by Alexa Tewkesbury
There can’t be many people – even among those who don’t write – who haven’t come across the term ‘writer’s block’. While it might be thrown casually into conversation when writers are having a difficult writing day – accompanied by the back of a hand being placed dramatically on the forehead – it can actually become a serious impediment to completing a book.
What exactly is writer’s block?
Believe it or not, there are scientific reasons to do with the functioning of different areas of the brain that can help explain why writer’s block may happen. However, without going into the technicalities, suffice to say that what we call ‘writer’s block’ is a writer’s experience of not being able to produce the writing they want to, when they want to.
This can happen at various stages of a writing project. A writer may feel they can’t come up with a compelling story idea; or that they’ve come to a point in a plot where it feels impossible to see a way forward. Or they might be so overwhelmed by the fear that their writing will never be perfect, their storyline never good enough, that they become frozen into inaction.
There are several things that can kickstart this upsetting mindset:
- An extremely stressful event in a writer’s personal life can make it hard to think clearly and achieve any focus or inspiration.
- If writers struggle with a lack of confidence in their writing ability, and anxiety about what other people will think – not only of their book but also of them for writing it – it’s going to make producing the goods a lot harder.
- External pressures: family commitments; caring responsibilities; work; just generally being too busy. Any form of overwhelm can make sitting down to write feel like one challenge too many.
- While some people react well to these, as they can provide the impetus to get a task finished, for others, they can be paralysing. For a writer who doesn’t feel ‘in the flow’, a submission deadline is a pressure that can have a hugely detrimental effect on what should otherwise be a productive writing session.
- And what about simple procrastination? Putting off making a start, to the point where you feel you actually can’t.
- For me, sometimes when it comes to writing, there are days when my brain just screams, ‘Noooo!’ – and fighting with my brain is a huge waste of time and energy, because ideas don’t flow and I get blocked.
It’s not your fault
Perhaps one of the most important things to grasp when it comes to dealing with writer’s block and the negative emotions it can create, is that it’s not your fault. If it happens to you – and I imagine it will happen to almost every writer at some point in their writing lives – it doesn’t mean anything bad about you personally.
It doesn’t mean you’re a terrible writer. Or that you don’t have enough imagination or determination – or talent. Or that no one is ever going to want to read something you’ve written anyway, so why bother? And it definitely doesn’t mean you should give up.
What it does mean is that it’s time to freshen things up; to approach your writing sessions differently; to reinvigorate your writerly juices and get creative with some unblocking.
If writer’s block strikes …
Here are some ideas I find helpful when I hit a sticky patch.
Give yourself some space to read another writer in your genre. However counter-intuitive this might feel with a blank page staring – well – blankly at you, never feel that diverting away from it to read a book is evading the issue and wasting time. Reading another writer’s flow of words could be exactly what you need to get back into your own.
However, it’s important to make this type of ‘unblocking’ reading purposeful. Focus on the way the author writes – the style; the sentence length; how suspense is achieved; how characters are presented; how dialogue is used; how mood is conveyed; how humour is created. Use the author’s skill to teach yourself how to be a better writer.
And get excited about what you’re reading. Excitement over someone else’s writing is a wonderful way to feel inspired for your own again.
Forget about the book you’re trying to write and write about something completely different. This could be anything. You could write about what you did last weekend; or about the biggest mistake you’ve ever made; or the best holiday you’ve ever had. You could even write a letter to a family member you’ve never met – or to the Council, complaining about the impact on your mental health of the repetitive ‘clang’ you have to put up with, caused by cars driving over the loose manhole cover outside your gate (you might not want to send that one).
It can be literally anything – this is simply a freeing-up exercise. Why not set a timer for, say, 10 minutes and see if you can keep writing until it goes off? By doing this, you’re pushing through, rather than sitting still, feeling stuck. And the very act of writing, without feeling constrained by trying to write the ‘perfect’ book, will hopefully send a message to your brain that, ‘Yes, you can do this.’
Change your writing routine. I realise this can be tricky if you have limited writing slots available to you in a day, but it’s worth exploring. If you always write in the morning but find you’ve begun to sit there fruitlessly, why not go for a morning walk instead? And if you’re not having to do other work, you could make this a long, thought-full walk, to give yourself some headspace. That time out could become a goldmine of ideas if you choose to use it to think through what you want to write next, without being weighed down by the dread of sitting tied, apparently pointlessly, to your desk.
By the way, in case inspiration does strike when you’re away from your computer, make sure you always have a notebook to hand, or at least that you know where to find the notes app in your phone (I always struggle with that). An idea that can drop miraculously into our brains and cause huge exhilaration, can just as miraculously drop out again. I’ve lost many ideas that way, for lack of a scrap of paper.
Try changing how you write. This is another way to shake up your routine. If you write on a PC, maybe a few sessions with a notebook and fancy pen will reset your brain and allow your inspiration to flow again. And vice versa – if handwriting your book is usually your chosen method, try taking to a computer. Obviously when you submit your manuscript to an editor or typesetter, it needs to be in typed format, so anything you handwrite will have to be typed up. But the typing-up process can be used to work on the second draft.
When I first started to write, I always worked like this. I felt I could ‘think out’ my story better using pen and paper. When I switched to writing directly onto a computer, I had a definite sense that I needed to retrain my brain to work in a different way.
Change is good. It gets us out of a writing rut.
Write somewhere different. Yes, it’s lovely to have a dedicated writing space, laid out and decorated in exactly the way you feel will optimise your imagination. Roald Dahl famously had a writing hut in his garden, a place to escape to and write from his armchair, a rug over his knees. But sometimes, an injection of inspiration requires a change of scene. Different places can put us in different moods. They can refresh our minds, our thoughts, even our eyes. If you take your writing somewhere different, the new view might be just what you need to banish your writer’s block.
Immerse yourself in ANYTHING other than your writing. Don’t fight your seeming inability to write. That might only enhance the struggle. Instead, lift yourself out of the frustration by doing something – anything – else. Watch a film. Listen to music. Dance around the kitchen. Do some colouring. Decorate a room. (That last one might be a bit extreme but you get the idea.)
Don’t just sit and stew in your blocked state – distract yourself and let your plotting go for a while. Your writing brain needs a break sometimes. And while you’re absorbed in something else, allowing yourself some much-needed mental refreshment, it’s likely your imagination will be hard at work behind the scenes. Then, when you next sit down to write, you may well find something has marvellously shifted. Working through writer’s block isn’t always a conscious process.
However common writer’s block may be, it doesn’t make it any less infuriating, even frightening, when it happens. But perhaps it is its very commonness that should give we writers hope: there is a way through, and authors always seem to find it.
If you’re looking for an editor for your book, I offer a line editing and proofreading service, and would be delighted to help you take your writing to the next stage.
Alexa Tewkesbury is the author of many books and resources for children, as well as an editor and proofreader. She is a professional member of The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and has been working in her editorial business since 2005. You can connect with her on Twitter and LinkedIn and in the Facebook group, The Writers’ Refinery. Alexa also co-hosts The Pen to Published Podcast, a podcast for self-publishing authors, available on all main platforms.