When The Words Won’t Come: Strategies For Coping With Writers’ Block
Writers’ Block is one of those curiously contentious issues that writers will expound on—or dismiss—at length. Does it exist? Is it just a figment of our writerly imagination? Maybe you should just try writing the next sentence! (To be honest, that actually is a pretty effective technique, depending on the cause of your writers’ block.)
It took me a long time to take my own bouts of writers’ block seriously, as I’d heard a few too many “expert” authors insist there was no such thing. Let’s be clear: there’s no such thing for them, and I’m very happy for them. But there is for me, and if you’re dealing with something similar, I’m hoping this post will help you.
When I hit a wall in my writing, or I can’t bring myself to sit down at my computer, the first and most important question to ask, is why. If I can understand the root cause of my writers’ block, then I can address it. To do this, I shift to paper and pen, and start journaling. I write about anything and everything, but the key is to write regularly and at enough length (for me, 2-3 pages of a composition book) to start digging into the deeper issues in my life and my story. Without fail, this helps me figure out what’s blocking me. If journaling isn’t an option, consider talking things out loud in an empty room, meditating, or finding a friend who is willing to listen and ask questions without proposing solutions per se.
Here are what I consider the most common root causes of writers’ block and possible ways to cope with them:
- Burn Out / Exhaustion / Stress: You may be burned out working on a particular story, or just physically exhausted from life and work, or stressed from major changes or challenges in your life (pandemic, anyone?). Keep this in mind: you’re not blocked, you’re exhausted. Give yourself time and space to recuperate, do something to refill that creative well (Read a book! Take photos on your next walk!), get some good sleep, and when you’re ready, try again.
- Medical Conditions: Our health can seriously impact our ability to write. Work on improving your health, as well as finding a balance that allows you to write while dealing with your health as it is. Be kind and gentle with yourself while still setting goals (writing every day might be the worst possible advice in this situation). Have forgiveness.
- Perfectionism / Unrealistic Expectations: No one writes a one-draft wonder. The successful writer just kept trudging through their draft and didn’t give up. You can’t fix your draft if you don’t finish it. Further, when you look at something you wrote and don’t like it, remember that’s okay. Acknowledge the work you did in writing it, and keep on going. You are learning with each project. Don’t let yourself get stuck. Just write that next sentence! And the one after that, and the one after that.
- You’re Bored: You’ve lost your passion for this project, and want to give up. Here are two possibilities:
1. You’re second guessing your story. Take a few days away from it. Then ask yourself (in your journal!) why you started working on this piece in the first place, why you want to share it, and what about it is important to you. Re-establish your purpose, then decide how to continue (or not—it is okay to decide that a piece no longer speaks to you).
2. You have ideas for other awesome things you want to write later in the piece, but you’re so bored with where you are now. If you’re bored, chances are your reader will be too. You have two basic options:
i. First, skip the boring part and move your characters forward with a few transition sentences to something you consider interesting. In editing, you may come back and flesh that transition out, but it may be that you didn’t even need those scenes you thought were necessary.
ii. Second, light a fire. If it’s boring because nothing’s happening, make something go terribly wrong for your characters. Make them jump into action and you’ll no longer be bored—as long as it moves the story in the right direction.
- There Are Too Many Distractions: Is there too much going on in your life, and you can’t get that time to focus on writing? Sit down and assess your day: can you wake up half an hour earlier every morning? Or do you need an app that shuts down your social media so that you can’t do anything but write? (I do.) Figure out your specific challenge and then brainstorm ways to address it. You can also ask family / friends to help you create pockets of writing time.
Note: sometimes these “distractions” are not something you can work around—family illness, young children who really need you, etc.—and then it can be necessary to put your writing on hold. Continue to include creativity in your life as you are able, through books, movies, art shows, etc. Your writing will be waiting for you when you can come back to it.
- Emotional Intensity: Writing is an intensely personal occupation. Sometimes, your writing will hit a little too close to home, even if you’re writing about fictional characters. In this case, sit down and journal (or meditate) about the scene/piece itself: what’s going to happen, what’s important, why is this hard for you, why do you need to write it? Chances are, you’ll renew your purpose and also break down the psychological barrier keeping you from writing that scene. If you find you still can’t write it, give yourself time and space to process the emotional truths of your piece, and after a few days or even a week or two, come back and try again. In the meantime, you can always move on to a different part of the story.
- You’re Lost, or: Unexpected Things Happened In Your Story: sometimes, your story takes a turn you weren’t expecting. Now you’ve lost your way and don’t know how to get to the end of the piece. Try journaling about the story—simply free write about what is happening, where you think it’s going, and how things are changing. Let yourself “think out loud” on the page. Or, try approaching the story in a way you might not normally: if you have a detailed outline, spend a day or two just imagining; if you usually just imagine your way forward, sit down and make yourself brainstorm a list of 10-12 plot points / scenes that could happen next. And lastly, be okay with change, but also be okay with backtracking. Sometimes that new direction is amazing, and sometimes it absolutely doesn’t work. As you figure out which it is for you, don’t judge yourself for taking the time to get it right.
As you can tell, journaling is one of the most important tools in my writers’ tool kit. If it doesn’t work for you, find the method that does help you think through deeper issues. Physical writing forces me to slow down my thought process (which is why typing on the computer doesn’t cut it for me), and work through the various issues I need to address. That might not be the right choice for you—you do you.
Writing is one of the most difficult, fulfilling things you will ever do. Be brave, be strong, and write like the wind!
About the Book
Alyrra has never enjoyed the security or power of her rank. Between her family’s cruelty and the court’s contempt, she has spent her life in the shadows. Forced to marry a powerful foreign prince, Alyrra embarks on a journey to meet her betrothed with little hope for a better future. But powerful men have powerful enemies – and now so does Alyrra.
Betrayed during a magical attack, her identity is switched with another woman’s, giving Alyrra the first choice she’s ever had: to start a new life for herself or fight for a prince she’s never met. But Alyrra soon finds that Prince Kestrin is not at all what she expected. While walking away will cost Kestrin his life, returning to the court may cost Alyrra her own. As Alyrra is coming to realise, sometimes the hardest choice means learning to trust herself.
Inspired by The Goose Girl fairytale by the Brothers Grimm.
About the author
Intisar Khanani grew up a nomad and world traveller. Born in Wisconsin, she has lived in five different states as well as in Jeddah on the coast of the Red Sea. She currently resides in Cincinnati, Ohio, with her husband and two young daughters. Prior to publishing her novels, Intisar worked as a public health consultant on projects relating to infant mortality and minority health, which was as close as she could get to saving the world. Now she focuses her time on her two passions: raising her family and writing fantasy.