No alchemy required
When my coaching clients ask me how to deal with writer’s block, I always start by telling them the same thing: You have to recognize that writer’s block isn’t real.
There’s a good chance that you’re now furrowing your brow in mixed annoyance and disbelief. “What is this guy talking about?” you may be thinking. “Of course writer’s block is real. Every writer throughout all of human history has suffered through it at some point.”
Most commonly, people use the term “writer’s block” to describe a mysterious, impenetrable brain fog that inexplicably crushes your ability to put useful, meaningful words on the page. The solution to this problem, we’re often told, is out of our control. We have no choice but to wait for the writing gods to bless us, either by divine inspiration or by quietly removing the block overnight, leaving us as mystified about the problem’s origin as we are grateful for its sudden disappearance. Either “solution” can take weeks, months, or years, and there’s not much point in trying to write in the meantime — again, so we’re told.
That’s the kind of writer’s block that isn’t real.
So What Is Writer’s Block, Then?
Writer’s block is a real thing, but it’s nowhere near as sinister or powerful as it’s made out to be. Once you understand what it really is, it becomes a perfectly fixable problem. Writer’s block is nothing more than your subconscious mind telling you that you made one or more mistakes earlier in the writing process. Unfortunately, this alarm system doesn’t tell you what or where those mistakes are, only that they exist. You’ll have to do some more work to identify them.
I want to emphasize “the writing process” here because of a misconception that’s still far too common: the notion that writing is essentially magic that only some people can perform, as opposed to an evidence-based process just like engineering or cooking. The fact that writing is a process and not a genetic or mystical gift is great news — it means that anyone can learn to write, and therefore anyone can learn to overcome writer’s block.
I’m currently working on guides for both fiction and nonfiction writing processes, but they’re both long and complex pieces that will take some time. For now, I’ll illustrate the problem of writer’s block (and the solution) with a few examples.
Resolving Writer’s Block in Fiction
A client (we’ll call her Emily) once hired me to help her develop her first novel. During our first meeting, I asked her to tell me what challenges she was having. With no hesitation, she said that she suffered from frequent bouts of writer’s block. Emily often spent entire days staring at a blank page, tapping out a few halfhearted sentences and then deleting them. My next question surprised her: I asked her how the story ends. Her answer to that question didn’t surprise me because I hear it all the time: “I don’t know yet, I haven’t gotten there.”
With some rare and niche exceptions, novels are much easier to write and much more enjoyable to read when you write the ending first, before any other part of the manuscript. I don’t mean that your first draft of the ending will appear unchanged in the finished book, just that you need to know all the important details about how the story ends before you can start deciding what happens before then.
- In order to write believable, impactful character arcs, you must know what kind of person each character will be at the end of the story. Then you can decide the ways in which they will be different people at the beginning of the story.
- Once you know the starting and ending versions of each character, you can then start laying out the choices that will lead them along a logical path of development.
- Knowing the major choices that each character will face enables you to create events that will present them with those choices.
- Once you’ve created all of these major choices and events, you can then write a detailed outline that covers every important part of the story in a “why-because” fashion. (Why does that happen in chapter 7? Because this happened in chapter 3 — or perhaps because the events of chapter 7 will cause something else to happen in chapter 15.)
- After you’ve asked and answered all of the important questions about your story in outline form, drafting the manuscript becomes much easier because you’ll know exactly what you need to accomplish in each chapter.
I’m glossing over a ton of other questions and considerations here in the name of brevity, but you get the idea. It took some convincing to get Emily to write an ending and an outline for her novel before returning to the manuscript, but once she did that work, her writer’s block virtually disappeared — not in the sense that she always immediately knew what to write, but when she found herself staring at a blank page, she knew that there was something she could do to move forward beyond just waiting around for inspiration. When she got stuck, she knew that there was a problem somewhere, in something she’d done days or weeks earlier, and it was only a matter of finding and fixing it.
Imagine going on a road trip without having a final destination in mind. How would you decide which direction to drive, on which roads, for how long? There’s only one way to make decisions in that case: randomly. Writing a novel is much the same. If you want your story to be tight, purposeful, and compelling, you need to follow a certain novel-writing process, and nailing down the ending — the destination — is one of the earliest steps in that process.
When Emily came to me, she couldn’t figure out what to write next because she was asking her brain to give her output without first giving it the necessary input. In response, her brain froze up. The blank page in front of her was her brain’s way of telling her it had been given insufficient or incorrect data. That’s writer’s block. It’s just a signal, a flashing red light that means “We’re stuck now because you skipped something or did something wrong before we got to this point.” To resolve the block, you need to find and fix the earlier error or omission.
Resolving Writer’s Block in Nonfiction
Of course, writer’s block afflicts nonfiction writers, too. Although fiction and nonfiction writing processes are very different, the nature of writer’s block is the same. It’s still just a warning signal, alerting you that you did something wrong with respect to the process itself.
I once wrote a guide for a client about how to make minute-of-angle (MOA) calculations when shooting rifles. I’m a lifelong shooter, but I mostly shoot pistols and shotguns; I’m weakest with rifles. Even though I’d been writing, shooting, and writing about shooting for decades, I nonetheless found myself staring at a blank page, the deadline just a few days away. To solve the problem, I consulted the MTEC acronym and realized that I was violating one of the four principles, even though I hadn’t yet written anything: I didn’t fully understand how to do the thing I was writing about, meaning I couldn’t write a fully Truthful guide. (In this case, “accurate” may be a better word than “truthful,” but they both drive at the same idea: the content needs to be factually correct.)
I dusted off my rarely-used rifle, drove out to the range, and watched the other shooters for a while. One guy in particular was consistently accurate at several different distances, so I approached him and asked if he wouldn’t mind giving me a ten-minute crash course on MOA calculations. He happily agreed and explained the concept with the sort of smooth, easy clarity that comes only from years of experience. I brought out my own rifle, started practicing what he’d shown me, and noticed an instant improvement in my accuracy beyond 100 meters.
When I got home, I started the article, wrote easily and freely for two hours, and produced a draft that needed only a handful of minor edits before publication.
Just like Emily, I found myself unable to write only because I had made a mistake somewhere in the writing process. Part of the nonfiction process is making sure you have an accurate, evidence-based understanding of the topic. (Firsthand experience isn’t always necessary, but it certainly helps.) Once I corrected that defect, my writer’s block evaporated and I finished the article with no further complications.
There’s a lot more to say about the specific mistakes that can cause writer’s block, but on the most basic level, the cause is always the same: At some earlier point in the process, you skipped a step or executed a step incorrectly, creating flaws in your mental rail line that are now derailing your train of thought. Finding and fixing those mistakes can be difficult, and you may need help (or just more practice), but writer’s block is within your power to fix. You don’t have to wait for random inspiration to save you.
The Antidote to Writer’s Block was originally published in The Writing Cooperative on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
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Author: Tim White