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How to Tame Writer's Block

Thursday, June 01, 2023 5:04 PM | Erica Holthausen

You cannot tame writer’s block if you don’t understand what it is or what is causing it. But while “writer’s block” is a common term, every writer’s experience is a little different, and there is no one agreed-upon definition.

The term “writer’s block” was introduced in 1949 by Dr. Edmund Bergler in his book, The Writer and Psychoanalysis. Bergler spent two decades studying writers who suffered from “neurotic inhibitions of productivity.”

Yep. Bergler considered writer’s block a neurotic disorder.

In the early 198os, Yale University psychologists Michael Barrios and Jerome Singer conducted further research to understand what it meant for writers to be creatively blocked and how writers could overcome such blocks.

Writers who made no progress on their main project and felt unable to write for at least three months were categorized as blocked. Barrios and Singer followed their progress for a month, interviewing them and asking them to complete several psychological tests focused on waking imagery, hypnotic dreaming, and rational discussion.

They detailed their findings in “The Treatment of Cognitive Blocks,” published in the September 1, 1981 issue of Imagination, Cognition and Personality. Barrios and Singer found that blocked writers often reported symptoms of depression and anxiety, were more self-critical, and indulged in much more procrastination.

Like Bergler, Barrios and Singer approached writer’s block from a psychological perspective. As a result of their work, Merriam-Webster defines writer’s block as “a psychological inhibition preventing a writer from proceeding with a piece.”

That’s a bit too heavy.

That type of writer’s block — a creative block that lasts for months — is relatively rare. And as someone who once made her living as a freelance writer, a deep and prolonged bout of writer’s block was a luxury I could not afford. And so I learned how to identify and stop it before it took root.

Identifying and combatting three types of writer’s block.

Every writer goes through periods when they feel deeply unsatisfied with the quality of their writing. And every writer has published something they wish they could have worked on just a little longer and polished just a little more. That’s just part of being a writer. But it becomes a lot more manageable if you understand the three types of writer’s block:

1. You have no idea what to write.

If you don’t have any ideas, walk away from the computer. Take a break and go for a walk. Once you’ve cleared your mind, grab and pen and some paper and do a little brainstorming exercise. Think about the questions your clients, partners, and prospects ask, the convention wisdom you call into question, and the action your clients can take right now to achieve their goals. Try to come up with at least ten questions you’d like to answer.

What if you have the opposite problem? If you have so many ideas that you’re not sure where to start, take a break. Come back to your list of ideas later and choose the one that you feel most energized to tackle today, that you know will help a specific client right now, or that responds to a question someone asked you recently. If that doesn’t work, choose the third idea on your list and start writing.

2. You're stuck.

If you know what you want to write about but are unsure how to get started, try creating a simple outline that includes a one-sentence summary of the point of the piece and a few bullet points. You might also try changing the format. Email is a less formal writing style, so try emailing yourself with an answer to the question the article poses.

Sometimes it’s hard to start because you haven’t thought through the piece enough. Go for a walk and think about what you’re trying to say. Outline the article in your head or capture a few ideas on your phone. Try dictating the first draft of your article or experimenting with an AI writer. It doesn’t matter how you start, just so long as you get started.

3. Your motivation abandoned you.

If you don't feel motivated, examine that feeling closely. Is it really a lack of motivation, or are you just fried? If you're fried, don't try to push through. Take a walk or a nap or do some work in the garden. The only time it is helpful to push through is when you’re nearly finished, and you just can’t seem to get those last few paragraphs done! In that case, set a timer for 15 minutes and write like a fiend. Knock out the first draft, and don’t worry if it’s terrible.

But if you’re having a hard time putting your butt in the seat and getting started, try scheduling a co-working session with a friend or setting a deadline that they will hold you to. You could also try The Most Dangerous Writing App, a terrifying tool designed to help you write the first draft quickly — if you stop writing, your words will start to flash red, and the app will delete your work.

​Each type of writer’s block has a slightly different treatment plan. But the best way to become a more resilient writer is to embrace a writing practice. The more you write, the easier it is to keep going, even when the writing doesn’t come easily.

Wrestling the writing dragon is part of being a writer. The only thing that can help with the writing dragon is setting a deadline, sticking to it, and reminding yourself that done is better than perfect.

Yes, you will publish some pieces before you think they’re finished. That’s part of being a writer too. When you finish a piece that requires you to wrestle the writing dragon and publish it even though you’re not completely happy with it, you free yourself up to work on something new.

When it comes to creative blocks, there’s no way out but through.

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Erica Holthausen is the founder of Catchline Communications and a strategic thought partner to consultants who wish to build their authority and increase their visibility by publishing articles in industry trade journals and business magazines like Inc., Entrepreneur, and Fast Company. To learn how to raise your profile, register for Pitched to Published, a free monthly Q+A focused on writing, pitching, and publishing articles.

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