself thinking, “That’s all? I can do that again.” Use that momentum to keep going.
Crafting a polished draft or even a flawless sentence on your first try will only slow you down. Instead, loosen your standards and try freewriting. Write nonstop for a few minutes without worrying about punctuation, grammar, or flow. If you can’t seem to find the right words, use the prompt “what I really mean is…” to get your thoughts out, then come back later to refine.
If you’re still struggling, try Write or Die. In “Consequence Mode,” this app uses negative reinforcement to keep you going. Punishments include the sudden appearance of a spider onscreen or, more drastically, the systematic removal of vowels from words you’ve already written. Either way, the app provides excellent motivation to put your perfectionism aside and just write.
Next time you hit a mental wall while writing, try a few of the strategies above — and remember that like any skill, creativity must be cultivated. Your best defense against writer’s block is to preempt it through practice. Download word-based games such as Blackbar or apps that provide creative writing prompts. The more time you spend with words, the writing process, and your own imagination, the more easily you will be able to overcome or avoid writer’s block in the future.